I’ve always been fascinated by the changing landscape of the actual experience of going to the movies. More and more, I hear fellow movie lovers complaining about the journey. Whether it’s the steep prices, parking if you’re in a major city like Chicago, or unruly customers who are just as likely to be on their phone as paying attention to the flick, people feel more inclined than ever to stay home. It doesn’t hurt that television is arguably closer to a creative peak and that people’s video/audio systems are starting to produce better viewing experiences than most theaters. Why bother actually getting off the couch? We can wax poetic about the communal experience of seeing a film with other people, but that’s getting tougher and tougher to rationalize when the actual art of the movie you’re watching gives way to poor quality and poorer ticket buyers.
Of course, I still value the theatrical experience. I wish theatre owners were tougher on talkers and phone users, and that they cared more about the actual presentation of the film than anything else, but there’s still something that can’t be replicated about experiencing something at the same time as a group of strangers in the dark. When you feel it—and I felt it in every gasp and giggle during “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”—it actually becomes part of the artistic experience, a way a group interacts with a piece of work is different than the way a person does when they’re alone.
So how does a theatre owner get people to come out? Arthouses like the legendary Music Box can host events like the Chicago Critics Film Festival or their upcoming and beloved 70MM Film Festival, or they can bring out guests to make the movie experience more singular. That’s harder for a chain. Last year, I wrote about the new technology of 4DX, which makes your seat move and unleashes other ‘4D’ effects on the viewer. I’m not sure if it’s working for most movie goers. It didn’t really for me as I haven’t felt the need to experience it again.
However, CMX Cinemas is trying something that might work. They’re a company huge in Mexico but just now trying to get a foothold in the United States, primarily in Florida and the Midwest, and they want to elevate the entire moviegoing experience into something more memorable than you would normally get on a date night. They’re opening two theaters in Skokie, Illinois, today, and I got the tour of both this week. I’m not 100% convinced either will get people off their couch completely, but they do offer a more unique experience than you’re going to get at a mall movie theater, and that seems to me to be the best way to get people moving.
Each theater has its own concept, although both reflect a company trying to think outside of the box when it comes to going to the movies. CMX Market is a 7-movie theater for all ages that is characterized by what looks almost like a Whole Foods food court in its center. There are stations for pizza, burgers, and popcorn, and most of it is made to order. And there are tons of grab and go spots throughout the lobby where you can get something premade. The chef noted the freshness of the ingredients and how much is made in house, things you don’t often experience at a movie theater. There’s also a bar with specialized cocktails, but what struck me was the size of the theaters. None hold more than 100. They’re all very specialized, intimate experiences, which feels designed to replicate that recliner-and-HDTV thing that so many people are getting used to at home.
A few hundred feet away is the CMX CineBistro, which seeks to merge fine dining and going to the movies at an adults-only venue. Have ‘dinner and a movie’ in the same place. To that end, they have developed a full menu, including Wagyu beef sliders, lamb lollipops, ‘popcorn’ calamari, and even pan-seared salmon. The prices, for tickets and food, are higher than most people expect to spend when they go to see a blockbuster, but this is designed to be a unique experience. It’s not the kind of thing I could see anyone going to every weekend, but for special occasions or a date night, it could work. There’s waiter service in the actual theaters, and they’ll even give you a blanket when you recline. The food we tried was all much better than your typical movie theater although maybe a notch down from some of the nearby fancy restaurants. However, the convenience of having it in your seat while you watch the film can’t be ignored.
Will blankets and fancy food get people who wouldn’t otherwise come to see “Skyscraper” out to CMX? It’s hard to say. For this critic, the movie matters most, of course, but I desperately want the theatrical experience to thrive, and it’s going to take some creative thinking in order for that to happen. At least CMX is being creative about it. Some other companies may want to take note.