Leverage the Cinergy: Texas chain maximizes entertainment experience with cinemas, arcades, laser tag and more
“We cinergize the magic of movies, captivating games and attractions, and exceptional food and beverage into a thrilling entertainment experience.”
On Oct. 10, Jamie and Jeff Benson, founders and majority owners of Cinergy Cinemas LP, premiered their latest and most advanced (so far) place to “Eat, Play & Be Movied!” Located in the West Texas town of Midland, and following sister sites and 16 screens in Corsicana and Copperas Cove, Texas, Cinergy Cinemas & Entertainment feature an activity floor of over 60 different arcade and video games with a redemption store for winning goodies. (You can take the Google 360 tour here.)
No less than 56 player vests await Midland guests at the “Lasertron” laser tag arena after they have climbed the “gravity-defying, black-light overhead ropes course,” spanning across most of the vast lobby, and before getting a full “Atomic Rush” to boot. And that’s not just from watching Gravity on one of the five 3D-enabled screens.
“Honestly, it’s probably my favorite game,” Benson admits. “Atomic Rush is a series of interactive rooms, about 10 by 20 feet [3.05 x 6.10 m], with walls where a bunch of multi-colored LED lights are always popping on. Up to four people can play by hitting the corresponding color button from the table in front of them. Whoever touches more lights in 90 seconds wins… You come out of there sweating your butt off because you are just running all over the place,” he says from obvious experience. “So when the red light comes on, you may have to run from one side of the room to the other side and back again as everybody is kind of bumping into each other. It’s really a lot of fun and a workout. It’s not just a driving game where you are sitting in a big arcade, but truly interactive and sports-like.”
Driven by plenty of fuel “cooked to order” by Cinergy’s full kitchen “with chef-prepared favorites” and, along with beer, wine and frozen specialty drinks, brought into the entertainment mix, one could almost forget to mention the 11 wall-to-wall-screened auditoriums. JBL sound-enhanced with plush leather seating for some 1,680 people, the latter includes recliners in the front row. The theatre also features, for the first time, a Cinergy EPIC proprietary large-format screen. To “Experience Perfection in Cinema” means a 68 by 38 foot (20.7 x 11.6 m) picture illuminated by “stunning clarity and bright 4K Christie digital images” and sounded out by Dolby Atmos, Benson notes.
Looking at the overall design and ground-up build as executed by the Bensons with the Dallas-based firm of 5G Studios, entertainment is certainly placed front and center at this cinema. “In our other locations, the game room sits off to side of the lobby,” Benson confirms, having broken new ground and learning along the way what works. “Yes, it’s definitely still in the experimental phase at this point. We tried an outdoor entertainment component in our second location. Corsicana has GoKarts and an 18-hole miniature golf course. To be honest…it is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. We don’t have a lot of spring and fall days to really make the outdoors worthwhile. On this third one, I was advised to go all indoors and we can run 365 days.”
There are other firsts as well, he continues. “When you walk into Midland, the attractions and games are right there, with the fun-card kiosks—little debit cards to load money on for games and to collect points while playing all the videogames and the ropes course—sitting front and center. It’s almost like a casino,” he says. “You come in the front door, and there are all sorts of blinking lights everywhere...right there in your face. I will tell you, it is huge. Our guests are absolutely eating up the game room.”
So is cinema actually playing second fiddle to all the other fun at this Cinema Entertainment Center? “Not really,” Benson counters. “The cinema still drives all the entertainment options. When you’ve got good movies, you are pushing even more people through the door and with that, the better the game-room business is. We do have a bunch of people that just come for laser tag and ropes and games, especially with birthday parties, but the theatre is still the driving force behind it all.”
Nonetheless, Benson decided to forsake the traditional box office in favor of kiosks and combination sales at the concession stand. “75% of our tickets or more are either being bought online or at the kiosks. Our lobby is so much more than just a theatre,” he explains. “I don’t want a box office to be standing in the way of people coming inside. It is kind of a mental barrier whether, ‘Oh, gosh, do I need a ticket to go in there? Are they going to ask for a ticket right inside the door?’ Well, no, we are not. We want to encourage guests to come in and spend money on all things. We’ve got the full menu to enjoy dinner, play games and laser tag. You don’t have to ‘just’ go to the theatre.”
