Exhibitors Explore Standalones & Hybrids in Quest for Added Value

What better way to get film fans out of the home than for theatres to give them the VIP treatment?
Many exhibitors worldwide already provide VIP amenities. Perhaps the broadest VIP approach is an enhanced architectural design theatre-wide affecting all areas open to all ticket-buyers. Scaling down, VIP initiatives might be super-plush chairs spaced wide apart, valet parking, special "red carpet" entrances, and food and bar service directly to seats. There are also "extras" like special ticketing for reserved seats, gourmet food and alcoholic beverage offerings, and upscale restaurants and lounges for pre- or post-show relaxation.

At its most basic, this VIP approach is an amalgam of concepts for an enhanced moviegoing experience. Take your pick.

The larger-scale iterations, in addition to lounges, are VIP spaces for watching films--areas sectioned off in larger auditoria and, more rare but growing, standalone VIP rooms for the enhanced viewing experience. Some strategies involve a "boutique" notion applied to movie theatres, while others are embracing the "airline" idea of separating economy and coach passengers.

Theatres overseas pushed the envelope a few years back by dedicating entire auditoria to VIP customers. Today, more and more U.S. circuits are embracing many of the VIP concepts.

The trend overseas is towards "hybrid" theatres that offer both general admission and VIP auditoria, with countries like Japan, Australia and Indonesia leading the way. (See next month's FJI.)

Stateside, National Amusements is offering such a mix with its Bridge concept--most rooms as standard and a few as VIP Director's Rooms.

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based Muvico Theaters, which takes a boutique approach to each project, is making big steps in this standalone direction. The circuit, which offers its VIP "Premier Experience" to patrons, will be experimenting with its first standalone, all-Premier auditorium and adjoining lounge in its just-opened Boynton Beach, Florida complex. In the Rosemont area of Chicago, Muvico, working with its architects at the Baltimore-based Development Design Group, will soon be opening its latest brand-new complex. Here, two auditoria will be dedicated entirely to Premier seating, while, as in its other theatres, balcony areas in general rooms will be sectioned off as Premier spaces.

The "Premier Experience" gives patrons 21 years and older who are willing to pay about twice the general admission price Premier seating in sectioned-off balcony areas. Certain theatres even have special entrances for the Premier patrons.

In the Boca Raton complex, where six auditoria out of 20 have Premier balcony spaces, the Premier seating chairs are leather loveseats imported from France with holders for wine bottles.

With its standalone VIP rooms so new, Muvico's "hybrid" strategy is in the beta stage. Thus, for its Meadowlands Xanadu project across from Manhattan, due to open in late 2008, Muvico has plans to provide the auditoria with Premier balconies but "the jury is still out on a dedicated Premier room," says George Figler, Muvico's director of design and construction.

Figler is quick to emphasize that "we love our general-admissions customers and deliver the 'wow' factor to all our filmgoers, but we have had so much success with the sectioned-off Premier areas. It's all about the experience. Our whole Premier Experience, which also includes free valet parking, has strong appeal among those who crave special treatment, like walking a red carpet, and appreciate a different experience and the exclusivity of it. And, of course, the fact that they're being pampered, being taken care of."

Warwick Wicksman, AIA, senior associate at San Francisco-based Gensler, observes that "The hybrids are starting to appeal [stateside]. But right now it's the VIP lounges filmgoers use when not attending the shows that are proving most popular."

As Gensler, one of the country's largest outfits in commercial architecture, also works with theatres overseas, Wicksman has an international perspective. The standalones are growing overseas, but most of Gensler's work domestically on standalones is in creating high-end private screening rooms for the studios.

"While circuits [stateside] are mostly either standard or upscale throughout, hybrids will more and more be catching on," Wicksman predicts.

Yet notions of segregation are offending sensibilities in certain corners of the exhibition community. After all, the United States is synonymous with democracy and equal rights (of entry) for one and all. Hence, circuits that lay claim to VIP for everyone.

As its name might suggest, Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas has taken a more populist approach to the "VIP" concept. Alamo Drafthouse CEO John Martin is comfortable with the "VIP" designation, but not so much with a VIP "China Wall" separating its customers. So Alamo's approach might be called "VIP-lite."

"For us," says Martin, "going all-VIP is too elitist. Separation is not the way to go. In the laid-back Texas way, we want all our patrons to enjoy the filmgoing experience at the same level. We're about catering to the movie-loving, moviegoing masses rather than an all-elitist demographic."

So Alamo, founded in 1997 and now in eight locations in Austin, Houston, Katy, San Antonio and McAllen with 46 screens, focuses on comfortable seating with tables at every seat, gourmet food service at seats (thanks to those tables) and film-themed food events, "VIP feasts," featuring menus appropriate to the presentation.

Explains Martin, "For instance, we had a specialty menu pairing with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was an Asian-themed feast, even with sake available. With Sideways, we had a wine-themed seven-course menu with California cuisine and wines from the Santa Barbara vineyards featured in the film. Or with A Prairie Home Companion, we had a true Southern-style feast. The whole package of dining and a movie costs about $55 a person. We do several of these feasts per month."

Martin says that its theatre-wide VIP feasts, matching films with chef-prepared menus, are always sellouts. And Alamo always has about 30 beers on tap and "wines, even champagne, that you'll find in the best restaurants. But movies come first."

