Cinema eateries comprise an estimated 3,200 screens, fewer than 1 percent of the nation's 39,500. Despite this, from boutique operations such as Movie Tavern to AMC's Fork & Screen offerings at selected theaters across the country, eateries are the fastest-growing sector in movie exhibition.
In the 1950s, exhibitors wooed Americans away from their televisions by retrofitting movie theaters with panoramic screens, stereophonic sound, and air-conditioning.
Today, says John Hersker, president and chief executive officer of Dallas-headquartered Movie Tavern, "we see the rise of the home screen, and our challenge is to provide moviegoers reasons to leave home."
"People like to go out," he says, "but they want to make a good investment of time and money." Movie Tavern patrons are encouraged to arrive 30 minutes before the film starts to get their orders in.
At Movie Tavern, "dinner and a movie is a 21/2-hour experience rather than a four-hour experience," Hersker says. And the moviegoer on a schedule gets something more substantial to eat than a bag of popcorn.
At venues such as Movie Tavern and AMC Bridgewater Commons in North Jersey, multitaskers can indulge in multipleasures: a movie, a meal, a drink.
At Bridgewater, AMC's nearest cinema eatery to Philadelphia, moviegoers must be at least 18 to buy a ticket (a weekend evening ducat costs $12, plus a $1 surcharge) to AMC's Fork & Screen amenity. Says AMC spokesman Ryan Noonan, "In customer polls, more than 90 percent of our guests say it's met or exceeded their expectations."
During the last year, AMC, the nation's second-largest movie chain, has opened five cinema eateries.
"We cater to adults but are family-friendly," says Movie Tavern's Hersker. At his bistroplex, moviegoers younger than 17 must be accompanied by a parent or another adult. A weekend adult ticket is $10, there's no surcharge, and the moviegoer is not obligated to buy food to enjoy the roomy seats and wall-to-wall screens.
The menu at the Collegeville Tavern is casual eclectic: pizzas and burgers, salads and fruit-and-cheese platters, panini and wraps, quesadillas, wings, and, of course, popcorn. Prices range from $6 to $10. Should a moviegoer get hungry or thirsty during the movie, the tray has a call button for the waiter to come and take the order.
On the Yelp.com sites for Movie Tavern's operation in Columbus, Ohio, there are no complaints about food service interfering with the film. "Our servers are trained to be unobtrusive," Hersker says.
There is a full bar, with wine by the glass or the bottle. "When Sex and the City 2 showed at one of our locations last year," says Hersker, "we sold more Cosmopolitans that first weekend than in the first five months of the year."
Hersker, 53, a Hazleton, Pa., native and fourth-generation movie exhibitor who once managed the Bryn Mawr, has seen theaters flourish despite death threats from television in the '50s, videos in the '80s, and On Demand today.
"People want the social experience. As long as we enhance that experience, people will come for it," he says.
Stan Durwood, the late AMC executive who invented the multiplex, famously said, "People still go to restaurants though everyone has a kitchen at home." This latest generation of theater is founded on the premise that people will go to cinema eateries though everyone has a home screen and kitchen.
When will a Movie Tavern, AMC Fork & Screen, or Regal Cinemas Cinebarre come to your neighborhood? AMC's Noonan declined to comment on his company's plans. Says Hersker, "We're looking for other opportunities in the region."
An Early Taste
An opening celebration will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Movie Tavern, Providence Town Center, 140 Market St., Collegeville. Guests can sample the menu, hear country music, and qualify for movie-themed giveaways. Backpacks will be collected for children in foster care. For information, go to www.movietavern.com
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/flickgrrl/