We’ll Always Love Movies. But Will We Love Movie Theaters?

Can luxury and tech upgrades rescue movie theater brands from oblivion?

On the afternoon before the Oscars, I was sitting in the AMC River East Theater on Illinois St. wondering if I was sitting in what was about to be a relic.

After all, my wife and I had just paid about $22 for two tickets before popcorn and drinks. With a small bag and shareable Coke, we were looking at close to $30. I could only imagine what the expenses would be for a family of 4 in an economy like this.

In that context, the brand of the traditional movie theater, the status quo, is no longer a practical option. There is only one way to go – up. As in a very upgraded luxury experience and in turn, luxury brand.

There was a time not so long ago that movie theaters with all the bells and whistles were considered above and beyond the standard. Loveseats. Restaurants in the same theater complex. Valet parking. Gourmet food delivered to your seat by waiter. Beer and wine selections. The ability to actually choose your seat by touch screen. Now, I believe the era has shifted to where, if movie theaters are to survive at all, they have to live by the mantra:

Go Luxury or Die.

The above items will not be “nice-to-haves” but “must-haves” in order for theaters to be a justifiable expense. The notion of Premier seating will go away in favor of all seating being that way. The price of admission in this category is going to be built on who can be the most supremely innovative and entertaining before, during and after the movie.

Remember, beyond economical challenges, people have technological advantages they didn’t have before. They can build their basements into Man Caves with deluxe speaker systems and a 50″ LED TV so that the picture and sound quality is amazing. When you have that kind of setup, who cares if they don’t see “Moneyball” in the first week it’s released when they can wait a few months to get it on Pay-Per-View for a lot less? And they can watch it in the privacy of their own home rather than deal with the jerkwad kicking their seats and talking loudly behind them.

This is why shifting downward as some theaters have, intentional or not, is not really a strong option. Paying a buck to see a movie long out of the theaters is cute once in a while at best and not sustainable. If you’re going to spend 2 hours out of your life watching something, not completely sure if that something is going to be any good, you at least want everything else to be pleasurable. Not sticky floors, cramped seating and a general experience that makes you want to shower afterwards.

It seems almost sad when you think about it. The Drive-In was a big part of my moviegoing experience growing up, but those are few and far between now. Will we be referring to movie theaters overall in the same way as technology innovates upon what is already a movie-quality experience at home? Perhaps. But to me, the way  for AMC and other chains to survive and grow their brands further is to create what people can’t get at home.

That’s why I’m very curious to see how Florida-based Muvico will further expand.  Five years ago, the chain of luxury theaters opened one of its first locations outside of the Sunshine State with an 18-screen location in Rosemont, complete with a full-service bar and restaurant. Having lived in Florida for a number of years, I can say the Muvico experience at the Premier level was definitely one that made me feel that it was money well spent. Why? Mainly because it has all the luxury aspects I mentioned above built-in.

So often, the assumed place to go for brand categories in a state of flux is to go downward by discounting. You’d probably assume the case here too given how people have little to no extra spending money for leisure. But discounting or even the status quo isn’t the long-term answer for theater chains. It’s about going all out to give people noteworthy things to write about and share across social media channels like Yelp. Sure, some will still consider these features overpriced. But isn’t the status quo of theaters without them overpriced anyway? If we’re going to spend more than we wanted to, shouldn’t we get more out of it?

Hoping Hollywood to upgrade its content to provide us better quality movies for the buck rather than churning out more sequels isn’t the answer. If we keep shelling out money to see Transformers 17, they’ll keep making them. No, the answer lies in hoping theaters do the upgrades.

The bar needs to be raised to the highest standard of where the theater experience is re-imagined, with the brand that wins realizing luxury and technology is the best ticket to success they can buy at this point.

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