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Merlot at the Movies

Can gourmet food bring people back to the theaters?

Will high-end food help save struggling multiplexes?
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August 19, 2013 1:05 PM ET

Imagine you're watching a movie while nibbling on gourmet eats like prosciutto-wrapped breadsticks or fig and duck breast salad. Press a button on your armrest and a uniformed worker brings you a glass of Chilean wine. For your comfort, they also offer blankets and pillows.

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Sounds like first-class travel, but it's actually an increasingly typical movie experience at your local theater. Amenities like these are some of the latest and most elaborate ploys devised by exhibitors to lure you off your living room sofa (though the blankets and pillows, offered at the iPic chain, makes theater seating feel an awful lot like your couch).

Movie theaters make most of their money at the snack counter. Since they have to share box office proceeds with the studios, little or no profit comes from ticket sales. So it's no wonder that multiplexes are expanding into serving restaurant-quality food, as well as wine, beer and cocktails. One advantage to the upscale food and drink: it keeps out under-21s and other boisterous moviegoers whose chattering and texting distracts other patrons (the Alamo Drafthouse chain, which pioneered the film-and-fine-dining formula 15 years ago, also has a zero-tolerance policy on noise and cell-phone use).

Menus at gourmet cinemas, tend toward finger food so that china and flatware won't be clanking during the movie. Yet instead of a hot dog, you might find duck confit and chicken sausage; instead of cheeseburgers, mani mahi sliders; and instead of nachos, polenta-stuffed pretzels. At The Theatres at Canal Place in New Orleans, even the popcorn comes drizzled in white truffle oil instead of butter flavoring.

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The AMC chain, one of the nation's largest, has brought the food-and-film format a bit downmarket, serving at 25 of its multiplexes the kind of pub food (quesadillas, flatbread pizzas, loaded potato skins, brownie sundaes) you might find at your local TGI Friday's or Applebee's. They boast two dining options: Fork & Screen, which offers a casual dining experience and allows kids if accompanied by adults, and Cinema Suites, a slightly more upscale option that's for grown-ups only and includes plush reclining seats. Both serve alcoholic drinks and include push-button wait service, and both encourage patrons to come to the theater a half-hour early so that they can order and be served entrees before the movie starts. If the dinner-and-a-movie concept takes off nationwide, this is probably the form it will take.

Another tactic meant to draw couch potatoes – and one that also happens to help weed out the hoi polloi – is reserved seats. What's been standard practice at live theatrical and sporting events has taken a while to become popular in cinemas. At many theater chains, for an extra $1 to $3 per ticket (depending on whether it's a matinee, evening or weekend showing) you can pick your exact seats or a bloc of them if you're throwing a birthday party. That doesn't seem like much to guarantee that you won't have to wait in line to get the seat you want, even if you come late and skip the trailers. Or, as 19-year-old Hobbit moviegoer Mauricio Guerra told the Wall Street Journal,  "I got better things to do with my time than chill next to some weirdo who thinks he's a straight-up Middle-earth wizard."

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One amenity you can't duplicate in your living room: a seat that moves and jerks in accordance with the action unfolding on screen. That's a technology offered by D-Box, which has custom seating in a handful of theaters across the country. For an extra $8, you can feel like your careening in a car with the racers of Fast & Furious 6 or flying with the Man of Steel.

It's still too early to tell whether fine dining and other amenities can save the theaters. One of moviegoers' main complaints is high ticket prices. Combining dinner and a movie gives you one-stop shopping, but it also boosts prices considerably. (A theme night at Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema, which includes a multi-course meal and liquor may set you back $95 per person.) If you're trying to lure the middle class back to theaters, or make moviegoing the populist mass-culture experience it once was, adding pricey and exclusive perks may not be the way to do it.

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