ASK anyone who has ever whiled away a few hours in a darkened auditorium at Hollywood's ArcLight Cinemas: Not all movie theaters are created equal.
Unveiled in 2002, the ArcLight multiplex almost single-handedly shifted the Southland's moviegoing paradigm. With its assigned seating and grown-up attitude toward alcohol -- the theater was the first in California to allow booze inside its auditoriums -- the movie palace billed itself as "Los Angeles' premier film experience," boasting a high-end snack bar, the best screens and most comfortable seats in town.
But now a rival upscale multiplex on the Westside, the Landmark, has put the ArcLight in its crosshairs and is out to challenge just about every innovation that has made the theater an Angeleno institution. Think of it as the ArcLight on steroids; if everything turns out as planned, the Landmark could explode notions of what a "specialized" (don't say "art house") movie theater can be, providing a cultural outing that's closer in spirit to a night at the theater than simply catching a movie.
"We're looking for an adult crowd," said Ted Mundorff, chief operating officer of the Landmark's parent company, the national Landmark Theatres chain. "We don't put video games in the lobby. We want a discerning moviegoer who appreciates cinema, who wants to see it in a mature atmosphere."
Construction on the $20-million, 12-theater complex, scheduled to open June 1 at the intersection of Westwood and Pico boulevards across from the Westside Pavilion, wasn't complete when a reporter toured the site this week. But Landmark executives remain insistent that the scope and thrust of the finished project -- namely, its commitment to environmentalism, cutting-edge screen and sound technology, high design and even gourmet hot dog toppings -- will go beyond anything comparable at the city's other luxury movie halls, the Grove and the Bridge among them.
With that in mind, and in the spirit of good fun, we make some preliminary comparisons between the upstart Landmark and its still mighty inspiration, the ArcLight.
VIEWED a certain way, the Landmark's concession stand exists as a microcosm of the theater's commitment to putting millennial topspin on the quotidian "night at the movies" experience -- right down to the "junk" food.
Take the pretzels. In place of the heat-lamped twists of once-frozen dough that movie fans have come to expect (and in some instances, love, despite themselves), the theater offers mahogany-colored beauties imported fresh from La Brea Bakery and served warm with an array of artisanal mustards such as raspberry wasabi. Cost: $4 for a long pretzel stick versus the usual $3.50 or so.
The Landmark's Hebrew National hot dogs? Maybe not so much of a stretch. But they are wrapped in a La Brea Bakery bun to be topped with locally made, handcrafted pickle relish. "It's not what you'd necessarily expect to find in a movie theater," said Rita Meno, Landmark Theatres' director of concessions and retail sales. "When you walk in, it's important that you know it's different here."
But then, you wouldn't necessarily expect to find the popcorn popped in sunflower oil and served with -- gasp! -- real butter, the Alternative Baking Co. vegan cookies, the Peet's Coffee or the low-carb pizzas courtesy of Pizza Rustica, a mini-chain of restaurants voted Los Angeles' pizza "hot spot" by the Wall Street Journal. The theater will even offer all-natural Yogurberry frozen yogurt, an up-and-coming rival to the cultishly popular Pinkberry fro-yo franchise (Yogurberry claims to have more viable yogurt cultures, if you care about that kind of stuff). In addition, a veritable United Nations of hard-to-find premium snacks is there for the scarfing -- most notably, chocolate Tim Tam biscuits imported from Australia, among the most addictive in the world.
Although none of it is engineered to chisel waistlines, the goodies are easy on the conscience. Many items are organic and self-consciously top-shelf -- the "culinary" soft drink at the Landmark, Dry Soda, will be served in Champagne flutes -- and created by small-scale "indie" purveyors, most of them local. And all the snacks are priced to be competitive with the de rigueur movie markup you get on a $7 box of Red Vines (which will also be available, along with Junior Mints, so relax).
"We're cognizant of how things were grown, where they were made, how many calories they have, if people had to die for us to get them," Meno says with a laugh. "Our audiences tend to be very informed customers. And people in L.A. are very discerning."
Bottom line: After a taste test of nearly all the offerings, the Landmark wins the snack battle. (Sorry ArcLight: Those apple-chicken sausages just don't compare.) Furthermore, the stand's exotic offerings are available to everyone, not (Tim Tam fanatics, take note) just ticket buyers.