Monday, November 19, 2012

Dinner with a Movie: Thoughts on new Cinépolis theaters...

As I mentioned in my last Skyfall essay, one of the reasons my wife and I ended up seeing Skyfall the other night (her first viewing, my second) was to try out a new Cinépolis theater that just opened relatively near us. The gimmick behind this somewhat new chain is simple: It's a movie theater with extra-large reclining leather chairs and a full-service dining menu and a wait staff that tends to your needs during the picture.  It's been in its current 'VIP' form in Mexico since 1999 and has quickly made its debut in California over the last year or so.  It's not the first of its kind to open as Gold Class Cinemas has been operating in Pasadena since December 2009.  I was actually planning on making a trip down there back when it opened but life got in the way (my daughter had the 'stay home from school sniffles' pretty much the entire holiday break period).  After David Poland panned the place I lost enthusiasm for trying it.  Three years later, with a new chain and a location almost right next door, I finally got a crack at what amounts to 'dinner with a movie'.  The verdict?  Well, it's a gorgeous theater and the chairs as comfortable as all heck.  I wish the screen was a little bigger, but the projection and sound were flawless and once again I was reminded of how blindly beautiful The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looks while trying to gin up interest in actually seeing it.  And the food is actually pretty good, although a bit overpriced even by movie theater standards.  But the experience feels less like actually seeing a film in a theater and more like the very best possible variation of watching a film at home.

First and foremost, the fact that I was viewing a film that I had seen before somewhat changed the experience.  Ordering a meal and eating said meal takes up your attention in obvious ways that blindly sticking your hand into a bag of popcorn does not.  Since I had already seen Skyfall, I was less concerned about looking away from the screen at a pivotal moment.  But if we return to this theater for a first-time viewing of something, say Jack Reacher or The Gangster Squad, that I haven't seen before, how will the distraction of full-service dining affect the film-going experience?  I was certainly aware of a certain distraction this time around.  The food arrived right during the initial action sequence and I was barely paying attention to the train fight as I arranged my chicken tenders (delicious, but twice the price of AMC's equally delicious chicken strips) and chicken Cesar pita (not bad, I've had much better elsewhere) for consumption.  Even the chocolate-drizzled kettle corn that we ordered after the first act was a distraction, as it arrived not in a bucket but in a thin container that resembled a large whine glass.  It looks pretty and it's perhaps the best chocolate popcorn I've ever tasted, but it's v-shape makes it not terribly safe for just putting it on the floor and out of your line of sight.  My wife's rather large cheese/cracker plate was arguably more appropriate snacking food, as it just came on a plate that could be comfortably placed on the tray.

Since neither of us drink, we cannot speak to the experience of watching Skyfall while drunk in our 21-and-over auditorium.  As mentioned above, the food is pretty good and I'm exceptionally curious to try the steak next time, both out of culinary curiosity and to see how eating a knife-and-fork type meal affects the movie-going experience.  By coincidence, all of our food choices were basically finger-food, although the pita fell apart more than it should have, so I'm sure eating a full-blown meal will affect the experience even more.  The question becomes what kind of moviegoer are you?  Do you go to movies purely as a casual entertainment and/or social call?  Or are you a filmgoer who views film as something to be explicitly *watched*  with minimal distractions?  That isolated feeling you get when sitting in the dark in a pitch-black, mostly silent theater on Friday night?  I didn't get that here.  There is perhaps unavoidably a certain disconnect between yourself and the film playing in front of you.  There is a reason, however unfair to the actors and crew, that dinner theater is often used as a punchline or considered a lesser form of stage theatrics.  When you're eating the kind of food that requires attention, you're not paying attention to the screen.  On a side note, I can't even imagine the logistics of watching a 3D movie in such an auditorium, but I don't see that happening. My wife doesn't like 3D and I only take my daughter to 3D movies for press screenings where 2D isn't available.

There is a genuine trade-off occurring here.  The seats are incredibly comfortable and the food is mostly pretty darn good, if a bit overpriced (we had chicken tenders, a pita, a cheese plate, popcorn, and two drinks and paid around $75 including tax and tip).  Our tickets cost $20 a pop but you're merely paying for the comfort upgrade and it's no more expensive than splurging for that IMAX up-charge which I'm all too happy to do when the occasion arises.  But I lost the sense of immersion that a conventional theater gives you.  You won't lose yourself in the film and you certainly won't have what Ebert likes to call an 'out of body experience'.  It's more akin to watching a film on your giant HDTV on your own comfy couches, except someone gets your snacks for you and you don't have to clean up.  Unlike other distractions, such as having a kid on your lap, the idea of constantly looking away from the screen for a few seconds here and a few seconds there really does interrupt the flow of the movie going experience.  But once you've put the food away and concentrated on the film, it really is enjoyable watching a first-run film in a theater in a relaxing recliner in a theater free of the kind of moviegoers who have made the normal theater-going experience so unpredictable for the masses (IE - no cell phones or chatty patrons).  If you're paying for the comfort and don't gorge during the movie, I'd argue that the distraction is probably minimal.

But here's the rub: my wife vastly preferred it to a conventional experience, which may by default make it worth recommending.  Said spouse has mostly soured on the theatrical experience, with the pain of finding convenient babysitters and hoping that the audience wouldn't be disruptive.  Even the press screenings, with their weeknight during rush hour start times far away from Woodland Hills, were a chore with both parents in attendance, to the point where we passed last month on a Tuesday press screening of something we really wanted to see (Flight) and instead paid for Thursday night-at 8pm showing at the much closer and more convenient Arclight Sherman Oaks.  But she frankly loved this theater, to the point where it has reawakened her enjoyment of the theatrical viewing experience.  She's spent the last 36 hours asking me what films might be playing there over the next month that we could see with her parents or various friends.  For her, someone who prefers watching movies at home, it's the best of both worlds: at-home comfort, mostly fine dining (since we don't always have time for dinner *and* a movie on date nights), with the big-screen theatrical experience that I still crave above all else.  That by itself may make it among my favorite theaters.  In the last few years I can count the number of times I've gone to the movies with my wife on two hands.  She had pretty much given up what she found to be a relatively cumbersome and not always pleasant experience.  If Cinépolis solves that problem, then I can live with a little fork-and-knife distraction in an otherwise top-notch theater.

Scott Mendelson


Matt from Phoenix said...

There used to a be a similar theater in Minneapolis that was also a second run theater (could still be there for all I know). Pay a couple of bucks to see a movie, and then you had your choice of handful of theatre style recliner seats up front or round table and swivel chairs at the back (it was a small theater).

My experience first time out pretty well reflects yours -- the disconnect between watching a film and eating. Once I "got" what this theater experience was, I enjoyed it much more, akin to a guilty pleasure.

However - I found I only watched movies there that I wasn't all that vested in, and that probably didn't take much emotional involvement to follow. So it was more "America's Sweethearts" and "Legally Blond" than a stirring drama (and those were the movies I saw there, showing how dated this experience is).

I've not been to any of the more modern set ups - AMC has one near the Biltmore in Phoenix. Sounds like a perfect idea for a date or an evening out with family.

Steve Barel said...

This is an awesome experienced. Movie time.


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