Speaking of the menu, we asked Benson about the absence of a sit-down restaurant that has become an indispensable element of other Cinema Entertainment Centers featured in this series. As co-founder of the original Movie Tavern, he certainly knows a recipe or two for in-theatre dining. “We use cup-holder trays to bring food to our guests inside the auditorium. They place and pay for their orders at the counter and receive an electronic pager in return. All the while they are getting their popcorn and sodas at the self-service station, and as they are headed towards their seats, we are cooking the food. We offer reserved seating, so guests are settling in, finding the right spot.” All that can take ten minutes, Benson has established. When the order arrives another ten minutes or so after guests have sat down, “the customer actually perceives that he or she is getting their food a lot faster.”
Unlike seat-side service where moviegoers “first have to rush to get a seat, then wait to place an order with the waiter and then wait for drinks and once again while their food is being prepped,” at Cinergy this works differently. “We run the order to a table that is off to the auditorium side or located in the entry way to the theatre. We page, you pick up your food while still inside the theatre and you are not really missing any of the show.” If required and/or requested, Cinergy servers will also help “bring trays all the way to your seat with you” before and always trading food for pager. “That is how we match up the order and make sure we are getting the right order to the right person,” he elaborates. “People actually like it quite a bit. They are getting a restaurant-quality meal—pizza or burgers, sandwiches, fish-and-chips baskets, shrimp, chicken tenders, plenty of desserts—and they don’t have to tip my food runners as they are not really expecting one. Also, that way guests are not met with all of the distractions that a typical wait staff inside the theatre would usually come with.”
When and how did the Bensons actually come up with the idea that distractions would be better left to a bunch of attractions in the lobby? “It was accidental, to be honest,” he recalls about his purchase of a pre-existing warehouse shell in Copperas Grove to convert into a multiplex. “When I laid out the design that I envisioned for the size of the market, it filled up about 32,000 feet or 38,000 feet [3,530 sq. m] and left me with two 2,500-square-foot wings off to either side of the lobby. Of course, I felt we needed to do something with that space, leasing out to a Subway or other retail. Being behind the local Wal-Mart, I realized that I was probably not going to be able to lease it very much and decided to build it up myself.” In the process of “figuring out what is complementary to a movie theatre, I went to the convention of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Orlando, Florida.” (For a report on IAAPA’s European show, check out FJI November 2013.)
“Coming back from that event, you just get all kinds of different ideas. But I ended up landing on laser tag as the best attraction and a big videogame arcade. Four and a half years ago, and I will be honest, I knew nothing about what I was doing. Owning an arcade that has redemption games, you are basically running a casino: Every skeet ball, every crane game, all of them are supposed to pay out within certain parameters just like a slot machine in Las Vegas is supposed to do.”
He goes on to share some of his learnings. “A game that is fun to play like shooting hoops is supposed to pay off 15% or 20% versus so-called ‘fast point’ games where you are dropping a coin that is rolling down a shoot and either going into the bucket or not. Since there’s not very much enjoyment going on, those have to pay a higher percentage. You need to learn all that and you have to hire technicians who know how to manage this, and amusement staff that knows how to pack your cranes and so on. When we went into the Movie Tavern business,” Benson draws the comparison, “we had to move from theatre manager to restaurant operator. There was a big learning curve… And it is definitely the same with a family entertainment center. There is much to learn if you are going to do it right. I still haven’t done full-sized bowling yet, which will probably be next for us.”
