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Cinemas start catering to 21-and-older crowd

Theaters are embracing a no-children-allowed policy, permitting adults valet service, martinis -- and peace and quiet.

September 24, 2007|P.J.Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ROSEMONT, ILL. — Tricia and Robert Holman strolled through the lobby of a new movie theater past a cluster of teenage boys talking loudly on their cellphones.

The couple shared a knowing smile as they walked by a woman shushing a toddler wailing for "popcorn, popcorn, popcorn," and a young boy flinging himself at the candy display case.

The Holmans took an escalator to movie-theater nirvana: a section of seats for adults only. Up here, in the theater's 21-and-older section, no children are allowed.

"This is a little bit of heaven," said Tricia Holman, who works for a technology firm and lives in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill. For a $15 ticket on a weekend evening, she said, it's "just me, my husband and the big screen. And no teenagers."

In an attempt to entice grown-ups back to the nation's movie theaters, Florida-based Muvico opened the luxury Rosemont 18 in this Chicago suburb just east of O'Hare International Airport. The theater has a clear goal: to cater to those weary of watching films accompanied by a soundtrack of fussy babies and gossiping teens.

One screen is entirely dedicated to customers old enough to buy a cocktail. Five other screens have all-ages seats on the ground level -- and separate, adults-only balconies reached through the bar inside the theater. Customers can lounge on love seats, eat gourmet concessions such as filet-mignon mini-burgers and sip alcoholic drinks during the movie.

About 520 of the theater's 4,000 seats have been permanently assigned to this "VIP" area for adults.

And for the children? There's a supervised day-care center for 3- to 10-year-olds.

Muvico officials say they rely heavily on families and teenagers, who account for much of the repeat business that keeps the overall industry afloat.

Yet "there's a growing number of people who don't want kids kicking their feet into their chair," said Michael F. Whalen Jr., the company's president and chief executive. "Adults have the right to enjoy a movie in peace."

Other theater chains have begun to offer bars and gourmet goodies to attract older moviegoers, and have set aside certain theaters and showings for adults.

In Los Angeles, Pacific Theatres' ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood has offered one auditorium for a 21-and-older audience since 2004. But the age restrictions aren't constant: IDs are checked for screenings only on weekends after 6 p.m.

Across town, National Amusements rolled out a similar program last year at the Bridge Cinema de Lux off the San Diego Freeway, north of Los Angeles International Airport. It too is limited: a single auditorium, and only for the second evening screening of the film.

Few exhibitors have such firmly drawn lines as Muvico's, said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.

Older -- and often more affluent -- fans are seen as an important market for the industry. U.S. and Canadian theaters peaked with more than 1.6 billion tickets sold in 2002, according to data research firm Media by Numbers. About 1.4 billion tickets were sold in the United States and Canada in 2006.

Part of the problem is competition from digital home entertainment systems. And in an era when a pair of movie tickets can cost more than a DVD, and movies-on-demand keep consumers at home, many film fans have been withdrawing from theaters.

One demographic group that has the most potential to be lured back is viewers age 30 and up, Corcoran said.

"The baby boomers are getting older, and the generation behind them is also large," said Corcoran. "That's an audience that expects more, from valet parking to nicer concessions. As they get older, fewer of them will be wondering how they're going to line up baby-sitters."

Muvico's all-adults strategy was first tested in Florida, where the company has its headquarters. Today, four of the chain's 14 theaters -- including the new one in Illinois -- have sections set aside for adults. There are plans to expand the effort to Los Angeles, New York, Charlotte, N.C., and Washington.

Muvico isn't alone in this strategy.

In Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas chain has built its business model around the belief that adults want to watch movies with other adults -- as well as have dinner and alcoholic drinks served at their seats. Though children 5 and younger aren't allowed in, parents can take their older children as long as they keep them quiet.

If the youngsters get rowdy, said John Martin, chief executive and owner of the eight-theater chain, "our employees ask the parents to take them outside. If you have children, then we respect you as parents. If you can't respect the rules, we'll help you remember your responsibilities."

Martin said he was sympathetic to parents; he has a newborn and a 2 1/2 -year-old.

Still, he said, "it's a dream for my wife and I to go out by ourselves. Why would I want to leave the house with my wife, to take a break from the kids, and be surrounded by other people's kids?"

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