CineBistro is a luxury movie-and-meal theater. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
Deborah Morton knows her new favorite movie theater.
Her appreciation has nothing to do with its location, the number of screens or even the movies that play there. For Morton, it's all about the comfy seats — luxury, push-button power recliners that can position their occupants almost parallel to the floor.
"It was awesome. The chairs were really comfortable," the 59-year-old Heritage Crossing resident said of her recent first visit to Arbutus' R/C Hollywood Cinema 4, which has had the luxury seats since January 2016. "I went there because the movie I wanted to see was playing there, but I'm looking forward to going again. I have referred a lot of people to those movies."
Throughout the Baltimore area, such luxuries are becoming de rigueur for movie theaters, as customers come to expect more than simply a seat and a screen on which to watch their film of choice. Improved sound and picture quality have long been seen as drawing cards for the discerning cineaste, but luxurious seats and even upscale meals, like those being offered at the soon-to-open CineBistro at the Rotunda, have been gaining in popularity among moviegoers.
All this is being done in the name of making the moviegoing experience more attractive at a time when audiences have the choice of watching on multiple platforms — TV, computers, tablets, phones — that are far more convenient and much less costly than visiting the local theater.
In addition to the Hollywood, the Flagship Cinemas' Eastpoint Movies 10, AMC Security Square 8 in Woodlawn and Columbia's UA Snowden Square Cinema 14 have installed luxury recliners; by the end of this week, five screens at the AMC Loews White Marsh 16 will have followed suit.
And at the CineBistro, a luxury theater scheduled to open Friday, moviegoers will be able to enjoy upscale dining — everything from ahi tuna taquitos to New York strip steak — while watching first-run movies.
"People really like it. It's been working really well across the industry," Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners, said of the "re-seating" trend, which started about three years ago. "People like customer service," Corcoran says, "and increasingly, customer service is giving them a really comfortable seat."
Installing the recliners, which cost around $600 each, represented something of a gamble for Hollywood Cinemas owner Scott Cohen. In addition to the cost of the seats themselves, installing them throughout the four-screen theater reduced its total capacity from about 600 to 300. But even so, business over the past year is up more than 60 percent compared to the previous period, he says.
"Attendance has been skyrocketing," Cohen says. "I've been pulling in people from all over, even from downtown Baltimore."
Likewise at the Eastpoint, which finished installing power recliners in nine of its 10 auditoriums late last year. Attendance is up 96 percent year-to-year, says Paul Wenger, president of Flagship Cinemas.
"We have seen a significant growth in attendance like we have never experienced before with technological advances such as enhances [to] audio or visual," Wenger writes in an email.
Ticket prices where the luxury seats have been installed remain competitive, in most cases at or below other nearby theaters. The Hollywood, for instance, waited about a year-and-a-half before adding $1.50 to the cost of admission, and its price range of $6.50-$9.50 remains well in line with what the competition is charging; the nearby AMC Security Square 8, for instance, charges $5.29-$10.49.
On the other hand, the option for luxury dining at the Cinebistro comes at a price; movie tickets will run $12.50-$15. But officials are unapologetic about the additional cost, citing the success of previous CineBistros that have opened in other cities. They are confident the new Baltimore location will do just as well.
"We gear ourselves toward the more discerning guest who is really looking for the finer things," says Fred Myers, vice president of CineBistro. "We don't build on every street corner. We are very selective where we go."
While the CineBistro will not offer power recliners, it will includes seats that recline, as well as rows far enough apart to satisfy even the tallest of spectators. And the emphasis on food and drink is paramount, to the point where officials like to refer to their facility as a restaurant that shows movies, rather than the other way around. The "gourmet American" menu, prepared in a 5,000-square-foot on-site kitchen, will feature entrees ranging from $14.95-$28.95 and appetizers from $7.95-$13.95. Some 50 wines will be available, along with 12 beers on tap.
While other theaters don't appear eager to jump on the fine-dining bandwagon, more and more are adding liquor licenses to their offerings, says NATO's Corcoran. About 700 theaters nationwide sell alcohol, he says, up from about 200 in the mid-2000s.
Ira Miller, whose Horizon Cinemas operates several area theaters, including the Beltway Plaza near Rosedale and the Marley Station in Glen Burnie, says he will be serving liquor when he opens his newest location next month, in the Fallston Village Shopping Center. And people will be seated in power recliners.
Still, having been involved with running movie theaters in the Baltimore area since the 1960s, some of the recent moves have caught Miller a bit off-guard. Invoking the name of a prominent area psychiatric hospital, he says, "If someone had told me they were going to serve liquor and have reclining seats and go down from 400 to 200 seats, I would have taken them over to Spring Grove."
Change has been a constant in the movie-theater business. In the early decades of cinema, exhibitors tried to outdo one another with the opulence of their buildings, constructing grand movie palaces that could seat thousands. In the 1950s, responding to the proliferation of TVs and the resulting decline in theater attendance, 3-D and other gimmicks started showing up. In the 1960s, it was multi-screen moviehouses; in the 1990s, it was stadium seating.
"I don't see that as anything revolutionary," Jon Lewis, a film instructor at Oregon State University and author of the textbook "American Film: A History," says of the trend toward upscale accommodations at movie theaters. Exhibitors, he notes, make most of their money off what customers buy after they purchase a ticket, so expanding the range of offerings makes sense.
"I don't think they're fighting a losing battle," he says of the ongoing struggle to keep the crowds coming. "They've been predicting the end of movie theaters for a while, but it never seems to happen."
Not everyone is sold on the idea that adding luxury equates to added business. James "Buzz" Cusack, who runs the Charles and Senator theaters along with his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon, says he has no plans to install power recliners — and thus cut back on the seating capacity — at either theater. And he certainly has no plans to start serving his audiences dinner.
"I've always wondered if there's a snoring problem," he says of the ultra-comfortable recliners. And as for eating, he notes, "a long time ago, we took a poll. People said they didn't want to smell food. So we've never really had anything other than popcorn."
Deborah Morton, however, has other ideas. She likes the new-found luxury she's experiencing, and isn't looking back. She's already getting a group together to introduce them to her new friends at the Hollywood.