Opening Night at the Eat-O-Plex

Opening Night at the Eat-O-Plex

Can pizza and beer save the movies?

It’s Friday night at the Parkway Speakeasy Theater in Oakland, California, and we’re eating dinner while watching the movie Grindhouse. Yes, that’s right, dinner. Baba ghanoush, a burger, and beer delivered right to our seats on a lumpy old couch. Our fellow movie-goers are mostly tattooed twentysomethings, and it sort of feels like we’re in a friend’s living room.

If a new trend born in Texas takes off, funky little cinema-eateries like the Parkway may become a thing of the past. Recently, a flashy new breed of combo restaurant-theaters where you can eat in your seat has emerged from the Lone Star State and may be coming soon to your hometown. These are multiscreen operations showing first-run films and offering food like that of the casual-dining restaurant chains popular throughout most of the country: chicken fingers; big, sweet cocktails; pizza; and burgers. Call it the rise of the eat-o-plex: This theater-dinner concept is being hailed by many in the movie-exhibition industry as a way to lure customers away from their home theaters and DVDs. And a way to get them to spend more when they do come in.

“The food business is a potentially profitable one, but the film business is stuck with a lot of movies that don’t play very well after the first weekend,” says Ross Melnick, a movie theater historian who runs the blog Cinema Treasures. “They’re counting on the people who buy food to boost their bottom lines.”

But though the eat-o-plexes may be aiming for the mainstream, this business model is inescapably funky. Operating a restaurant and a movie theater at the same time is about as easy as, well, eating in the dark.

Texas: Ground Zero for the Eat-O-Plex

Today, there are more than 20 different cinema-eateries in Texas, run by three different companies. The best known, Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, was started in Austin in 1997 by a couple named Karrie and Tim League, who built a following among film buffs by doing things like inviting Quentin Tarantino to screen his favorite movies. Three more Alamos opened in Austin. The food is well-done pub grub that you order from servers at your seat and eat at little tables that extend in front of you. There’s an extensive selection of draft beers and wine, too.

Despite Alamo’s early success, the larger moneymaking potential of cinema-eateries wasn’t obvious until 1998, when another Texas outfit, Studio Movie Grill, became the first theater-restaurant combo to get the rights to show a first-run film (The Waterboy).

“The studios wanted their movie to be the reason people came, and the main point of attention [rather than something to compete with the food],” says Patrick Corcoran, research director for the trade group the National Association of Theatre Owners. “But [the film] did very well, so more started doing it.”

Another competitor, Movie Tavern, entered the fray. In 2004, the Leagues got out of the business of running Alamo (though they still own and operate the Austin theaters), and the new ownership franchised the concept across Texas, with plans to go national.

A Bad Buddy Movie

Managing an eat-o-plex means running two tough businesses seemingly at odds. Servers dash through the theater blocking the screen, balancing martinis, and trying to remember viewers’ food allergies as bombs explode on the screen in front of them. People don’t want to hear the clanking of silverware, so anything requiring extensive knife-and-fork action isn’t ideal.

Then there’s the issue of lighting. Kevin Spitzer of Seattle-based indie Central Cinema notes that in Washington state, the law mandates that any drinking establishment must keep its lights at a certain level of brightness. If it’s too dark, underage drinking becomes an issue. Nobody likes to watch a movie with the lights on, but then again, eating in the dark has its detractors too.

“Ahi tuna salad dropped off our menu,” says John Martin, the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse. “I think customers have trepidation about having things they’d rather see in a well-lit restaurant.”

As a result, some cinema-eateries are dark like a normal theater, others are a little lit. Just like their patrons:

“A lot of distracting bottle clanking and ice bucket racket starts emanating from their area after awhile,” wrote Houston Press food writer Robb Walsh after visiting Alamo Drafthouse in 2004. “And they start laughing a lot louder, too.”

Flow in the kitchen can be a nightmare. The line gets slammed all at once, right as the movie starts. Movie Tavern’s kitchens get 75 percent of their roughly 1,000 Saturday night orders right at 7 p.m., says owner Jeff Benson. And if you told most restaurant managers that they had to watch over seven rooms without being able to see the floor, they’d probably laugh in your face.

To cope, theaters encourage diners to arrive 20 to 30 minutes early to place their orders, and some, like Alamo Drafthouse, offer special preshow entertainment like old cartoons or shorts from local filmmakers to sweeten the deal. To make service more unobtrusive, Alamo has diners write down what they want on a slip of paper and attach it to a clip in front of them that servers spot as they roam the aisles. Movie Tavern has diners push a light-up button, as if they’re on an airplane. But it’s still distracting.

Cliff-hanger

Despite the increased costs of running a restaurant, such as renovations (often a screening room is converted into a kitchen), ingredients, higher insurance and energy bills, and more employees, serving dinner is an attractive idea for theaters.

After all, they make most of their money off concessions, not ticket sales. During the opening week of a first-run film, a theater typically has to pay the distributor between 70 and 90 percent of the money it makes off tickets. (The percentage goes down each subsequent week, but so do audience numbers.) That’s why normal theaters charge so much for popcorn and Coke.

But eat-o-plexes aren’t involved in price gouging: They charge about what you’d expect from a T.G.I. Friday’s or Chili’s restaurant, an average of nine bucks for an entrée. The companies are privately held and won’t reveal how big their margins are on food sales.

The established national theater chains are watching the eat-o-plexes carefully, and some are even testing the model in pilot programs. Regal Entertainment Group has invested in Cinebarre, a chain of eat-o-plexes being developed by a former CEO of Alamo Drafthouse. The first is slated to open in Asheville, North Carolina, this summer, with plans for national expansion.

Likewise, National Amusements, the theater company run by media mogul Sumner Redstone’s daughter, Shari Redstone, is offering customers who pay a bit more the opportunity to eat things like beef Wellington in their movie seats at a few of its Bridge theaters. Then there are future plans for fancier “VIP” combo dining room–screening rooms that have private entrances and tables. At AMC’s Premium 1 cinema in Framingham, Massachusetts, there’s an over-21 auditorium with cocktail service.

Though cinema-eateries seem like a natural venue in which to capitalize on America’s infatuation with all things gourmet, most are sticking to the mass-market model established by the Texan eat-o-plexes. A study done by Cinebarre revealed that 83 percent of movie-goers eat a meal at a restaurant one hour before or after a film. But, says Cinebarre CEO Terrell Braly, “It doesn’t mean, ‘Let’s go to Chez This or Chez That.’ They are instead going to the cool neighborhood pizza place.”

Just keep your fingers crossed that the guy next to you doesn’t order anchovies.