LOS ANGELES — The recent grand unveiling of Universal Cinema after its multimillion-dollar renovation was a true Tinseltown affair.
After cutting the ribbon for the flagship AMC theater near Universal Studios Hollywood, celebrity guests such as Steven Spielberg and Jordan Peele hit the Director's Lounge, which now provides full bar service and gourmet food (fruit smoothies, anyone?). All 18 auditoriums boast Dolby Atmos surround sound and laser projection, viewed from 1,930 new luxury recliners.
It sounds like Hollywood extravagance, but movie theaters nationwide are touting similar state-of-the-art amenities to attract customers in the face of stiff entertainment competition from streaming services and mobile devices.
Box office reached an all-time high of $11.37 billion in 2016, thanks to rising ticket prices, but attendance is essentially flat: 1.33 billion tickets sold last year, up only slightly from 2015's 1.32 billion, according to comScore.
With admissions up a mere .02% from this time last year, and the crucial summer movie season at hand, the need for outreach is clear.
"Theaters are fine-tuning every option they have to make it more appealing and lure moviegoers. They are trying to make that movie night out an experience people will come back to again and again," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "Better seats, food options and drink are a big part of that."
Here are a few of the cutting-edge efforts to get customers off their couches and into theaters.
The theater seat revolution heats up
The most dominant theater trend is comfort. The standard pull-down theater seat is giving way to plush luxury recliners, often with leg rests, cup holders and the ability to transform into a two-person loveseat.
"If you're going to pay $20 for a ticket, (you) want luxury chairs," says Bock. "Theaters are providing the ultimate experience in comfort that people just can't get at home."
AMC, the country's largest theater chain, has installed luxury recliners in more than 200 of its 600 theaters, with most of these auditoriums entirely upgraded to the premium chairs, says spokesman Ryan Noonan. He says "a majority" of the $420 million AMC spent on theater upgrades in 2016 went into this seating.
The chain is even turning up the heat. Noonan tells USA TODAY that AMC will start incorporating luxury seats with personal heaters in pilot locations this summer, "with more planned in the next few years."
There's a year-round need for the seat warmers, says Stephen Simons, founder and CEO of industry leader VIP Cinema Seating. "Funny enough, even in places like Florida, air-conditioned theaters can get cold," he says.
Regal Theaters is incorporating "buttkickers" into the king-size seats at a dozen of their RPX premium theaters. They feature built-in woofer speakers that vibrate, bringing the viewer into the action.
In addition to power recliners, the 16 iPic theaters nationwide are rolling out double "pod" seating, which allows couples to dine privately on built-in tables (with cabinets to stow shoes and bags). The chain is also bringing out double chaise lounge chairs that allow moviegoers to stretch their feet.
The reclined lounges, placed up front, have turned an previously unpopular seating area into prime real estate — and are free from the dreaded neck cricks that traditionally accompany front-row viewing.
"People want the comfort and to be treated like it's still an experience to go to the theater," says Dave Andreadakis, chief strategy officer at Kobie Marketing. "Theaters have done a wonderful job responding to that need with these luxury seats."
Theater food gets even fancier
AMC is overhauling its food menu this June, a national rollout that includes trendy chicken-and-waffle sandwiches, a spicy Sriracha dog, gourmet popcorn, stone-fired flatbread pizzas (four cheese, pepperoni, barbecue chicken and buffalo chicken) and gluten-free snacks.
"This is a big sign from the industry leader just how important the expanded menu is to theaters," says Daniel Loria, editor for the theater trade publication BoxOffice.
Dine-in locations like the Dallas-based Studio Movie Grill have continued to step up their game, adding seared Ahi tuna and blackened chicken pasta to the popular coconut chicken tenders and seasoned edamame at their 26 locations. iPic theaters feature Hollywood chef Phil Rosenthal's gourmet mac and cheese fries during the month of May, part of a rotating gourmet menu.
Theaters are tailoring the food around films. At Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, the menus change with the blockbusters. The theaters' 27 national locations are currently serving "I am Froot" shakes inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, while the Croque Maurice French bistro sandwich earned its spot among the most popular menu items during the run of Beauty and the Beast.
"These expanded concessions give the opportunity for movie theaters to draw customers and increasingly become a one-stop entertainment option for a night out," says Loria.
