When the executive management of CinéBistro, opening in Cary's Waverly Place shopping center this fall, says it's the kind of theater you can come to and not even see a movie, they're not joking. It's also a full-service restaurant and bar where you don't have to get past the lobby to enjoy upscale cuisine.
In August, that lobby is still under construction. When CinéBistro opens Sept. 4, gourmet chef Jason Bianco will be preparing such fresh dishes as New York Strip Steak and Pan Seared Atlantic Salmon. Sandwiches and appetizers (cutely called "Previews") such as Wagyu Beef Sliders run in the $10–$15 range; entrées (or "Features") hover around $20 and upward. A popular appetizer from the Cobb Theatres chain's seven locations in other states, I'm told, is "popcorn" that can be a combination of popcorn chicken, shrimp and calamari. Actual popcorn will also be available, with free refills, for $8.
CinéBistro is one of several new boutique theaters in the Triangle seeking to compete with Redbox and Netflix by making a night out at the movies a luxury experience. A 21-and-up establishment that will not play animated films, it does let in children with adults for matinees, and plans to showcase independent and foreign films.
Meanwhile, CineBowl and Grille, which opened in Cary's Parkside Town Commons in July, offers a more casual, family-oriented take on the dinner-and-a-movie experience, with bowling and an arcade. Its menu, slightly cheaper than CinéBistro's, runs more to Loaded Tater Tots than Moroccan Lamb Chops, but it's still a far cry from the withered hotdogs that pass for dinner at most theaters.
And in Chapel Hill, there's Silverspot Cinema, a "premium theater" currently scheduled to open at University Mall sometime in October. It's got the most screens of the new boutique theaters—13 to CinéBistro's six and CineBowl's 12, one of which is huge. Silverspot will offer dining and a lounge. You can sup on things such as Beef Carpaccio or Chicken Paillard, mostly in the $10–$20 range, while watching everything from foreign art films to 3-D blockbusters. While CinéBistro employs electronically reclining seats at ground level, Silverspot has stadium seats. As the publicity team informs us at a hard-hat tour in July, the seats don't recline—but they are "extra-large hand-stitched" leather.
The concept behind these theaters isn't new. The Raleighwood Cinema Grill has allowed moviegoers to enjoy chicken fingers with their flicks for more than 20 years. But the surge indicates a new urgency to get people out to theaters. Even with films such as Jurassic World setting records, overall box office has been down the last few years, with home entertainment options keeping people away from the big screen.
It's not unusual to see a promo before movies where a scene from Star Wars gradually shrinks to the size of a desktop computer monitor, making the argument that such an epic film shouldn't be seen on a screen that size. "I'm still big! It's the pictures that got small!" ranted Gloria Swanson's demented former silent star, Norma Desmond, in the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. And she didn't even live in a world where you could watch a movie on your phone.
Every theater rep I talk to cites the situation in the 1950s, when television was seen as the death of cinema. What happened then? Bigger movies, from Roman epics in "Cinemascope" to the gimmicky rubber-skeleton horror movies of William Castle to, of course, 3-D. But now, superhero epics and mega-series (Silverspot is planning events around the new Hunger Games, James Bond and Star Wars films) still might not be enough to get people to the theater. The new goal? Make the theater the draw.
This isn't unprecedented. I remember when the Raleigh Grande opened in 1998 with its vaunted stadium seating. Extra amenities used to be standard when movies were a novelty; The Chicago Theatre, the first major movie palace to open in the U.S., in 1921, still features much of the artistic grandeur that first attracted people to it, though it's more of a performing arts center now.
The "upscale" incomes and real-estate prices in Cary and Chapel Hill are cited as reasons for the locations of these theaters, which already enjoy success in areas with similar demographics, such as Florida.
"We're more Morton's Steakhouse than Applebee's," says CinéBistro Vice President Fred Meyers, with local general manger Jim Russo adding, "We're Virgin Airlines, not Southwest."
Meyers suggests that these theaters are for those who want to shave an hour off "dinner and a movie," cutting down on babysitter fees and skipping the lines and hurled popcorn one often encounters at a regular theater. They'll also put a deeper dent in your wallet. Most first-run theaters in the area are $8–$10 for an evening ticket, and usually, you can sit where you want. The luxury theaters charge around $14–$15 for a seat, with reservations made online. That's before you get to the wine, cheese plates and gourmet coffee.
Curious, I put out a feeler on Facebook to ask people I know who have kids, ranging from middle-class homes to higher incomes, what they thought of this. A few who lived in Florida, where these theaters have locations, enjoyed them; others wondered why they would want upscale cuisine during escapist entertainment. As one put it, "If I want filet, I'm not eating it while I watch Ant-Man." His wife, on the other hand, thought it was a great idea.
It's also pointed out to me that the added expense of the food isn't that great a dent if you factor in the inflated prices for candy and popcorn, the real way most theaters make their money.
I'm still not sure what to make of these new theaters, but I might not be the target audience. For a journalist writing about entertainment, movies represent frequent low-cost escapism, not an occasional expensive night out. But considering the success of some upscale bars and clubs in Raleigh on Glenwood South, there is an audience for this type of venue—and the proximity to SAS, Wake Med and even RDU means that the likes of CinéBistro, CineBowl and Silverspot might represent the future, whether you want to treat your kids to some bowling, burgers and arcade games or leave them at home while you have kimchi fried rice and Champagne.
And if movie studios ever want to do preview screenings for critics at these places, well, I won't object. There are worse ways to watch a film than ensconced in an overstuffed leather chair.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Silver platter, silver screen"