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Are Movie Theaters Making a Comeback?

A host of deluxe theaters and boutique indie cinemas are aiming to make movie-watching a shared social experience again.

By Michele Laufik January 25, 2017, 7:00 AM EST

Nitehawk Cinema’s three theaters are available for private rental Mondays through Thursdays. Pricing starts at $750 for the 34-seat theater, plus food and beverage charges.

Photo: Gabi Porter

The Oscar nominations were announced Tuesday. But how many folks actually saw the awards contenders on the big screen?

As popular online streaming services such as Netflix and movie piracy issues continue to negatively impact ticket sales, brick-and-mortar movie theaters are being forced to step up their game, coaxing viewers out of their homes with added perks like waiter service and upscale concessions.

“I was familiar with the cinema eatery concept from other parts of the country and love having those creature comforts combined with watching interesting cinema. It just made for a fuller experience in my opinion,” says Nitehawk Cinema founder Matthew Viragh.

Established in 2011 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Nitehawk ushered in the dine-in theater trend in the city; in order to open, Viragh lobbied state officials to repeal a Prohibition-era law that barred the sale of alcohol in movie theaters.

Since 2011, several New York venues have followed suit, designing homey experiences for local crowds with artisanal eats, custom cocktails, and curated programming. The Syndicated opened in January 2016 in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood with a restaurant and bar (it will host a ticketed Oscars-viewing party next month); the Metrograph, which opened in March 2016 in Chinatown, includes a full-service restaurant, a bar, and a bookstore that can be used for events; and the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn, which opened in October, is the first New York City location for the Austin-based chain. Plus, Nitehawk will be opening a second location, taking over Park Slope’s old Pavilion Theater in the fall of 2017.

“We literally have something for everyone—from a casual cinephile to 35 millimeter purists and film buffs to hand-crafted cocktails to a Miller High Life. We cater to a wide range of tastes, but our main focus is being an exceptional resource for our neighborhood,“ Viragh says. “Park Slope can expect the same dine-in concept as Nitehawk Williamsburg, same vibe, and diverse mix of repertory and first-run programming, including more family-friendly programming.”

In addition to smaller cinemas, luxury chains such as iPic theaters continue to expand, providing a similar feels-like-home vibe but on a larger scale at a slightly higher price. There, guests can purchase premium levels of service that include courtesy pillows, blankets, and unlimited popcorn, as well as “dining in the dark” menu items that are designed to be eaten quietly without utensils such as chicken Caesar salad served in a romaine lettuce leaf, sliders, and ice cream sandwiches. Reclining seats and personal pods feature sound-absorbing technology, call buttons to summon “ninja-like” servers during showtime, and built-in cubbyholes for stashing shoes and bags.

iPic Entertainment, which is based in Boca Raton, Florida, currently operates theaters in 15 locations, including Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Chicago, and Seattle. Tickets at the Fulton Market location in New York cost $16 for premium seating and $28 for premium plus seating, but pricing varies by location. The state-of-the-art auditoriums are also available to rent for corporate presentations, special occasions, and more.

While these theaters offer fancy grub and hand-crafted libations, some are trying to attract moviegoers with more high-tech bells and whistles—like indoor snowstorms. CJ 4DPLEX, the world’s first 4-D cinema company, offers an immersive movie experience with motion seats and environmental effects, such as wind, water, lightning, bubbles, and more. It’s like “an extremely smooth and subtle amusement park ride,” explains the company's C.O.O. Brandon Choi.

The Seoul, South Korea-based company works with big-name studios like Disney, Warner Bros., and Sony, as well as independent studios, to incorporate synchronized effects with viewings of major tentpole films, going beyond the usual audio and video. In addition to numerous international locations, CJ 4DPLEX currently operates at movie complexes in Los Angeles; New York; Gurnee, Illinois (outside of Chicago); Buena Park, California; and Toronto, and will soon open theaters in Orlando, Seattle, and Pico Rivera and Carlsbad, California. (Tickets for 4DX movies cost $28.75 at the Regal E-Walk Stadium 13 in New York.)

“The main driving factor behind the technology was to bring people back to the cinemas and away from their couches,” Choi says. “It's not something you can replicate at home.”

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