Movie ticket admissions have flattened over the past 15 years, with fewer people buying tickets last year in the United States and Canada than they did in 1996, the year Hollywood produced “Independence Day,” “Fargo” and “Jerry Maguire.”
Now the theaters are striking back.
A new breed of “luxury” cinema chains based in California and Florida collectively have their sights set on the Washington area. Or more specifically, Montgomery County.
Three of the new chains have announced that they will open theaters in the Maryland suburb with an array of offerings — some new, some tweaked — aimed at the county’s affluent adults rather than teenagers and 20-somethings, who historically buy the most tickets.
Leather reclining armchairs. Online reservations of the exact seat you want to sit in. Restaurant-quality food delivered to your seat. Memberships offering exclusive benefits. Ticket prices as high as $25.
“It’s something that’s been building for a while,” said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners, about the growth of high-end movie chains.
Corcoran said attracting audiences outside of the young adult demographic increasingly requires a niche focus.
“I think one of the things we’ve seen as an industry over time is that as people age, their movie-going habits change,” he said. “Young adults and teenagers are the most reliable moviegoers. But older, more affluent adults are not as reliable. I think what people see there is kind of an untapped market to get them back in the theater.”
“There isn’t one audience,” he added. “There are a lot of different audiences.”
As a young girl in 1965, Nora E. Dashwood went to see “The Sound of Music” in a Buenos Aires theater. It was her first movie, and it was unforgettable, she said.
As chief operating officer of ArcLight Cinemas, Dashwood tries to create similar experiences for patrons at four theaters in California. Its first East Coast location is to be at Westfield Montgomery Mall.
ArcLight, she said, is a theater for movie lovers, those who want to be certain they will get a seat they prefer and who are the first to be bothered by patrons who talk or take cellphone calls during the show.
Though it offers many of the same films, the company strips away all the distractions that have become a part of watching films at many mainstream theater chains. Their “black box” theaters have no light, as exit signs do not face the audience and fluorescent lights are not used because the bulbs (even when off) can reflect light from the screen. There are no advertisements, not in the lobby, not on screen before the film. Snacks with noisy wrappers are not sold.
“We believe that if we create an environment for our guests to really become immersed in the movie and in the community, that they are going to see the movie with that they will get a more complete experience,” Dashwood said.
ArcLight, a format created by Pacific Theatres, also offers ways to engage with movies typically only seen at film festivals, with greeters who share insights into the film, and question-and-answer sessions with directors. ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome in Hollywood hosts red carpet galas and premiers for major films and TV shows, such as the new HBO series “The Newsroom.”
Around the time ArcLight begins showing films in Westfield, in late 2014 or early 2015, iPic Theaters plans to open its own cinema in Montgomery County, its second on the East Coast. It is to anchor a new development called Pike & Rose, which will replace Mid-Pike Plaza in White Flint.
Instead of removing components from within the theater, iPic, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., offers the movie-and-a-dinner experience in one package. A “premium plus” ticket, costing as much as $25 on the weekend, gets members a reserved seat with a reclining chair, pillow, blanket, unlimited popcorn and table service that can be ordered at the touch of a button, via a full-service restaurant next door.
Even though the national economy remains slow, iPic has more than half a million members, according to chief executive Hamid Hashemi, and he said it’s hard to find a ticket at its existing nine theaters.
“You can have the greatest kitchen in your house, but you still go out to a restaurant. You go out, you go out to a restaurant or you go to a movie, you are looking for a social experience,” he said.
Silverspot Cinema splits the difference: It will open a full-service restaurant, but once the meal is over, the focus is on the film.
The chain, a division of Venezuelan Cines Unidos, plans to open a 12-screen theater in the Rock Spring Centre development on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda in 2014, the chain’s fourth theater in the United States and its first outside of Florida. Tickets will be $15, similar to what ArcLight is expected to charge.
As with the other theaters, many of the movies Silverspot offers are also available at megaplexes. Why pay more for the same film? Gonzalo Ulivi, Silverspot chief executive, likened the experience to an airplane, where passengers are willing to pay more for better service, such as business class.
“There are some people that want to see the same film, at the same time, on the same days, but in a different environment,” he said.