Modesto-area theaters pull out all the stops

07/25/2014 7:47 PM

07/26/2014 9:05 PM

Luring us out of our comfortable living rooms and into darkened movie theaters takes a lot more than just the smell of hot, buttered popcorn these days.

Dwindling attendance in the face of increased home entertainment options has made movie houses rethink how they attract their audiences. American TV viewing has increased as movie watching has decreased significantly over the years.

A Harris poll released earlier this year showed that 68 percent of adults in the United States went to the movies at least once last year. Of those polled, 57 percent said they would rather stay at home, while 21 percent said they’d rather go out to see a film. Meanwhile, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in June showed that people over age 15 watched on average 2.8 hours of TV per day.

“It’s so hard for a family our size to get out to the movies,” said Rhonda Cox, who went with her husband and three children to Riverbank’s Galaxy Theatres earlier this week for a screening of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

“We go maybe a few times a year, if that,” she said.

So to get us up off the couch and into the cineplexes, theater owners have gotten creative. Some in the Valley have opted for extravagant upgrades, while others have gone for deep discounts. Locally, competition to get people to the box office has come to a fever pitch in the midst of the summer blockbuster season.

Galaxy Theatres in Riverbank rolled out its full Luxury+ renovations this week. The upgrades include new reclining seating, a gourmet sausage bar, state-of-the-art sound system, and beer and wine service. The biggest change to audiences no doubt will be the new easy-chair seating, which can recline to almost fully horizontal. There’s also a small wall separating each row. Each of the theater’s chairs has been converted to the new recliners, and all seats are reserved and assigned at purchase.

“This is what we are trying to do to heighten the theatrical experience,” said Rafe Cohen, president of Galaxy Theatres. “You might have a 60-inch screen at home – I have 60 feet. This is a first-class experience. And I don’t have a chair this comfortable in my living room.”

The renovations began in January and were finalized this month. The new, bigger seating means significantly fewer seats for the chain – capacity was cut in half, from 2,600 seats to 1,300. Cohen said while it may seem counterintuitive, less is indeed more for the theater. While there are fewer seats, Galaxy is banking on higher occupancy. Already, the move is paying off because the theater’s market share in the region is up 40 percent from the beginning of the year, Cohen said.

The upgrades come without an increase in prices of tickets or concessions, Cohen said. Movies are $10.50 for adult evening, $7.50 for matinee (additional charges apply for 3-D or D-Box motion screenings). The alcoholic offerings, served at a new, lighted concession stand in the lobby, begin at $6.50 for beer and $7 for wine.

“We want to increase the value for customers at no extra price,” Cohen said. “This is a new idea in the exhibition business that we think will be comparably as revolutionary as stadium seating.”

Galaxy in Riverbank is the fourth location in the company’s 12-theater chain to convert to Luxury+ and the first in North American to have Luxury+ D-Box motion seats.

The Cox family came from Groveland specifically to try out the new Luxury+ seating and upgrades. Rhonda and Shea Cox said they would normally go to a theater in Sonora, but after hearing about the new chairs, they decided to make the trek to the Valley with their three children.

“I haven’t even seen the movie yet and I’d come back, for sure,” Shea Cox said while reclining in his chair. “Usually, I’m uncomfortable and irritated already.”

Cheap seats

But other theater chains in the region aren’t taking Galaxy’s upgrades lying down. Regal Stadium 10 in Modesto lowered all of its ticket prices permanently Friday, from $10.75 to $8 for evening shows and from $7.75 to $6 for matinees. Ticket prices at Regal theaters in surrounding cities like Turlock, Merced and Stockton have not dropped.

Regal also continues to offer a free rewards club card program that gives discounts on tickets and food as points are accrued. The Modesto theater also has a special discount Tuesdays, with movies $6 all day and an additional $1 off for club members.

Like Regal, Brenden Theatres has chosen to offer customers big discounts as an incentive to get them into their seats. While regular tickets are $10.50 evening and $7.50 matinee, the theater has several ongoing and summer promotions that customers can use to save money.

Brenden Modesto Assistant Manager Derek Johns said all movies are $5 before 6 p.m. and $7.50 for evening shows Monday to Thursday at its downtown location. (Sony Pictures and 3-D movies are excluded.) The theater also offers a Summer Family Film Festival series, which began in June, in which tickets to special 10:30 a.m. screenings are $1, with accompanying snack and beverage deals. The last screening for the summer series will be the showing of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” on Aug. 5.

“It’s a good deal, and the last few showings have had over 300 people come,” Johns said. “We’re trying to offer things people can come out and enjoy and have a good time at as a family. People are always looking for bargains if they can.”

He said there was no discussion in the chain right now about switching to luxury seating.

Enhancing the experience

While the big cineplexes war it out with luxurious seating and price drops, downtown Modesto’s nonprofit State Theatre has found a sweet spot outside of the blockbuster arena. The historic 1934 theater, which started its life as a movie palace, has continued its cinematic tradition in present day as the city’s only arthouse theater. But besides offering a steady staple of indie, classic and foreign fare, the theater has become known for its elaborate themed film parties in recent years.

The staff has thrown première parties for movies including “The Artist,” “The Great Gatsby” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which have brought hundreds into the 550-seat theater. The events encourage guests to dress in costume based on the film and have similarly themed lobby decorations and an assortment of free refreshments.

The theater also has a full liquor license and, besides serving wine and beer, opens a martini bar for special events and movie parties. The bar offers specialty cocktails tailored to each themed event. State General Manager Sue Richardson said the idea for the events, which have grown in scope over the years, grew organically out of the theater’s mission statement.

“The man who designed this theater, S. Charles Lee, his mantra was, ‘The show starts on the sidewalk,’ ” Richardson said. “We try to live by that. This is an experience. It’s making the people who come here and support this theater happy.”

For the special themed movie parties, tickets range from $13 to $15 and include the food. Ticket prices for regular screenings are $10. Modesto Film Society series screenings are $8.

The next State Theatre film party will be for Woody Allen’s new film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” which will take guests to “Opening Night on the Côte d’Azur.”

The special events have proved wildly popular. The theater’s last one, for the film “Trattoria” on July 18, had a four-page waiting list to attend.

“For us, it’s an obvious fit,” Richardson said. “It’s an unusual thing and a good thing and a nice niche for us.”

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