But not so fast. Alamo, in fact, has set aside VIP areas in the back of its theatres with couches and high-back chairs. Says Martin, "Nothing is physically sectioned off, but the couches and high-backed seating distinguish the area. Such seating now exists in our new location in McAllen, Texas, our new build from the ground up. In some other Alamos, we're retrofitting for this VIP space. Currently, the plan is that it's all in the back of the theatres. And right now, we're readying VIP couches and leather chairs in the back of theatres with couches and leather chairs as the only VIP delineation." He describes these areas as appealing to "those who want a truly pampered movie and dining experience."

With some exceptions, Alamo plans to retrofit circuit-wide for plush seating--a combination of love seats, couches and high-back lounge seating. Martin describes the areas as "a lounge in the back of theatres. The tables aren't fancy inlaid. The money we spend goes for what you're sitting on and what goes into the stomach."

But those populist sentiments nag and, in fact, the VIP areas for Martin aren't the holy grail: "I don't believe that just VIP seating is the way of future; I believe the future is in seeing a movie while at the same time being able to have a quality meal. That's it."

One circuit that does shun VIP separation is Pacific Theatres, with its famously appointed 13-screen ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood, adjacent to the Cinerama Dome. The belief is that designated VIP areas segregate audiences when, according to the ArcLight credo, all audiences deserve a special theatre experience.

In spite of its plush, custom-designed, ergonomically engineered chairs that are "three inches wider than industry standard," theatre-wide reserved seating and usher service, and special 21+ screenings that allow cocktail consumption in auditoria, ArcLight spurns the VIP designation.

"We are not positioning [ArcLight] as a VIP theatre, but as a theatre with added amenities," says ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood spokesperson Dupe Bosu.

There would be no VIP amenities without the handful of architectural firms and designers like Gensler that work with theatres. Gensler is currently involved with ArcLight on several renovation and new theatre projects.

According to Gensler's Wicksman, the company, in addition to its overseas work and on private screening projects for studio and agency clients, has helped execute VIP concepts circuit-wide for domestic theatres, including a number of VIP lounges.

But Wicksman is a champion of the standalone auditoria spaces more prevalent overseas. He sees these as having an advantage over VIP sections in larger auditoria, which have issues of access and sound and viewing challenges as a result of just being cordoned-off areas.

Gensler's theatre projects, explains Wicksman, usually begin with "visioning sessions" that bring to the fore such issues as how theatre clients see their brand and how people outside their companies see it. These sessions also answer how their existing sites hold true to this vision. Also explored are the key features that define the circuits and separate them from their competition.

The workflow with exhibitor clients evolves from the visioning sessions to design and explores how these visions can be realized in the built environment. This usually requires a series of meetings, further honing in on the key ideas of the theatre brand, and seeing how that can impact design--from programming, to key images, to the end impression.

As for how responsibilities are divided between architects and designers, Wicksman explains that for most projects Gensler provides "one-stop shopping." He elaborates: "We work with [the theatre's] team to develop the original design concepts, and see the project through to completion. Once construction is complete, we often work with the client to review the project and the process. Was the original vision for the project realized successfully? How did the realities of construction and budget impact the final built project? What can we develop further in the next project, and what do they want to take in another direction?"

The biggest challenge for Gensler, says Wicksman, is "to help theatres determine what defines the 'VIP' experience. Opinions vary. Some theatres see VIP amenities as improved sound and projection, with no distractions. For others, it is reserved seating or food and bar service. Others see the VIP add-on as a lounge to gather in before or after the show."

As VIP concepts and trends continue to evolve, Wicksman pinpoints design features to date-some more familiar than others--that are defining the VIP "feel." These are seats that are usually wider and more comfortable, even La-Z-Boy-type reclining chairs. There's also wider row spacing for more legroom and lower viewing angles. Also, there are increased distances from front row to screen and softer lighting. (Florescent fixtures are a no-no.) Other features include carpeted floors, especially in the higher-end private screening rooms, and higher levels of acoustical performance.

Some auditoria may be more ornately designed and themed while others may be more contemporary, even to the point of being more like a "black box," with nothing to distract from the movie image.

Most of the VIP theatres that Gensler has worked on focus on amenities and service, like private box offices with more of a hotel concierge feel, than a ticket booth or private dining areas and bars.

As for the challenges of delivering architectural design in a motion picture space, Wicksman says that for both VIP and standard cinemas, "there's always a balance to be achieved between providing premium sound and viewing and providing a stimulating architectural design. In the end, this is driven mostly by the [theatre] operator."

Wicksman says that feedback from VIP patrons has been "almost always positive, especially when it comes to reserved seating, seat bar service, and commercial-free presentations."

The time frame from design to completion for a single VIP project varies from project to project. "Some projects can be accomplished in six months; others can take 18 to 24 months. It really depends on the size of the project and how it interfaces with other projects around it," he says.

Just like movies, VIP strategies begin as concepts and evolve. As with box-office performance, it will be the audiences who determine the theatre performance and which will be the VIP "tentpoles"--sectioned-off VIP areas, separate VIP auditoria, VIP lounges, full bottles, full menus?

Exhibitors literally have a world of possibilities to draw upon for inspiration. While Americans are known for their pioneering spirit, the brave pioneers of the VIP movement in theatres forged the trend overseas.

But here and abroad, the concept can only grow because moviegoers everywhere crave a better experience. And, assuming that what's on the screen delivers, enhanced amenities and spaces deliver that experience. So to paraphrase that old saw about Paree, exhibitors contemplating upgrades need only ask rhetorically: How ya gonna keep 'em at home after they've seen VIP?