The most successful game at Midland now is a crane contraption that has players trying to get to a huge stuffed toy sitting in the middle of an eight by eight-foot box. “They want those stuffed animals like crazy,” Benson observes. “And we had as many as 17 people on a Saturday night standing in line to play it. Crazy.” With 4,000 square feet of laser tag on the main floor and another 2,500 upstairs, “yes, that is big,” he concurs. “It’s a full-blown, all-LED-lit, smoke-filled arena. And it’s got obstacles that you can hide behind as you tag the players on their base. The more you run and tag them, the more points you get. Laser tag is a team-based sport with as many as 14 people on each team. We already did our first tag in Copperas Cove with Lasertron, who has been around since 1989 and is one of the oldest laser tag manufacturers in the country.”
May we expect Cinergy to move across the country, laser tag et al. in tow? “I really feel like I need not to expand at this point,” Benson contends. “I have to build out Midland already because it does so well and expand our Copperas Cove location [with two to four screens, billiards and a rope course] because it does very well too. Before we build another one, I will probably expand upon what I have. I am always looking, of course. I never want to turn down a good deal. If some developer called me up, ‘Hey, I saw the article in Film Journal International and have just the spot for you,’ I would certainly look at it, but right now I think I am probably more focused on expanding Midland and Copperas Cove.”
“It goes on very well for us,” Benson acknowledges in closing. “I am very proud. People just love the way in which the arcade is really right in the lobby and how we have done the ropes overhead with a panel of black light. I can show you pictures of what this place looks like on Saturday night. There are hundreds of people in the lobby, probably 20 at any one time taking iPhone pictures of their kids and the stuff they do up on the ropes course. It is such a novel and amazing thing to see all these kids climbing the rope or ceiling above you.
“You got to do it right,” Benson offers another note of caution. “Just like in the theatre/restaurant business, you have to fully commit to it. You hire different people with different skill sets and experience as you are willing to put this combined company together. When you roll all of that different expertise under one roof, everybody’s got to get along. While that makes operating a cinema and family entertainment center challenging, there is definitely money to be made. I can tell you that: money to be made if you are willing to do it right. There is big potential here…”
‘Class of 2013’ Preview
While we busily prepare our 10th-anniversary review of new, expanded and otherwise upgraded cinemas from around the world, Film Journal International touches base with Jeff Benson, president and chief executive officer of Cinergy, and Mike Voegtle, partner at 5G Studio Collaborative, about their collaboration in Midland, Texas, which opened on Oct. 11.
To get the “Class of 2013” going, Voegtle describes the joint goal as “creating a destination where there is something to do for everyone in the family.” While his favorite aspect is Cinergy EPIC, the large-format auditorium, Voegtle compares Midland to “combining a cinema with an amusement park,” not to forget that it is also a “full-scale cinema eatery.” Despite dealing with “many challenges brought on by the availability of resources in Midland during construction, such as shortages in labor and material,” the resulting Cinema Entertainment Center was not only “highly anticipated but also very, very well received,” he assures.
Generally speaking, “we are still seeing a lot of dine-in options with a focus on the experience both during the movie and through amenity areas like lounges, bars and lobbies.” While he has not seen any particularly new trends emerge, Voegtle says, “There’s a lot of going back to basics for many of our clients by offering quality auditoriums, seats and sound.” Over the past ten years, it seems to him “exhibitors are willing to experiment with new ways to provide a better experience. And we will continue to see this in the next few years.’
A case in point is Cinergy Cinemas & Entertainment. Jeff and Jamie Benson not only launched the Midland location as exemplified in the main article, but they also enhanced their prior two locations. In the middle of June, Cinergy opened the “Final Cut Bar & Lounge” in Corsicana, Texas. Expanding upon the existing menu of beer and wine, Final Cut began offering a larger selection of premium liquors for mixed drinks and cocktails. “We added multiple HDTVs, billiard tables, beer pong arcade games, racing games, boxing games, and a full-service bar, so there’s never a dull moment,” Jeffrey Benson said at the time.
Following in August, Copperas Cove added reserved seating from Ticket Soft allowing guests to “select their seats before the auditorium opens.” About saving “your favorite spot just for you,” Cinergy further noted that guests “have time to enjoy the game floor, grab a game of laser tag, or just hang out with their friends and family before the movie starts."