Cinépolis USA is one of the newest movie theater chains in the U.S., but it’s already growing like the gelatinous life form in “The Blob.” The luxury theater company has been buying up movie houses and building new theaters at an aggressive pace since establishing its first location in San Diego in 2011.
Owned by Mexico-based cinema giant Cinépolis, the fourth-largest theater chain in the world and largest in Latin America, the company added its sixteenth U.S. theater earlier this month by acquiring Bow Tie Cinemas’s downtown Manhattan location. Cinépolis USA’s parent company was founded in 1971 and has theaters in 13 countries. CEO Alejandro Ramírez Magaña’s U.S. expansion plan includes adding five theaters per year during the next five years, seven of which will be built from the ground up in places like Connecticut, Ohio, Texas and Virginia.
Behind all this growth is a bet that consumers are looking for a more high-end moviegoing experience. Cinépolis theaters offer either a “premium” or “luxury” experience, and both concepts include amenities you won’t find at your local movie house. The luxury theaters have reserved seating, oversized reclining leather seats and in-theater waiter service. Servers take food and drink orders from audience members before the movie starts, and customers can order additional items with the push of a button. The menu has everything from chicken wings to lobster rolls, plus specialty cocktails, beer and wine.
“It’s upscale in quality, but definitely something that you can eat comfortably in the dark at your seat,” said Cinépolis VP of Sales and Marketing April Mendoza. There’s also a full bar in the theater’s elegant lobby space, which is designed to look more like a high-end hotel. Last year, Cinépolis launched its own private label Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc in partnership with Sonoma Wine Company. “We are heavily focused on serving and pampering our guests,” Mendoza said.
The company’s premium theaters also offer the expanded menu and alcoholic beverages that customers can take into the theater, but there are no in-theater servers or reclining leather chairs. Most of the traditional movie theaters Cinépolis acquires get upgraded to offer the premium experience, while the new cinemas the company builds feature the luxury concept. Luxury tickets cost between $21 and $22.75 per adult, while premium tickets cost between $11.25 and $12.50, depending on the location. Cinépolis’ newly-acquired theaters on the East Coast have not yet added the expanded food and beverage menu.
Cinépolis is not the first U.S. theater company to enhance the moviegoing experience with expanded concessions and a wait staff. Austin, Texas-based theater chain Alamo Drafthouse has offered in-theater waiter service since its founding in 1997, and is opening a Brooklyn location in the coming weeks. Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema, which opened in 2011, also lets customers order food and alcoholic beverages from inside its theaters. Nitehawk founder Matthew Viragh believes the theater industry is gradually evolving to expand its offerings beyond the traditional popcorn, candy and soda.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement on the cinema-going experience,” Viragh said. “It was really kind of a stale experience that got even more stale through the ’80s and ’90s with these giant multiplexes that felt soulless basically.” 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. Rather than viewing Cinépolis as a competitor, Viragh sees the chain as an exciting step in the evolution toward enhanced cinema experiences.
“It’s kind of like a new era as far as filmgoing in the city, which is cool,” he said. This fall, theater chain iPic is planning to open an eight-screen theater in New York’s South Street Seaport that will feature large, comfortable chairs and in-theater servers.
While most Cinépolis theaters play primarily first-run movies and tend to feature studio blockbusters rather that arthouse fare, each theater has its own unique programming. “It depends on what’s already been established in the location,” Mendoza says. “Based on the community and size of each theater, there is always that opportunity for alternative content.”
Earlier this month, Cinépolis relocated its U.S. headquarters from Los Angeles to Dallas, in part to give the company a more central location as it expands to the East Coast. Rather than temporarily closing these theaters to renovate or redecorate during the transitional period, the company prefers to establish its brand without interrupting service, according to Mendoza. “Typically, we like to stay open,” she said.