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Going first class at the movies

Plush seats and waiters serving real food are part of a small butgrowing moviegoing trend.

When you go to the movies, would you be willing to pay a bit extra to fly first class? A modest price premium in exchange for a first-class cinematic experience is the concept behind the VIP Screening Rooms at Odeon Cineplex's Varsity Cinemas here. Billed as the first of its kind in North America, the Screening Rooms are a quartet of small theaters, each seating 24 to 36 filmgoers. They are designed "to resemble the screening rooms at studio lots in Hollywood," says Susan Davison, director of communications for Cineplex Odeon. The seats are big, high-backed chairs like those in the forward cabins of an aircraft or around the table in a corporate boardroom. In the ample spaces between seats are small oval faux-marble tables, the perfect place to park one's skinny decaf latte or the inevitable cell phone - switched off, one hopes. The scale is intimate, but the sound systems are state-of-the-art. The screens, while smaller than at larger cinemas, are the new curved type that eliminates blurriness at the edges. Solicitous "concierges" hand out menus and take orders for beverages and snacks, delivered to your seat before the movie. A small lounge is available for those waiting to meet someone. All this can be yours for a $2 surcharge on the cost of a regular ticket ($6), a total of about $8 (all prices in US dollars). Matinees cost slightly less. Add an extra $5 to $10 for popcorn, soda, and candy. "This was really designed to be the equivalent of flying first class," Ms. Davison says. Indeed, the air-travel analogy presents itself right at the door. The screening rooms are part of a much larger multiscreen movie complex, which is in turn part of a retail and office complex in Toronto's trendy Bay-Bloor area: The cinema lobby oozes into a bookstore that oozes into cafe. And with the General Cinema ticket counter offering about as many destinations as an airport ticket counter, the Varsity's "guest services desk" lets VIP customers "check in at their leisure," as the airlines say. Cineplex is quick to note that the "screening room" experience isn't for everyone, all the time. There are no children's prices or plans to screen children's films, for instance. And some movies need an audience of a certain size to resonate properly. Davison, who catches flicks at both the screening rooms and the main auditoriums at the Varsity, says, "If I were going to see a slapstick comedy, I'd want to be in a packed auditorium where everyone is laughing." The screening rooms would be more appropriate, she says, for a subtitled film, or a poignant drama (such as "Dancing at Lughnasa," which she recently saw). But the screening rooms aren't for specialty "art" films. "They're always first-run major motion pictures," Davison says. Sometimes the Variety runs the same film in both the Screening Rooms and the main auditoriums. The Screening Rooms "have been regularly selling out Friday and Saturday, and running at extremely high capacity," she says. Rentals to businesses and individuals - for birthday parties, corporate rewards, and meetings - also bring in revenue. The economics are a little different at another premium movie theater, part of the Yorktown 18 complex in the Chicago suburb of Lombard, Ill., owned by General Cinema Theaters of Chestnut Hill, Mass. This premium theater opened about the same time as the screening rooms in Toronto last spring, but Mark Mazrimas, Midwestern regional marketing manager, insists in a phone interview, "Ours is a different concept." At Yorktown, the 70-seat premium cinema has its own separate glass-door entrance and valet parking. The prices are steeper - $15 a ticket on weekend evenings, with a bucket of popcorn thrown in, compared with a standard $8. The average moviegoer spends about $20, but a wider range of food and beverages is offered, including bistro dining at one's seat, even during the film. "We've had themed meals," says Mr. Mazrimas. "For 'Zorro,' we had quesadillas. For 'Gone With the Wind' we had peach cheesecake." Brenda Nolte, spokeswoman for AMC Theatres in Kansas City, which has opened a number of new screens in Toronto recently, says of the screening-room concept, "It's been considered and it's been decided that we will go with the growth strategy of the megaplex." The "megaplex," with a minimum of 14 screens, has emerged as the new de facto industry standard. Toronto, for instance, already a strong film market, is in the midst of a building boom. By the end of 1999, 15 new cinema complexes will have opened in the metro area, some of them downtown. Moviegoing is up across North America, in part because there are so many films to see. There may be a video recorder in every nearly home in North America, says Paul Degarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking firm in Los Angeles. But "theatrical moviegoing is still the engine that drives the industry," he says.

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