Loews Theatres’ New Concept: Service

In northwest suburban Rolling Meadows, Loews Theatres is quietly constructing a luxury movie theater complex it hopes will lure back the disenchanted moviegoing public. The New York City-based Loews has plans to build similar theaters in at least a few markets in the northeast as well. Some competitors, though, are doubtful that the ambitious construction project will end up generating higher ticket revenues for the company.

Scheduled to open mid-November, just in time for the Christmas-release rush, the nine-screen, 2,900-seat Loews complex at the intersection of Algonquin and Wilke will be the chain’s first to sport what it calls the “Star” design. The name and the concept are taken from a small but popular Michigan chain started by Jim and Barrie Loeks, who last year became chairmen of Loews, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Now the Loeks are rolling out the Star concept, with its emphasis on customer service, under the Loews banner.

The new theater will feature a deco-inspired theater lobby and a red, black, and white color scheme. Rising above the lobby will be a 35-foot-high curved glass atrium that floods the lobby with natural light during the day and lights up dramatically at night. Five box-office stations will be located inside the lobby so customers buying tickets won’t have to brave the elements outside. According to Loews exec Marc Pascucci, theater staff will be trained to handle both ticket and concession sales so they can switch back and forth according to demand.

In an effort to keep popcorn lines short, the concessions stand will be situated in the center of the lobby with six service stations around its perimeter, and customers who have to wait more than three minutes to be served will get free Cokes. Movie previews will run continuously on oversized video monitors in the lobby. The nine theaters will range in size from around 200 seats to more than 500, and the smaller theaters are being designed with more width than depth so they can be fitted with large screens.

The most thoughtful design aspect may prove to be the manager’s kiosk in the theater lobby. Managers will man the kiosk throughout their shifts so that customers can find them easily if they have complaints or questions. “It’s part of our goal to promote customer service by making the manager a more recognizable figure,” explains Pascucci.

But despite all the glitz and promises of enhanced service, competing Chicago exhibitors and other local movie theater executives are skeptical. “It sounds like the Garth Drabinsky thing all over again,” notes one observer, referring to the former chairman of the Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon chain. When Drabinsky took control of Cineplex Odeon in the early 1980s, he began building state-of-the-art theater complexes all over North America, a move that eventually brought the chain to the brink of financial collapse. Drabinsky was forced out in the late 80s, and Cineplex Odeon has since been expanding in a much more modest fashion while attempting to regain its financial footing; its only new Chicago-area complex in recent years opened last summer in Schaumburg.

What Drabinsky’s mistake seemed to prove is that it isn’t the theaters that bring in moviegoers, no matter how nice they are; it’s the movies themselves–and often, with second-run bargain houses proliferating, the ticket price as well. One local exhibitor maintains that General Cinema’s unadorned 14-screen Ford City complex in the south suburbs is one of the nation’s most lucrative. “It consistently pulls in big grosses,” notes the source, “and all they have there are security guards.” The large number of screens enables General Cinema to book a wide range of movies there and makes it easy to move them to different-sized theaters within the complex as their popularity comes and goes.

Souvenirs du Cirque

The not-for-profit Cirque du Soleil is looking for ways to generate new revenue. The magical Montreal circus, in residence through August 22 at Cityfront Center, has significantly beefed up its merchandising. As circusgoers exit the tent after each performance, they’re offered a copy of the new Cirque du Soleil catalog, which contains some 75 items, almost double the number available in the debut catalog a year ago. The souvenirs range from greeting cards to watches with the Cirque du Soleil logo to a $370 leather-and-suede jacket. Jean David, Cirque du Soleil’s vice president of marketing, says most souvenir sales still occur at the circus site, but the idea with the catalogs is that they can be passed along to friends or used to order merchandise during the long waits (as much as two years) between the circus’s visits. David also says the company is considering licensing agreements with major department stores such as Macy’s to sell Cirque du Soleil items.

Food Stuff at Ravinia

Cirque du Soleil isn’t the only not-for-profit group looking for money. The Ravinia Festival has cut a deal to make its Highland Park grounds the site of the American Institute of Wine and Food’s fifth annual Best of the Midwest Market on September 12. For the past four years, the one-day affair spotlighting the food and beverages of 80 regional growers has been held at Navy Pier. But with the pier now in the middle of renovations, the institute was forced to look elsewhere. Ravinia jumped in, and the deal they made calls for the two organizations to split revenue from the $8-to-$12 tickets down the middle.

Whatever Ravinia ends up making from the event, the sum no doubt will pale next to the whopping $700,000 the music festival has netted to date from Noteworthy, a cookbook compiled and published seven years ago by the Ravinia Women’s Board. The board is testing recipes for a sequel to be published in the fall of 1994.