“Are you all set?” the Showcase SuperLux server asked some minutes after placing a credit card receipt on the armrest of my recliner.
“No,” I replied. I was not. Nor was Sandra Bullock, star of “Gravity,” hurtling toward Earth in her fragile space capsule in fiery 3-D. Neither of us wanted to be disturbed right then — me especially, to calculate in the dark the tip for my Philly cheesesteak spring rolls and pint of Guinness. I paid $28 a ticket plus my meal tab for this?
But people are paying. The auditorium showing “Gravity” at the sumptuous Showcase SuperLux theater in Chestnut Hill was nearly sold out.
Cineplexes are scrambling to make the moviegoing experience special again. Offering ever greater levels of luxury amenities and exclusivity, theater owners hope to lure more customers away from their Netflix, movies on-demand, giant screen HD TVs, and tablets.
Dedham-based Showcase Cinemas, which has 33 theaters nationally and six in Greater Boston, created its first Boston-area “Lux Level” in 2007, boasting sections with fancier seating, restaurant-quality food, and ticket-holder-only lounge areas. Showcase’s SuperLux, which opened in June, upped the ante with reclinable seats and even higher-end food and service theaterwide. All options come with higher ticket prices.
Also this year, AMC Theatres, with over 330 cineplexes nationwide and nine in the Boston market, began renovating area theaters, replacing many seats with recliners at no extra charge as part of a larger national strategy.
But is all this opulence an improvement? Might interruptions by servers, whispered food orders, clinking cutlery, odors of a neighbor’s meal, and motorized groans from reclining seats bring more moviegoing pain than gain? Worse, does the luxe option create yet another reminder of the yawning gap between one-percenters and hoi polloi?
With the holiday movie season upon us, I spent several days binge-watching movies, sampling three levels of amenities, and perfecting my ability to eat, drink — and calculate a tip — in the dark.
AMC BRAINTREE 10
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
Ticket: $10.50 + ($1.25 online reservation fee) = $11.75
After my grumpy “Gravity” experience I decided to reboot my luxury quest at square one. I began at AMC’s Braintree 10 location, where all standard seats have been replaced with red vinyl upholstered, La-Z-Boy-like powered recliners.
“We expand the rows so that if you have your legs out and someone gets up they can slide by without disturbing your experience,” Ryan Noonan, director of public relations for AMC Theatres, told me later.
To accommodate the recliners, the number of individual seats has been reduced by 50 to 70 percent. But fewer seats has a downside. “If you’re used to showing up to your theater 15 minutes before the movie starts,” Noonan said, “you’re going to be disappointed.” You can get tickets at the door, but for popular movies, it’s best to reserve ahead online (and, alas, incur a $1.25 “inconvenience fee.” Grrr.)
With the button, I eased back the seat to a near horizontal position. Out popped the foot rest. Then came the noise. From the chair. “Ffffweeet!” Uh, that wasn’t me, I wanted to say. When other patrons reclined, I heard similar passing gas-like squealing sounds around me. During an early quiet moment in “Catching Fire” between Katniss and Gale, someone’s chair squawked, and the audience let out a collective giggle. AMC might want to look into this.
I was comfortable, but my neck felt hyperextended (you can’t adjust the headrest) so I tucked my sweater under my head to make a pillow. My other issue: intimacy. The seats are set up in pairs, with extra wide armrests and cavernous drink holders separating every two seats, and smaller armrests in between. If you’re next to your honey or a friend, great. My seatmate was a stranger. Both fully reclined, at one point, our footrests bumped. “Oh, hi there.” For a moment, it felt like we’d reached a rather relaxed and, ahem, awkwardly horizontal moment during a second date.
“I don’t want to overhype the experience, but it felt like sitting in first class on an airplane,” said Darren Garnick, of Amherst, N.H., who’d recently seen “Thor 2” in similar digs at the AMC Tyngsboro. “Without hesitation, I’d check the times of this movie theater first before settling for sitting in a Stone Age non-reclining seat.”
I agreed. My neurotic caveats aside, this is how to see a movie — and, possibly, meet a new friend.
SHOWCASE CINEMA DE LUX PATRIOT PLACE, “LUX LEVEL”
Ticket: $20 (includes $5 food/drink voucher)
Showcase Cinema’s “Cinema de Lux,” such as the location at Patriot Place, offers a step up on the luxury ladder. In Foxborough , a piano and bar grace the lobby, as do the usual concession-stand suspects. The lobby is upscale, but not “luxe level.’’
