Next time you go to the movies, you might want to think about putting on a coat and tie.
As more high-end cinemas open in the region — boasting reserved seating, concierge desks, cocktails and fancy food — the experience is becoming less and less like an afternoon at the Bijou and more like a night at the Kennedy Center.
In fact, when ArcLight Cinemas unveiled its 16-screen multiplex in Bethesda last month, a place with a posh lobby bar and old-school ushers, but no box office, the company’s vice president of operations, Stephen Green, described the chain’s competition not as other movie theaters, but — wait for it — opera.
What’s next, printed theater programs?
Though ArcLight’s basic ticket price of $13.75 is the highest of its ilk (and still a bargain when compared to, say, $49 to $75 for the Washington National Opera’s “The Little Prince” at the Kennedy Center), it has some competition. Within a week of the California chain’s arrival in the Westfield Montgomery shopping mall, Florida’s iPic Theaters opened its own eight-screen cineplex a mere three miles away, in North Bethesda’s burgeoning Pike District.
General admission at iPic is $13 for a standard (or “premium”) seat: a 33-inch-wide leather armchair attached to a mini dining table. But for an additional $9 “premium-plus” surcharge — yes, bringing it to roughly the price of two tickets at a no-frills theater — you get all of the following: the same $13 seat, but one that reclines; touch-pad ordering from an eclectic menu of food, beer, wine and cocktails; seat-side service by a black-clad “ninja” (as members of the stealthy wait staff are known); and a pillow and blanket (which will conveniently double as an oversize napkin when your $15 pulled pork sandwich falls on it).
Oh, yes, and unlimited popcorn.
IPic gives new meaning to the phrase “adult movie theater,” and not only because of the almost obscene level of pampering available. According to iPic Entertainment chief executive Hamid Hashemi, fewer than 3 percent of iPic’s customers are younger than 21.
Hashemi cites another statistic: According to his company’s research, the duration of the average iPic visit is a whopping 4
To be fair, the iPic experience also incorporates a real restaurant. Although premium-plus ticketholders can order food and beverages from an in-cinema menu of snacks and sandwiches (or, alternately, carry the food in from the “iPic Express” station in the lobby themselves, if they want to save $9), there’s a second dining option. City Perch, run by Wolfgang Puck protégé Sherry Yard, sits just steps away from the theater lobby. Hashemi expects that many moviegoers will stop there for dinner and/or drinks before or after the film. Entrees here run $16 to $38. The in-theater food, which includes caviar-topped potato skins — excuse me, potato boats — isn’t exactly cheap either.
Call it the Landmark Theatres effect. The chain was a pioneer of the luxury movie theater concept in the Washington area, opening its Bethesda Row Cinema in 2002 and a downtown branch two years later. Two more are on the way: By the end of 2016, the company will have added a six-screen moviehouse near the 9:30 Club and a multiplex with 10 screens in NoMa.
But the scene didn’t really start heating up until the 2012 arrival of Angelika Film Center Mosaic in Merrifield. The three-story, glass-fronted, eight-screen outpost of the New York-based boutique theater chain boasts a bar with gorgeous sunset views, a cafe and a concession stand slinging hot dogs topped with kimchi and fried shallots. The company has since opened a D.C. movie theater — a pop-up in a converted warehouse behind Union Market. That temporary space is set to be replaced, in late 2015, by a nearby permanent theater. All of these, with the exception of Landmark’s E Street Cinema, offer reserved seating, an amenity we’re starting to see even in some mainstream chains.
We visited these game-changing theaters, along with Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which opened a branch of its Texas-based, tavern-style theaters in Ashburn last year. To be sure, despite all the hoopla — in-theater cocktails, fancy food and “guest services” instead of ticket takers — you might still find someone in Redskins pajama pants and a hoodie noshing on popcorn next to a toff nibbling prosciutto-wrapped dates.
Here’s our guide to navigating the changing landscape.
ANGELIKA FILM CENTER
Located in the Mosaic development near Gallows Road and Lee Highway, the chain’s flagship local theater looks like the cornerstone of an exurban town center from the outside, with a Target and a MOM’s Organic market nearby. Inside, the flavor is way more downtown. Sample dialogue overheard in the laid-back cocktail lounge one night after a screening of “Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”:
“I thought Iñárritu’s choice of ending was very, you know, Christopher Nolan-esque.”
“Frankly, I can’t imagine a way to end it that isn’t Christopher Nolan-esque.”
Specializing in smart-to-mainstream Hollywood releases, the Fairfax theater welcomed an addition to the family this year, with the arrival of a pop-up location near Union Market. The funky urban sibling — the glasses-wearing grad student to Fairfax’s sexy older sister — gives off an even stronger smartypants vibe, with a lounge area that resembles the pit of an upscale college student union. Unlike the Mosaic theater, the Pop-Up wouldn’t be caught dead showing “Horrible Bosses 2,” preferring films drawn from the world of indie, arthouse, foreign and documentary cinema.
General admission is $13. The Angelika Mosaic’s eight auditoriums (ranging from 100 to 300 seats) all offer reserved stadium seating. Beer and wine is available, as well as gourmet concessions, sandwiches, salads and small bites.
