Theaters Seek Magic to Keep Audiences

In the early 1950s, before televisions were common, the average American went to the movies nearly 20 times a year. Today, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, it's down to around five times a year.

Between Netflix, Xbox, and On demand, consumers these days have too many reasons to stay at home and be entertained. In order to lure Americans off the couch and back into the dark, some theater operators are becoming creative.

Muvico Palace in Boca Raton, Fla., offers in-house childcare. The NRH2O Family Waterpark in North Richland Hills, Texas, features Friday night "dive-ins," where you can watch a movie from the pool. And National Amusements, in Dedham, Mass., opens the movie with live musical or comedy acts.


Theater owners across the country are also bringing in all-digital projection systems and offering broadcasts of Broadway shows and baseball games.

But by far the most common way theater owners are trying to attract customers is with a bar.

In 1997 there were 14 first-run theaters serving alcohol; today there are more than 400, says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners.

"You've got to do something above and beyond what you can have at home. It's got to be something special," says Terrell Braly, CEO of the Cinebarre theater in Asheville, N.C.

Cinebarre has a full bar and waiters that will serve patrons a three-course meal and drinks while they're watching a first-run movie. The success of the Asheville theater is leading to the opening of more Cinebarres in Charleston, S.C., and in Denver.

Cinebarre doesn't charge more than an ordinary movie theater, but some other upscale cinemas do and patrons say it's worth it. Not for what's offered, but for what isn't.

The cardinal rule for the new wave of theaters? A strict vow to keep out the two biggest movie sins: the crying baby and the cellphone.

"People do not like the screaming babies. The 6-18-year-olds being on their cell phones. That's a tremendous distraction, that takes away from the enjoyment," Braly says.

This wave of changes to cinemas comes as the movie industry is slowly recovering from a string of bankruptcies and theater closings earlier this decade. A glut of theatres and sluggish ticket sales forced many operators out of business.

But there are signs the industry is getting better. Total admissions rose to 1.4 billion last year, up 0.36 percent from 2006, according to the NATO.