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Local movie theaters adapt and change to provide enhanced experience

March 12, 2017 GMT

Movie theaters have been warned of their coming demise over and over since they first opened more than a century ago. Television and home video recorders were considered serious threats, and more recently, video streaming and piracy have been targeted as sources that pull moviegoers away from the cinema.

Yet none of those predictions are making movie theater chain owners lose sleep at night. “Our business was the best it’s ever been last year,” said Joe Masher, chief operating officer of Ridgefield-based Bow Tie Cinemas.

The domestic box office, which includes the U.S. and Canada, hit a record $11.3 billion in 2016 — up from $11.1 billion in 2015 and $10.4 billion in 2014, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

“The movie theater industry remains very strong and a very popular way for people to get out and enjoy an evening,” said Ryan Noonan, a spokesman for AMC Theatres, noting that four of the last five years have been record box office years.

The chain has theaters in Danbury, Plainville, Torrington, Bloomfield and Southington.

Bow Tie runs the Regent 8 and Royale 6 theaters in Norwalk; Stamford’s Landmark 9 and Majestic 6; Criterion Cinemas at Greenwich Plaza; Wilton Cinema 4; New Canaan Playhouse; and Trumbull’s Marquis 16 and BTX Theater.

“Streaming is getting more popular but right now we do have exclusive content,” Masher said. “Movie theaters have traditionally changed and adapted to these kinds of threats.”

One major adaptation has been an improvement of the moviegoing experience by making physical upgrades, like AMC’s push for older cinemas to include plush, reclining seats, and adding new food and beverage options, like more snacks, food and liquor.

“The industry has spent decades focusing on how many people can we get into our buildings,” Noonan said. “There really has been renewed focus on the guest and what gets them excited about getting into the theater.”

Masher said movie patrons want an enhanced experience, which also includes larger screens and better sound. “Similar things are happening in bowling alleys,” he said.

Bow Tie has been working on upgrades, such as leather seats and renovated lobbies, concessions and restrooms, at its Norwalk theaters, which will be the first of the brand’s new Bow Tie Deluxe concept. The chain is also adding new menu options, such as flatbread sandwiches and beer, wine and craft cocktails.

AMC, the world’s largest movie theater chain, also about five years ago began updating its 900 theaters with remodeled concessions and reclining seats, which Noonan said often means losing as much as 50 percent seating capacity but leads to increases in attendance overall. Danbury’s theater has yet to get the luxury seat upgrade.

Showcase Cinemas in Bridgeport and Fairfield Cinemas at Bullard Square, both run by National Amusements, more recently joined the growing number of theaters seeking liquor permits. While the chain was successful in obtaining local approval to sell alcohol in Bridgeport, just across the town line it was denied a variance to sell liquor within 1,500 feet of a nearby cafe.

A Superior Court judge recently denied the theater owner’s appeal.

Mark Barnhart, Fairfield’s economic development director, said the theater chain may have other options for applying for alcohol sales locally. “We want to make sure all the businesses here thrive,” he said, noting that the variance route required a hardship zoning officials did not find. “I totally appreciate that the landscape is changing. It’s a highly competitive industry.”

Jack Condlin, president and CEO of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce, said movie theaters have the power to help neighborhoods transform.

“Without a doubt the movie theaters (in downtown Stamford) were a major contributor to the nighttime activity in the downtown and as a result more restaurants moved downtown, which caused more restaurants to come in,” he said. “Live performing arts theaters attract certain people. Movie theaters attract everybody.”

Not all towns can support a theater chain, however. Stratford’s Regal Stadium closed several years ago and was replaced by an L.A. Fitness. And Bridgeport’s Showcase was put up for sale around the same time, before switching gears and applying for the liquor permit.

When National Amusements announced the sale it indicated the market was overserved locally.

Bridgeport could soon test that theory with a plan to build a 12-screen luxury movie theater. Initially proposed on Steel Point in 2015, it was moved to a different, nearby site in the East End last year and downsized.

Steel Point developer Bob Christoph said he is in talks with Cinepolis USA, the California-based chain which was going to build the theater on Steel Point, and another, unnamed company, to decide what option to pursue.

Masher, with Bow Tie Cinemas, said he doesn’t see any signs the box office highs are slowing down.

“As long as Hollywood is producing great content, theaters will continue to thrive,” he said.

ktorres@hearstmediact.com; 203-330-6227