General admission is $11. The Pop-Up’s three auditoriums (ranging from 51 to 60 seats) all offer reserved, non-stadium seating. Beer, wine and gourmet concessions are available.
Is this a multiplex or a meditation center?
To hear ArcLight Cinemas executive vice president Gretchen McCourt describe the experience of entering the new theater, on the third level of the Westfield Montgomery mall, visitors don’t so much walk into the lobby as pass through a “decompression space,” where the cares of the world are swept away by what McCourt calls the “deep connection” that you’re about to make . . . with a movie.
There’s no formal box office. Instead, the room is dominated by a chic bar and cafe (whose offerings, including a chocolate martini, admittedly help with the attitude adjustment). Tickets can be purchased online, at one of several interactive kiosks or, if you’re hopelessly old-fashioned, from the concession stand. An overhead “departure board” lists movie times, like trains to some faraway land.
If it all sounds intimidatingly new agey, relax. The SoCal vibe is a little silly, but the payoff is worth the price. (At $13.75, it’s the priciest basic ticket of all the premium theaters.) Comfortable seats. State-of-the-art sound. No pre-movie ads. Limited trailers. And the food — from snacks to more substantial offerings — and gourmet concessions are great.
ArcLight’s 16 auditoriums (ranging from 85 to 295 seats) all offer reserved stadium seating. Membership is free through May 1, then $15 a year.
ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE CINEMA
On a recent Thursday night, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema’s Glass Half Full bar was, true to its name, half full. Though I suspect some customers came not to see a movie, but to sample one of the 19 local beers on tap, several folks in the room quickly drained their glasses and filed out as the hour approached the start of that evening’s “Die Hard” quote-along.
Picture a theater full of happy idiots, shooting cap guns at the screen every time Bruce Willis shoots a bad guy and gleefully shouting along with the 1988 film’s most famous (and helpfully subtitled) catchphrases, including the immortal “Yippee ki yay, m----------r!” Twinkies were handed out, because they appear in the film.
The evening — one of many regular retrospectives and special events hosted by the theater, which has in-cinema food service down to an art form — was shockingly fun.
Not in the mood for a trip down memory lane? Don’t worry. Alamo also offers current Hollywood releases. That and some killer sweet Thai chili wings.
General admission is $11.50. Alamo’s eight auditoriums (ranging from 49 to 151 seats) all offer reserved stadium seating, full bar service and satisfying pub food. A free rewards program is available.
IPic Entertainment’s Hamid Hashemi likens the upscale theater to a country club. The film offerings are fairly mainstream — big Hollywood releases to slightly more eclectic fare — but it’s the amenities that make the experience stand out. Easing back into one of the theater’s plush leather recliners, I started to wonder whether a foot massage and pedicure were imminent. (Answer: No, although there was a pillow and blanket. Don’t be alarmed by the fact that messy food and drinks are served here. The fleecy coverlets, of which there is a stock of 2,500, get dry-cleaned after each use.)
In two visits to the new theater — where recently staffers still were mulching potted plants from giant sacks of pine bark — there were some service hiccups. It took me more than 20 minutes, for instance, to get ketchup. And the wax paper that lines the baskets of chips and fries is unexpectedly noisy.
Hashemi isn’t happy to hear about these issues, but he takes them in stride. A certain learning curve is to be expected when you’re training new staff.
Not to mention the learning for iPic’s potential customers. Moviegoers who aren’t used to a Nero-like level of decadence while watching “Dumb and Dumber To” may take a while to adjust to it. Or to discover that they can’t live without it.
General admission is $13 ($9 surcharge for premium plus seating). IPic’s eight auditorium’s (ranging from 82 to 112 seats) all offer reserved stadium seating. In-theater dining features full bar service, sandwiches and light fare. Free introductory membership is available, with higher levels starting at $15 a year.
The nation’s largest chain of arthouse cinemas was one of the first to bring premium moviegoing to Washington. Its two theaters — the adventurous E Street Cinema, known for quirky indie fare and midnight cult movies, and its somewhat more mainstream Bethesda cousin — have become mainstays of the area’s high-end movie market.
There’s an air of seriousness at both locations. By happy accident, neither of the underground venues gets cell service, making the viewing experience one of the more pleasant and distraction-free for cinephiles. Although both have nice bars and lounge areas (particularly Bethesda, which was handsomely renovated in 2013), the food offerings are scant, limited to upscale concessions and pre-prepared bites heated in a small oven.
Fortunately, each theater is situated in a hotbed of restaurant activity. Sure, you could order the tandoori chicken satay or fish tacos (with a side of Twizzlers) in a pinch. But with restaurants like Jaleo — and dozens of others — a short walk from both venues, why on Earth would you?
Bethesda Row: 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-652-7273.
General admission is $11.50. Bethesda’s eight auditoriums (ranging from 86 to 245 seats) all offer reserved stadium seating. Seven of E Street’s eight auditoriums (ranging from 96 to 260 seats) offer stadium seating. Reserved seating is not available at the E Street location. Both locations offer a full bar, gourmet concessions and pre-prepared snacks. Discounted Aficionado ticket books are available (25 tickets at $8 a piece).