From the perspective of a movie theater owner, all those lethargic explosions in Inception were just very expensive commercials for giant boxes of Goobers and Raisinets. Likewise, Colin Firth’s carefully modulated anguish in The King’s Speech. The Regal Entertainment Group — America’s largest movie theater chain with 548 theaters in 39 states — reports that its average patron spent $3.09 at the concession stand in 2009. That may be chocolate-covered peanuts compared to the revenues theaters generate from admissions at a time when tickets typically go for $7.95. But theater owners don’t have to split concession sales with distributors, and the mark-ups on salty tubs of popcorn and watery vats of Coke are huge. According to Smart Money, approximately 85 cents of each dollar spent at the theater candy counter is pure profit.
In 2010, movie attendance fell to its lowest level since 1995. In the age of Netflix and YouTube, squeezing even more food and drink into the people who still patronize megaplexes becomes an even more crucial component to movie exhibitor success. That’s why chains like Cinebarre, Alamo Draft House, and AMC — with its new Fork and Screen and Cinema Suites theaters — now offer their customers prime rib sandwiches, spaghetti squash with pomodoro sauce, crème brulee French toast, and $35 bottles of cabernet. At Cinebarre and Alamo, there are no food or drink minimums. If you just want to pay for your ticket and plan to fast your way through Black Swan or Tron: Legacy, you can do that. At the AMC theaters, you must pay a mandatory “Experience Charge” of $10 or $15 in addition to your ticket price – that amount is then applied to whatever you order but is not refundable if you order less than $10 or $15 worth of food.
In the old days, of course, no one would dream of eating anything as tricky as a plate of spaghetti in a movie theater. Movie theaters were sacred ground, places to worship car chases, shootouts, and melodramatic embraces, sometimes noisily, sometimes quietly, but always with complete attention. If you wanted to incorporate food complicated enough to require utensils into the experience, there were better venues for that — the drive-in, for example, or better yet, your living room couch.
Now, though, the drive-ins have mostly disappeared and the couch in your living room has evolved into a home theater. Sink six figures into your commercial grade arsenal of tweeters, woofers, subwoofers, and surround sound processors, and pretty soon you won’t even allow talking during NFL games. Invest another $20,000 into deluxe leather recliners with built-in heaters and massage systems, and even relatively neat snacks like Twizzlers are banished from the premises. A home theater is for formal, serious, grease-free viewing only, please.
If you want a homier, more casual way to enjoy movies, you need an alternate venue, and luckily, movie theaters have evolved to fill this role. At the theater, you’re free to chat with your friends to sort out the more complicated plot twists of Little Fockers. At the theater, you can take a break from the cognitive demands of The Dilemma by retreating to the lobby and playing Time Crisis 3. And now, thanks to the liberating influence of the new view-and-chew options like Cinebarre, Alamo, and Fork and Screen, you can slather three kinds of dipping sauce onto your big sloppy plate of chicken wings and brazenly use your seat as a napkin. It is a wonderful time to be alive.
The new chains also help us make our scant leisure hours more productive. In a simpler era, when Groupon wasn’t giving us twice as much to do at half the price, we had time for dinner and then a movie. Or maybe even two movies. Now, the idea of doing one thing for two hours, then one other thing for another two hours, seems wasteful at best and perhaps even a sign of feeble-mindedness. You’re sitting in a chair, your hands are free — if you can’t polish off a plate of chicken Alfredo while watching Adam Sandler mug his way through Just Go with It, how are you ever going to manage texting and driving?
Granted, if today’s movies were as talky and character-driven and full of the nuanced, slow-to-develop relationships of, say, Jersey Shore, the distractions that come with ordering and delivering meals to dozens of people in a dark room might prove a little more annoying. But if a waitress drops a stack of plates during The Expendables, or even a romantic comedy, is anyone going to notice? Today’s movie soundtracks are so loud and punched up with endless sonic filler that a stack of plates shattering into tiny little pieces can only sound like the soft flutter of butterfly wings in comparison. If a waitress delivers your country fried steak in the middle of an important plot twist of The Fast and the Furious 5, does it really matter? Chances are it has something to do with cars.
Somewhat paradoxically, bringing full-blown dining to the multiplex may actually improve the average moviegoer’s concentration. He’s killing two birds with one stone, so he’s not so preoccupied with all the other things he might be accomplishing if he weren’t stuck in a movie theater. He’s waiting for his food to arrive, so he’s staying glued to his seat even after he realizes Natalie Portman isn’t ever going to get naked in No Strings Attached. Emboldened by such viewer commitment, movie studios might begin to take chances on subtler, less formulaic fare, stories about ideas and emotions as well as explosions. Improbable as it is to imagine, Thai chicken coconut tenders and chocolate loving spooncake may bring a level of artfulness and risk-taking to the Hollywood mainstream not seen since the 1970s. • 28 January 2011