New York City’s dine-in movie theaters are growing like the price of Manhattan real estate. The most recent addition, Florida-based luxury theater chain iPic’s eight-screen theater in South Street Seaport, opened on October 7. The first Manhattan theater with oversized leather seats, in-theater waiter service and gourmet dining options, iPic joins Brooklyn-based dine-in theaters Nitehawk Cinema, which opened in 2011, and the Alamo Drafthouse, which is opening its doors on October 28. (Park Slope’s Pavilion theater is also being converted to become Nitehawk’s second location in the fall of 2017.)
At iPic’s grand opening gala earlier this month, guests were treated to culinary delights from award-winning chef Sherry Yard and specialty cocktails from acclaimed mixologist Adam Seger, followed by a screening of the new Christopher Guest comedy “Mascots.” How high-end is iPic’s moviegoing experience? The theater’s extra-wide “Premium” seats cost $16 to $20 per person, depending on the showtime, while “Premium Plus” reclining seats come with personal pillows and blankets and cost $28 to $32 per person. Every seat includes a small table for food and cocktails, and the front row features permanently reclined chaise lounge-style seating, priced at the premium level.
“What makes this experience even greater is really all the people that are there to serve you,” iPic founder and CEO Hamid Hashemi said at the company’s launch party. “You’re going to get used to the seats, you’re going to get used to the walls, but that service is what’s going to bring you back.”
Hashemi’s career in film exhibition began in 1984 when he founded Florida’s Muvico Theater, which included amenities like childcare centers, assigned seating, valet service and gourmet concessions. After selling the company to Regal Cinema, Hashemi founded iPic in 2006.
Now, he’s hoping iPic’s innovative entertainment experience will be a game-changer for the industry. “Consumers are looking for differentiated outings and movies are no different than other forms of entertainment,” Hashemi told IndieWire in an email. “Seventy percent of people eat before or after the movies, so culturally, when we go to the movies, we are doing more than just going to the movies, and consumers are showing that they would like to have these experiences all under one roof.” iPic currently has 15 locations in the U.S. and dozens more in development.
While the company’s newest theater may be catnip for anyone that wants a more luxurious moviegoing experience, New Yorkers looking for more places to watch independent films on a big screen are out of luck. “It has nothing to do with independent film,” said one New York-based exhibitor. “iPic has gone after an audience that wants to see commercial fare in an upscale experience. Their business plan is selling a lot of food and drinks.”
The company has also drawn the ire of the National Association of Theater Owners for making a deal with Netflix to screen 10 of the streaming giant’s original films — one of which is “Mascots” — on the same day as their online releases. In order for Netflix movies to qualify for the Oscars, the films must play in theaters for at least seven days in a row, but theater chains like AMC and Regal Entertainment have refused to show the company’s movies, fearing that simultaneous theatrical releases and online premieres will eat into their box office performance. Netflix’s deal with iPic essentially solves that problem.
“Simultaneous release, in practice, has reduced both theatrical and home revenues when it has been tried,” NATO President and CEO John Fithian said in a statement issued in response to the Netflix and iPic agreement. “The theatrical window is a longstanding industry practice that has benefitted studios, theaters and moviegoers. We all should tread lightly and be mindful that over the years, the film industry’s success is a direct result of a highly successful collaboration between filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors.”
For Nitehawk founder Matthew Viragh, however, the addition of a new dine-in theater in New York just underscores how the theater industry is gradually evolving to expand its offerings beyond the traditional popcorn, candy and soda. “We don’t look at new theaters as competition, but rather helping to fulfill the need for neighborhoods and communities without those experiences,” Viragh said in an emailed statement, adding that Nitehawk helped pave the way for other New York theaters interested in selling beer and wine by lobbying to change state law so that movie houses could serve alcohol. “We’re just happy we were able to open the door and help usher in a new wave to New York.”
IFC Films/Sundance Selects President Jonathan Sehring said that while he hasn’t visited the new iPic theater yet, he’s all for improving in-theater experiences. “It’s our opinion that a better entertainment experience is going to get people out,” he said. “I don’t think something like that can hurt.”
Just before the “Mascots” screening at iPic’s launch event, Howard Hughes Corporation Chairman and CEO David Weinreb — whose company has control of the South Street Seaport area through a long-term lease with New York City — predicted that iPic would have a game-changing impact on moviegoing. “If you haven’t been in the theater yet, you’re going to understand very quickly why it absolutely is the ultimate cinematic experience,” Weinreb said. “Hamid is truly a transformer in his field.”