Adult beverages go upscale
Alcohol sales have become the hot concession, with trade publication The Hollywood Reporter calling booze "the new popcorn" — the result of 32 states relaxing restrictions on serving alcohol in theaters over the past two years.
The drinks have gone next-level innovative: The Heisenberg Liquor Infusion Tower blew steam into iPic theaters in January, using liquid nitrogen to flavor exotic cocktails with fresh fruits.
Cinépolis USA has seen up to 5% growth year-over-year with alcohol sales, which are expected to make up 28% of its food and beverage sales in 2017. The group unveiled its Cinépolis Rose wine this summer, an extension of its private wine label (slogan: “Sit back. Relax. Escape”).
Seven full-liquor Cinépolis theaters will serve a color-appropriate Wonder Woman blue martini (with red raspberries) around the film's June 2 release, part of the rise of blockbuster-themed cocktails.
AMC theaters will show off The Gauntlet cocktail for Wonder Woman (vodka, grenadine, house-made lemonade and Blue Curacao) and the Banana Hammock for Baywatch (banana rum, pineapple juice, Sprite).
The tentpoles are tied to specially-brewed beer, too. Flix Brewhouse, the brewery cinema chain based in Round Rock, Texas, is selling a Groot-inspired Flora Colossus beer for Guardians 2, a double IPA with plenty of plant hops.
"Alcohol is a new, increasingly visible dimension in the moviegoing experience," says Loria. "It's appealing to adult moviegoers and highly profitable."
Virtual reality is a moviegoing reality
Ahead of The Mummy (in theaters June 9), there's the Mummy Zero Gravity Stunt VR Experience, which virtually takes participants along with Tom Cruise on the zero-g flight seen in the movie's audacious plane action sequence. It's been a promotional hit at events like South by Southwest festival and CinemaCon, the national convention for theater owners, and will open to the public at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York starting Memorial Day weekend.
Regal Theaters in 15 cities will host kiosks featuring Alien: Covenant In Utero, a new VR experience that gives a terrifying 360-degree view of the birth of the killer creature from director Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant (May 19).
IMAX opened its first standalone VR Experience Centre in L.A. in January, offering immersive VR experiences built around movie franchises such as John Wick and Star Wars. These IMAX VR centers are headed to three cinema complexes (two in New York, one in L.A.) in 2017, with plans for five internationally in the works.
The tie-in is more powerful when the experience features upcoming releases. IMAX is working on VR experiences around future behemoths such as Justice League (in theaters Nov. 17) and Aquaman (Dec. 21, 2018).
"It's the next big. This is truly immersive," says Bock. "Importantly, it's something that excites millennials. Getting them off their phones (and) into theaters is key moving forward."
Event nights provide a big lift to attendance
With niche specialties ranging from live theater performances (The Met Opera: Live series), a partnership with TCM Classics for movie revivals, sporting events and anniversary releases (Dirty Dancing's 30th), Fathom Events is quietly growing into a serious player.
Fathom put on 131 unique events in theaters in 2016 (up from 2013's 55), seeing revenue grow from $36.4 million to $55.3 million and attendance rise from 2.1 million to 3.6 million.
Already in 2017, Fathom has hosted 14 million-dollar events — matching 2016's total and making Fathom the country's 12th largest distributor, according to comScore.
"It's like 'Holy cow, these numbers are huge.' They are a growing force to be reckoned with," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, who points out that many events are on weeknights, which are slow evenings in theaters. "It's a niche market, but a powerful one with limited supply and a lot of demand."
Convenient ticket purchasing
Online ticket sales are following the audience to mobile devices via apps such as industry leader Fandango (70% of its sales are on mobile devices) and Atom Tickets (which allows users to poll friends on movie selections and pre-purchase snacks at the theater).
Fandango is pushing forward with voice-enabled ticket purchasing on every platform (from Facebook Messenger bots to Amazon's Alexa), executives said Tuesday at San Francisco's SuperBot conference.
The platform even offers "worry-free" ticketing, which allows for a full refund on advance tickets right up to showtime.
Apps allow assigned seating, taking the unknowns out of the movie equation. "People want to sit in the seats they want to sit in," says Bock.
Of all the theater amenities, Peele finds this the most alluring.
"I like this," says the "app-oriented" actor and filmmaker "It's nice to go and not have to jockey for position, so having the seats in advance is key. That and caramel corn, if I can get it."