Zacchaeus Clauson sits on a wooden stool with a black leather seat in the Tucson movie theater lobby waiting to see American Sniper. The 6-foot-6 Clauson takes a sip of a vodka-infused rootbeer float and tells his friends across the table that he is looking forward to stretching out in a recliner.
“You can’t beat the seats,” he said.
With Netflix and in-home theaters luring people from movie theaters, the industry is stepping up the competition in Arizona by bringing the home to the theater.
“People have access at home where it is often more comfortable but they still love to be a part of a group,” said Sloane Bouchever, owner of the luxury movie theater Bisbee Royale. “Customers want to watch movies in a more refined atmosphere.”
Movie theaters featuring full bars, dinner menus and spacious seating are opening throughout Arizona, including in Tucson, Scottsdale and Bisbee. The National Association of Theater Owners estimates that several hundred theaters with luxurious amenities are now open out of a total 5,300 theaters nationwide.
“We are seeing a whole range of them opening,” said Patrick Corcoran, National Association of Theater Owners spokesperson. “Some have restaurant service some have in seat service.”
The Bisbee Royale was converted from a 1918 Baptist church, the old pews fashioned into the bar, Bouchever said. The Bisbee Royale tends to show “throwback” Humphrey Bogart from the 1940s and ’60s. According to Bouchever, it is primarily a restaurant and the movies come second.
“It is a lovely atmosphere for a date night or girls’ night,” Bouchever said.
Other restaurant owners in Bisbee have taken notice of the Bisbee Royale, Bouchever said.
“My restaurant owner friends have told me the Royale is so elegant and beautiful that they have to ‘up their game,’” Bouchever said. “More restaurants in Bisbee means more people are coming to Bisbee.”
It is common practice for patrons of the Royale to continue drinking late night at local bars near the theater. According to Corcoran, “Luxury theaters help feed surrounding businesses,” he said. “Malls often use a movie theater as an anchor.”
Since Tucson’s Roadhouse Cinema opened in October the movie theater has become “busier with each passing month,” said Director of Restaurant Operations, Vincent Mast.
Mast handpicked the 1880s inspired white washed wood, purple chesterfield button couch and life-sized barn door for the interior of Roadhouse Cinema. He spent eight years developing his plan for building a luxury theater with his partners Scott Cassell and Josh Snider.
Mast wants to expand the concept not just in Arizona but to other states as well, and keep them affordable.
“We can’t charge like Scottsdale because we’re in Tucson.” Mast said. “Eighty percent of our menu is under $10.”
Lesleigh Rutkowski is a returning customer. She exited Roadhouse with a free refill of an overflowing bag filled with jalapeno-flavored popcorn.
“I don’t think I’ll go anywhere else to see a movie,” she said. “I like having my Bloody Mary.”
Comfort is valuable, said Sherry Lotz, a consumer science professor at the University of Arizona.
“Would you rather be cramped or go to a place that feels more like home?” Lotz said.
Home is associated with “relaxation, safety and a place to escape” and movie theaters are not the only businesses that incorporate aspects of a home-like atmosphere, Lotz said.
Hotels, airline club lounges and hospitals, for example, offer services such as newspapers, food options and couches to make guests feel at home, she said.
“When a business incorporates the idea of home, customers will be more satisfied,” Lotz said.
Consumers are also in a “time crunch,” Lotz added. Being able to eat and watch a movie at the same time is enjoyable and takes less energy, she said.
Roadhouse’s most popular dish is their gelato flavors including Sea Salt Caramel and a Chocolate mint flavor that tastes like a Girl Scout, Thin Mint cookie. The Bisbee Royale hosts an assortment of locally made beer and according to Bouchever is “known” for its wine list.
The Bisbee Royale was primarily a music venue when it opened in 2012. Now the theater shows movies every weekend and offers music performances once a month.
“Movies were more appreciated,” Bouchever said, “We are being open minded towards presenting an experience the population is looking for.”
This year the Bisbee Royale is partnering with the Jack and Vivian Hanson Arizona Film Institute and the new UA Center for Documentary to present a public film series. The next showing due at the beginning of March is already sold out, Bouchever said.
Being able to host events is a real economic advantage of luxury movie theaters, Bouchever said. The Bisbee Royale will host a themed night with an Italian dinner and Italian movie and the event will make twice as much as a regular movie night, he said.
Older folks and women are the two biggest supporters of the Bisbee Royale. Women feel more comfortable drinking in the theater than in a typical bar setting and the older people have a more sophisticated taste, Bouchever said.
On average, patrons at the Bisbee Royale spend a total of 20 dollars, including 15 dollars towards their food and drinks, Bouchever said.
The Ultraluxe theater in Scottsdale has an expanded menu that features Paninis and specialty Carmel, Kettle and Cheese popcorn. General Manager of Ultraluxe, Theresa Roberts, has been in the movie business for 19 years.
“If you haven’t been to luxury theater then you are really missing out,” Roberts said. “The popularity of the luxury theater has risen over the years and I believe the entire industry as a whole will be leaning towards this concept.”
The theater’s owner, Ultrastar Cinemas, has put the Scottsdale location up for sale and there may be a new company coming in to make improvements to the current Ultraluxe space, according to Roberts.
“To not have to wait in a line for snacks,” Roberts said, “to be able to pick my seat and know where I would be sitting before even going into the auditorium, and to have a glass of wine or beer while watching a movie – is a must see adventure for sure.”
Erin Shanahan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.