America's great movie theaters

Grauman's Chinese Theater
Although native Angelenos may consider the 81-year-old theater (and its famous hand-printed forecourt) a tourist trap, none can deny it's place in cinematic history.Grauman's Chinese Theater
/ Source: Forbes

If your local mall movie theater has tacky, uncomfortable seats and is popular with loud teenagers, it may be time for a field trip to one of Village Roadshow’s Gold Class Cinemas. The Burbank-based company hopes to reinvent the cinematic gold standard by constructing 50 upscale theaters nationwide that will feature valet parking, made-to-order meals that include sushi, and reclining armchairs complete with an embedded waiter service button. Each theater will have a 40-person limit. The tickets may cost an unprecedented $35 — popcorn and sushi are extra — but they’re gambling that enough cinephiles will appreciate the perks.

With the rise of affordable high-tech home entertainment systems, digital downloads and DVD rentals-by-mail, theater owners are updating their theaters to lure in audiences hooked on plasma screens and iPhones.

“Our audience has all the new toys and technology, but still wants to get out of the house for an experience they feel is worth it,” says Sundance Cinemas CEO and president Paul Richardson, who oversees Robert Redford’s two upscale theaters in San Francisco. “They want to be entertained in a comfortable environment with amenities and services that enhance the experience or at least make it convenient and easy.”

Since the early days of cinema, theater owners have adapted to better suit their patrons’ needs. No city exemplifies this evolution better than Los Angeles, where diehard movie fans can choose from an overwhelming number of glitzy theaters that feature first-run, foreign, classic and even cult films. While tourists flock first, and rightly so, to gawk at world-famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater — and slip their feet into John Wayne’s boot prints in the forecourt — cineastes head instead to Grauman’s other creation, the 40,000-square-foot Egyptian Theater. Renovated by the American Cinematheque for $12.8 million, the deluxe new digs showcase hard-to-find films on a massive screen in an old Hollywood setting.

For a modern movie experience, there’s the six-year-old ArcLight Hollywood on West Sunset Boulevard, which offers state-of-the-art technology mingled with gourmet food, including fresh-made caramel corn with real butter, and excellent ushering service.

“The ArcLight is really the premier megaplex in the America,” says Ross Melnick, a film historian and co-author of “Cinema Treasures,” a comprehensive study of nation’s movie theaters. “They’re doing all these co-programming series with the American Film Institute (AFI) and hosting indie film festivals and Q&As with actors and filmmakers before, during and after awards season; they really cater to an elite movie-going audience.”

New Yorkers aren’t left out. Lincoln Center Cinema, Film Forum, Two Boots Pioneer and the Village Cinema often screen films that can’t be seen anywhere else. But for equal parts kitsch and old-school glamour, the Ziegfeld is hard to beat. Though technically just 39 years old — the original 1927 building was razed in 1966 then rebuilt in 1969 — this midtown Manhattan landmark debuts both new releases and old classics on a massive single screen. They also offer specialty programming, such as simulcasts of New York Mets baseball games, complete with a live organist and mascot-led sing-a-longs.

Dubbed Chicago's "year-round film festival," this 800-seat movie palace is also the city's largest full-time theater space. Built in 1929 near Wrigley Field, the Music Box features a vintage ticket booth, ornamented sidewalls and an expansive dark blue ceiling sprinkled with twinkling stars and moving cloud formations.Music Box Theatre

Elite art-houses and refurbished movie palaces are not limited to the coasts. “It’s a national trend,” says Melnick. “Theater owners want to get people excited about the entire experience, and they’re building an architecture of fantasy where the show starts on the sidewalk and expands with programming inside.

The famed Original Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, is at the forefront of this trend. Though founders Tim and Karrie League sold their company and brand to businessman John Martin in 2004, they kept control of their original theater. The Leagues keep their customers happy — and loyal — with unique seating arrangements that include long tables spaced between the rows (for easier drinking and dining during the films) and signature events such as the nine-meal Lord of the Rings” trilogy Hobbit feast, Moroccan Casablanca” feast and Saturday Morning Cartoon Cereal Party for children. Not surprisingly, a close-knit community has grown up around the Drafthouse.

Restaurant-level cuisine is also spreading into the nation’s more upscale theaters. Of the approximately 5,900 theaters operating in the United States, 300 are cinema restaurants, offering either direct service while patrons are seated, or in accompanying on-site venues.

With its reserved and ushered seating, doublewide arm rests, gourmet concessions (including freshly made caramel corn) and a lack of cheesy advertisements, the ARcLight theater provides the most premier film-going experience in the country.Arclight Cinemas

“The integration of food and beverage into the movie-going experience has been the most difficult part of our start-up business,” says Richardson, whose Sundance Kabuki Theater patrons can feast on butternut squash croquettes with fettuccini-cut celery root, Dungeness crab in a classic San Francisco cioppino broth, and pear cinnamon buns, among other items. “The food has to be good, interestingly prepared, and fast.” To that end, Cinetopia in Vancouver, B.C., offers “transworld tapas” that include pasta with truffled asparagus. For gourmands with a sci-fi sense of humor, Asheville, North Carolina’s Cinebarre offers a Soylent Green Salad. And no, it’s not made from people.

Programming, too, is enjoying a renaissance. Many theater owners are offering more than just films. The National Amusements chain, led by Sumner Redstone’s daughter Shari, has introduced comedians, live video gaming tournaments and variety shows to their theaters, while Landmark has simulcasted a tennis match between Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. National CineMedia has distributed live, high-definition opera telecasts from the Metropolitan Opera House.

“The epitaph for movie theaters is always being written,” says Melnick, “but as long as Americans still want to get out of their house and be entertained at a reasonable price, they will still go to the movies.”