Best in Class: Luxury Cinemas in the U.S. Come with an International Twist

Among all the trends in exhibition today, the luxury cinema stands out as perhaps the most alluring for moviegoers. While the surge of private-label premium large format (PLF) auditoriums has helped bring top-of-the-line amenities—such as premium seating, alcohol service, expanded concessions, and the latest sound and image technology—to audiences around the country, there remains a class of cinema that caters to an upscale demographic by definition. In an interview with Boxoffice earlier this year, Kinepolis CEO Eddy Duquenne neatly summed up the nature of this category. “In many theaters, the key differentiator is content, but each customer group has different expectations when it comes to guest experience,” he said. “We have customers who are interested in champagne and oyster bars, [we have] the so-called ‘popcorn lovers,’ and between those two there is a wide range of possible experiences we can offer.” There has been a lot of activity in North America when it comes to the high end of that model, Duquenne’s “champagne and oysters” crowd, and specialized circuits have emerged as exemplars of the ultra-upscale cinema experience.

iPic is perhaps the player that has claimed this space most prominently. Operating 121 screens across 16 locations in the U.S., including 10 that feature restaurants, iPic has marketed itself as a circuit offering a premier experience for those who don’t mind spending the extra money on a ticket. iPic has played an important role in helping the luxury cinema concept take off in the United States, and consumers have taken note—there are currently five more locations under construction according to the company, with even more sites in earlier stages of development. Two major global circuits are among the company’s largest shareholders—U.S.-based Regal Cinemas and Australia’s Village Roadshow—and the recent announcement of its intention to file an initial public offering drew additional interest from another influential chain. PVR Limited, the largest circuit in India, entered an agreement to acquire a minority stake in iPic shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday. There is, to put it mildly, a wave of momentum in the luxury cinema concept—and iPic’s success with consumers has been a big part of identifying this opportunity.

Other major global circuits have paid attention and decided to use the luxury cinema concept as their market-entry strategy in the United States. Mexico’s Cinemex, one of the two top players in its home market and one of the world’s largest circuits, made headlines when its first U.S. location opened in Miami in April 2017. The U.S. part of the circuit, branded CMX for marketing purposes, intends to offer a best-in-class experience across all its locations.

“The way we see it, people need to be offered an experience in order to put down their iPhones and leave the house,” says CMX managing director Luis Castelazo. “Our idea is to offer them something that they aren’t able to have at home—a full experience with really nice recliners, great food, great drinks, and great service, somewhere you can be pampered, basically a one-stop shop; you can come here and watch a movie, have dinner, and stay at our bar to enjoy a drink while watching a game. It’s a one-stop entertainment destination.”

The CMX Brickell City Centre location in Miami was designed with that one-stop idea in mind. The theater’s lobby looks more like a high-end hotel than a cinema, a full-service restaurant that has proven popular with the area’s business-lunch crowd, and an adjoining bar that hosts a DJ on Friday and Saturday nights. In fact, the location’s bar has proven so popular during sporting events that the cinema has decided to spin it off as an independent sports bar connected to the cinema. Its 10 screens all feature laser projection and premium seating complete with complimentary blankets and service call buttons. Each auditorium was designed to minimize the presence of wait staff—there are no scuttling team members balancing trays of food across any given row.

For some moviegoers, however, the idea of watching a film while smelling someone else’s food doesn’t translate to an upscale experience. The dine-in concept is therefore by no means a must-have amenity for luxury cinemas, as evidenced by the new Landmark Cinemas locations in New York City and Miami. While those locations do offer expanded food menus, their prime food and beverage focus is on the bar—beautifully designed, chic cocktail lounges—in addition to all the other comforts and amenities audiences have come to expect.

The one-stop-destination concept has gained significant traction in recent years as exhibitors move beyond the days of arcade games and assorted vending. From bowling alleys to bars and restaurants, these concepts have been embraced by the industry at large. It’s at the heart of what South Korea’s CJ CGV chain calls the “Cultureplex” philosophy, expanding the role of the cinema into a cultural center of every community. It’s an application that extends to multiplexes, single-screen independent cinemas, and everyone in between: the cinema as a social hub.

Cineplex, Canada’s leading circuit, has taken a similar approach. Apart from offering its own brand of top-of-the-line VIP cinemas, the circuit has expanded its scope in rolling out its Rec Room concept, what they describe as “social playground” event spaces that feature VR-equipped gaming centers, restaurants, and private meeting spaces—not too dissimilar from the business-casual luxuries found on the campuses of the world’s top tech companies.

Like CMX, CJ CGV ranks as one of the world’s leading cinema circuits. The South Korean company opened its flagship U.S. location in Buena Park, California, earlier this year under its “Cultureplex” philosophy—bringing its own brand of the luxury cinema experience to a locale with a big Asian and Asian American population. The formula has yielded strong early results, and CJ CGV is now planning its next Cultureplex location in New York City. Interestingly enough, the company announced that the New York location, its first on the East Coast and third so far in the U.S., will be across the bridge from the glittering lights of Manhattan. The new 34,000-square-foot multiplex will be situated in a new complex in downtown Flushing, in Queens, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods with a booming Asian and Asian American population. It will be the first new cinema to open in Flushing in 30 years, according to the company.

The parallels between CJ CGV and CMX—two major global players entering the U.S. market with an upscale, one-stop concept—are compelling, mostly in that they both opened their first flagship locations in a familiar demographic. “Miami is the Latin American capital of the world. It was a natural spot for us to enter the United States; it’s a similar market to the one we already know, so it was a small transition,” says CMX’s Castelazo. “Now that we have opened and successfully operated this location, we feel ready to enter the rest of the country.”

CMX has stuck to its word. The chain has expanded rapidly in the United States this year, acquiring four locations from luxury cinema competitor Paragon Theatres and announcing its acquisition of the Cobb Theatres circuit in October. The Cobb acquisition launches CMX as one of the 10 biggest circuits in the United States—a feat accomplished only six months after opening its first U.S. location. And CMX has plans in place for new theaters in New Jersey, Illinois, Chicago, and New York City.

When comparing their new U.S. sites to Cinemex’s existing VIP locations in Mexico, Castelazo points out that the circuit’s activities north of the border are part of an ambitious plan for the company. “This is even more VIP than anything we have ever done in Mexico,” he says, specifically noting the marble bar at the Miami cinema. “The idea is to continue building these sorts of cinemas across the United States.”

Daniel Loria

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