Here's the scene: Two yuppies in pricey snow gear walk into the new movie theater at Mazza Gallerie on Wisconsin Avenue yesterday. "John, what do you want?" one of them asks. John inspects a well-stocked concession counter. "A beer would hit the spot."
The set: Beer. Faux-leather seats. Legroom. Fresh roses in the restroom.
The plot: General Cinema Theatres has rolled out the red carpet for moviegoers willing to pay a premium price for a seat in its "Club Cinema"--the exclusive section of the seven-screen movie theater that opened two weeks ago at the newly renovated Mazza Gallerie in Northwest.
And why not a movie theater with a restricted area? Restaurants have VIP rooms. Stadiums have luxury skyboxes. Airplanes have first-class sections.
"The market for movies is so large right now that owners are working hard to distinguish themselves from other theaters," said Jim Kozak, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners. The amenities are part of the growing trend to offer "really extravagant presentations," he said.
Movie theaters are essential attractions at malls and even expensive condo projects like the one Millennium Partners is building at the site of the former city incinerator in Georgetown.
The Mazza Gallerie cinema is the first movie house built in the District in more than a decade. It is also the most expensive one in town.
Tickets for the two-screen "Club Cinema" are $8 for a matinee and $12.50 after 6 p.m. Ticket prices in the rest of the theater are $6 for a matinee and $9.75 after 6 p.m.
True, not everyone can swallow the irony of a roast beef sandwich and a $4 bottle of beer while watching little Frank McCourt and his siblings starve on the big screen in "Angela's Ashes"--even if the chairs are really comfortable.
"It propagates class stratification by setting up a theater like this," huffed 24-year-old Hani Talebi of Bethesda after watching "The Hurricane" yesterday in the club section.
His friends declared the chairs nice, but not nice enough to justify the price, and the food was too expensive for their tastes.
But General Cinema is banking on the growing popularity of luxury movie theaters in a posh area where coifed women garbed in furs marched resolutely past animal rights protesters in front of a Nieman Marcus store last Saturday night.
"That's a very affluent part of the city, where you have a lot of people who do have the disposable income and like to do things in the best possible way," said Brian Callaghan, a spokesman for Massachusetts-based General Cinema Theatres.
The Club Cinema is restricted to ages 21 and over--a plus for Luther and Pat Zeigler, who live in Northwest. The couple braved the snow and wind yesterday to see "The Hurricane" at the exclusive theater.
"It's the difference between first class and coach on an airplane," said Luther Zeigler, 41. He said the couple would probably come back, especially to see a movie that might draw a teenage crowd at other theaters.
Sarah Schain, 27, said she and her husband, Devin, 34, who live in a town house development near Mazza Gallerie, enjoyed the amenities offered at the luxury theater.
"I liked the big seats," Schain said. "I get restless in regular movie theaters, especially if the movie is more than 2 1/2 hours long."
Schain said she and her husband tried to see a movie when the theater opened on Jan. 7. But the shows sold out before they could buy tickets. Still, she was impressed when they finally got tickets three days later.
"This is a place where we can go any time and get something decent to eat," Schain said. "Right now I'm pregnant and I can't drink, but how nice would it be to have a glass of wine while sitting in a comfy chair?"
General Cinema opened its first premium section in 1988 as part of a new 18-screen movie complex in the Chicago area. The company owns one other theater in the Washington area, at Springfield Mall.
Robin Orford, general manager of the Mazza Gallerie theater, said both the regular and exclusive movie theaters have been a hit since they opened.
She said all shows at the theater--except one morning show--sold out on Saturday. The theater seats 1,460 people in seven screening rooms.
"Angela's Ashes," which is playing in the club and the regular theater, brought in more ticket sales at the Mazza Gallerie theater this weekend than at any other theater in the country, according to General Cinema. Mazza also was the No. 1 breadwinner for "The Hurricane" for the first two weekends the theater was open.
"It would be nice to say we knew that this would be a home run," said Callaghan, the company's spokesman. "To have the No. 1 box office hit for two weeks at a brand-new movie theater is very unusual."
Callaghan said General Cinema probably could have built two more exclusive screening rooms in the Club Cinema, as evidenced by the venture's early success.
"It really is an idea whose time is come," Callaghan said. "These are people who would pay $3.50" for a name-brand coffee. "They'll pay a couple of extra dollars for a movie ticket."
And from the peanut gallery?
"It should be the same as the regular price," said Jill Swartz, 25, a Bethesda high school teacher who saw "The Hurricane" yesterday in the club section.
But Schain said she is willing to pay. "It's not a movie theater we'd go to every weekend," she said. "But three extra dollars for a three-hour movie for that comfort means a lot to me."
That's the Ticket
Over the past 10 years, the average price of a movie ticket has increased about 18 percent . . .
Year Movie ticket prices
. . . and the total number of admissions has grown about 17 percent.
Year Admissions(in billions)
SOURCE: National Association of Theatre Owners