SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Imagine a movie and a mimosa, or maybe some wine or even craft beer, with appetizers served while sitting in a heated seat reclined for a comfy feel with your feet up. Ahh, the leisure of watching movies on the big screen TV in your own home, right?
It’s more like the vision of what’s coming to the movie theater at the South County Commons. Now known as All South County Cinemas and under new management in the last few months, it promises the “experience” of going to a theater rather than just dropping in for a show, says co-owner Bill Dougherty.
Indeed, he may be right.
He’s bringing to South County what he and partner Harold Blank have put up in Mystic — the “luxury cinema.” It has been taking hold in the last several years across the country as even before COVID, movie houses grappled with streaming options that have taken people away from movie theaters.
The pressure is on for cinemas to compete against streaming platforms like Amazon, Netflix, Apple TV+, HBO Max and Disney+, all of which are spending billions on original content to be watched in the home or on the go, according to Bisnow Media and other industry analysts.
“I want this to be an experience of going to the theater,” Dougherty told The Independent. It will be more than just cramming into side-by-side seats, choking down some soda or water when elbow room is possible and chomping on some popcorn.
By the first part of 2022, he said, he hopes to cut the total 1,300 seating capacity – that the pandemic and streaming has often left much of it empty – to about 500, but attractive amenities and pricing that will make the operation profitable.
Yes, he and partner Blank have done that in Mystic with the lumbar-heated reclining seats, alcohol for those over 21, various food offerings, online ticket purchasing and reserved seating into a future dates and kiosk-style check-ins.
Of course, a regular box office will still be available for the spur-of-the-moment drop-by patrons.
This is an effort to combat the difficult times that have fallen on the theater industry and former operators Entertainment Cinemas 8 found during the pandemic. The company chose not to renew its lease, Dougherty said.
According to Forbes magazine, domestic ticket sales in the U.S. were down 80% in 2020 to $2.2 billion from $11.4 billion in 2019, with a similar drop not happening since the early 1980s.
Some theater operators, such as Allan Reagan, leader of the Flix Brewhouse chain of dine-in cinemas, think that a 15% to 25% drop-off might be permanent, the magazine reported.
Even with a 2022 uplift for movie theaters, Amazon Prime Video service has become a major player for the at-home streaming wars with a growing collection of original films and series.
Picking up a chain of theaters to cover out-of-home viewing is a good hedge in case market trends swing the other direction and post-pandemic audiences flock to out-of-home venues to be part of their communities again, the analysis offered.
It also pointed to a concept that Dougherty thinks will gain traction in his South Kingstown theaters serving the wide South County area: They have potential to grow business by becoming go-to destination points because they have comfortable heated recliners, alcohol service and a wider selection of food along with the entertainment.
In addition, he confirmed that other creative uses of some theater space add to that attraction off the big screen. It could include replacing traditional seating in the front with couches and bean bag chairs to provide a more casual experience and potentially renting a viewing area for private groups or parties.
The Luxury Trend
Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners, offered in one report that moviegoers have been increasingly interested in luxury movie theaters, and that this new style of cinema has broad appeal.
Corcoran said that, as theaters began to add things like luxury recliners, they were seeing upwards of 80 percent more attendance. That’s a bet that Dougherty said he is making with the changes at the South Kingstown theater.
Bisnow Media reported that the premium theater sector has taken off in popularity. Companies like Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Studio Movie Grill, ArcLight Cinemas, iPic and Showcase Cinemas are among the premium movie providers popping up in new or repositioned retail centers.
Nearly 30% of all malls in the U.S., according to the report, have added a movie theater just two years ago, but before the pandemic put its tight grip keeping theater doors shut.
Luxury theaters can help bring more foot traffic to a shopping center – like South County Commons – during other parts of the year beyond the holiday shopping season, the International Council of Shopping Centers found in an August 2019 report on entertainment tenants’ impact on retail.
Even five years ago this increasing luxury movie experience gained more steam in a transition that happened years ago to coffee shops with Starbucks and others offer more than just a cup of joe with or without cream and sugar.
Boxofficepro website noted that as buying a cup of coffee today is different than it was 15 years ago, theater owners around the nation are investing large sums to transform the cinema-going experience.
That is right up Dougherty’s alley. He said that he also wants to bring certain kinds of recorded television performances, plays, concerts and other non-traditional screen fare usually found either in a live-streaming app, a real-time show or on television.
To complement this idea, he wants a new look.
“This theater,” Dougherty said about the movie house he co-owns at South County Commons, “has been there for 20 years and it looks a little tired.”
A theater owner and operator for more than 40 years, he knows this means more than just an aesthetic update. It needs a business model that polishes the style and improves the service to the community in keeping up with industry changes, he said.
“One of the things I want to do is bring the community back into the theater,” he said, adding, “It is so important to have a community theater.”