Getting there involves, fittingly, ascending a staircase to an exclusive, 21+ bar area, where patrons may linger to order a drink or food, or an usher can lead you to your seat in the balcony above the regular customers. I heard one group say, “We doing desserts?” Let them eat triple brownie trio!
The idea is to arrive a good 20 to 30 minutes before showtime so there is time to enjoy the benefits. After perusing a clever back-lighted menu, I pushed the armrest button to summon a server. Before long, tipped back in my ample, leather-clad rocker chairs, I was munching on so-so batter-fried shrimp ($9.50) and sipping Sam Seasonal on tap ($5). (I’d passed on a Gummy Vodka cocktail that the menu promised “tastes and smells like Swedish Fish.”)
My balcony mates seemed to be mostly middle-aged. “You get spoiled. The chairs,” said Joe Newell, of Franklin, here with his wife and mother. “There’s no other way to see a movie.” Plus, added Mary Newell, his mother, there’s “not someone kicking the seat behind you.” Amen, sister.
As Vince Vaughn realized he was the father of 533 children, someone’s bacon, egg, and cheese burger wafted by in the dark. I had ordered the pan-seared Atlantic salmon with cinnamon-chipotle rub ($15). Muttered orders were a slight annoyance, but more so was some dude checking his iPhone.
By about a third into the movie, most folks stopped ordering and settled into the film. But I discovered a risk beyond eating a meal on a swivel-able tray in the dark. I accidentally tripped my server. Luckily, he wasn’t carrying a tray of vittles. Perhaps the aisles aren’t quite wide enough? Overall, the experience felt special, but I wondered if it was worth the price.
SHOWCASE SUPERLUX, CHESTNUT HILL
“Hunger Games: Catching Fire,”
Ticket: $28 (includes $5 food/drink voucher and unlimited popcorn)
For my final escapade, I headed back to Showcase SuperLux. Some weeks had passed since my climactic “Are you all set?” “Gravity” disaster. I wanted to give them a second chance.
Ascending the escalators, I was struck by the plush hotel-like lobby: sleek bar and lounge, several TV screens, and a dramatic lighting fixture dangling over the “concierge desk.”
Shari Redstone, president of National Amusements, which owns the Showcase chain, said, “We really need to give [people] a compelling reason to come to the movies.”
An usher scanned the ticket I’d printed out at home. I entered and took in the auditorium: mostly couples on date nights, some older, some younger. The house lights set a restaurant mood. I sank into my reclinable leather seat — even bigger and more marshmallow-like than any other I’d sampled — as a server asked, “Welcome. Is this your first time here?” Forgoing the $110 bottle of Veuve Cliquot Brut, I ordered what turned out to be a sugary “Catching Fire” “Tracker Jacker” cocktail with bourbon and Amaretto ($11). I drank it anyway.
“We’ll keep pushing the button as much as possible,” said newcomers Roger Nix and Jessica Yoshimura, seated in front of me. (I later learned, to minimize interruptions, you can program when you’d prefer each drink and course to arrive.)
As the trailer for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” began, I ordered the Thai chicken bites app ($9), the crispy duck breast ($21), and key lime pie ($7). I hit the recline button. No noise. Come on, SuperLux. Bring me your best.
On the plus side: Fellow patrons were incredibly quiet. Seats here come with more space around them than anywhere else, creating a bubble of personal space that nearly guarantees you won’t be disturbed by food odors or sounds. And a bucket of popcorn arrives without having to ask for it.
After “Catching Fire” ended, I caught up with my neighbors. Roger said that despite being seated next to the entrance, distraction from the servers was “not too bad.” For me, the bigger distraction involved my effort to eat in darkness. Look down to spear a green bean or potato, and you miss Jennifer Lawrence spearing another foe. I dropped a chicken chunk in my lap. I could have used a bib. As for the settling up problem, this time, the bill arrived inside a lighted up folder and I paid up after the film ended.
As I exited, I wondered if someday all theaters would be luxe-style. The amenities were impressive and the inconveniences not too intrusive, but I don’t want to spend $20 or $28 a pop for tickets. I want movies to exist for the masses, not just the upper crust. Besides, I go to the theater primarily to get sucked into a movie. The AMC comfy chairs, minus the food service, felt like the right mix for me. I did, however, pick up one last insight. Contemplating watching another holiday epic I was reminded of what happens when sitting in a standard cinema: Your butt falls asleep. “Movies got a lot longer,” said theatergoer Hannah Buso of Boston. “You might as well have a comfortable seat.”