Joe is enjoying
his non-traditional holiday feast inside the Hollywood
Blvd. quad, a Greater
Chicago “first-run cinema-eatery” (or FRCE) that’s
been up and running since last March.
Thanks to what appears to be a dramatic
shift in film distribution policies, at least a dozen
FRCEs have sprung into being over
the last 30 months, with many more on the way. Hollywood
Blvd. owner Ted Bulthaup says he now plans to open one
or two FRCEs
Yet prior to November 1995 there appears
to have been only one alcohol-dispensing FRCE: the granddaddy
of them all,
Portsmouth, Va.’s venerable Commodore Theatre.
The Commodore Sets Sail
What Commodore owner Fred Schoenfeld created in July 1990
appears to have been unique: a first-run cinema that served
meals and spirits inside its auditorium.
The basic idea, only with sub-run movies,
had been around for decades, popularized since the 1970s
by, among others,
Atlanta-based Cinema Grill Systems (CGS). The Commodore’s
biggest innovation was to combine the cinema-eatery concept
with brand-new releases.
The Commodore may have benefited from being
situated in an area with few first-run cinemas. “The reason they were
able to [get first-run movies at the Commodore] was that
it was a fairly unique situation,” explains Texas-based
Brian Schultz, who spent years trying to start his own chain
of FRCEs in Texas. “It’s a unique city, it’s
a smaller town.”
Schoenfeld, who traces his exhibition career
back to the 1950s and the old Levine Theatres chain, has
a sub-run cinema, and was not keen to start with his newly-acquired
Commodore. When he decided to transform the historic 1945
single into an elegant cinema-eatery, he never considered
offering anything other than first-run product.
“I didn’t want to be hampered by the problems of sub-run,
with the [difficulty of] getting product, or have to compete
with the first-run houses,” he says. “I’ve
always been a first-run house, and I wanted to continue that
Throughout the Commodore’s 13-year
history as an FRCE, Schoenfeld found all the major distributors
friendly to booking
his venue except one, he says. That distributor, which
years ago refused to let Schoenfeld play a much-anticipated
no longer does business with the Commodore, and Schoenfeld
says the Commodore continues to do just fine without it.
Despite the Portsmouth venue’s well-publicized
success, it would be more than five years before a second
open in the United States.
Like Schoenfeld, New England exhibitor Milton
Smith found the film distributors accommodating enough
when, on Nov.
24, 1995, he launched his new Chunky’s Cinema Pub
FRCE duplex in Windham, Maine.
Smith, who was just out of college in 1992
when he entered the cinema-eatery trade with a sub-run
single in Plaistow,
N.H., says the decision to open the Windham facility, America’s
first alcohol-serving FRCE multiplex, three years later was
a “no-brainer.” “When movies first come
out is when people want to first come to see them,” says
Smith. “It wasn’t even a question. I wouldn’t
do second-run now.”
Business was so good, a second Chunky’s FRCE appeared
17 months later, in Pelham, N.H. There are now five FRCEs
operating in New England under the Chunky’s banner,
and Smith is currently negotiating the lease for a sixth.
Smith allows that where his cinemas are
located – all,
like the Commodore, are in areas with few first-run screens – had
a lot to do with his ability to go first-run.
But not everyone trying to follow in the
wake found the waters so accommodating.
Years of Struggle
Like Smith, Brian Schultz entered the exhibition business
in 1992 with a sub-run cinema-eatery. When he took over
Dallas’ Granada Theatre, a historic movie palace
which five years earlier had been converted into a moviehouse-restaurant
by a CGS franchise, he continued to operate the venue as
a sub-run cinema-eatery, but longed to make the jump to
For four and a half years, he says, Granada
booker Tim Patton tirelessly lobbied the regional offices
distributor – but first-run never did come to Schultz’s
Granada, and Schultz and Patton ultimately walked away from
it in 1999 (the building survives today as a live-music venue).
Bulthaup, who operates the Schwarzenburger-serving
Hollywood Blvd., says he endured similar frustration while
Indianapolis’ Hollywood Bar & Filmworks. He says
the studios would not rent first-run features to any area
cinema with a liquor license, and he spent five years “convincing,
convincing, convincing” before his Hollywood Blvd.
cinema-eatery was able to get its initial first-run print
Much of the cinema-eatery industry’s fast-emerging
shift toward first-run can probably be traced specifically
to late 1998, when Schultz and Patton opened their second
cinema-eatery, a former UA 5-plex just north of Dallas known
today as the Studio Movie Grill Addison. Having endured Patton’s
pleas for nearly half a decade, Buena Vista became the first
distributor to issue the Addison venue a first-run print.
“It was probably more of a situation
give this guy a chance; it’s probably not going to
work out anyway so he’ll stop calling us,’” explains
That first-run print turned out to be the
Adam Sandler blockbuster “The
Waterboy.” When the distribution offices servicing
Schultz’s market saw the Addison plex’s initial
grosses, the multi’s first-run status quickly turned
The change of heart “was not so much an evolution in
distribution’s thinking as it was a wearing-down process,” says
Schultz. “We just kept asking for a chance to show
them what we could do.”
Schultz says he believes Patton’s lobbying efforts
are “absolutely” the reason for the sudden proliferation
of FRCEs in Texas and other parts of the United States. His
own company unveiled its second FRCE, a former UA 8-plex
in the Dallas suburb of Plano, just 18 months after the first.
Business has been so good Schultz now plans to add two FRCEs
per year, with his third site expected to be up and running
The Lone Star State
Texas is now home to by far the most FRCEs; fully half of
all those identified by In Focus reside there.
Their disproportionate presence in the Lone
Star State may be attributable in part to Patton’s
groundbreaking efforts on behalf of Studio Movie Grill.
It may also have
something to do with the Alamo theatre circuit, perhaps
the most famous chain of cinema-eateries in the world.
The Original Alamo Drafthouse, located in
downtown Austin, rarely programs mainstream first-run movies.
and Karrie League, who purchased the aging single and converted
it into a cinema eatery in 1997, offer an electic mix of
quirky classics (“Return to Oz” and “The
Goonies” among them), sub-run fare (“American
Splendor” and “Final Destination 2” played
there in December) and little-seen oddities (like the animated
Japanese adventure “Ranma ½” and the TV-movie “Sarah
T: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic”). The facility
also plays host to the city’s world-famous South-by-Southwest
The Drafthouse has always been popular,
notably among students who drift down from the sprawling
University of Texas situated
12 blocks north of the cinema, but the Leagues’ customers
encouraged the couple to keep the kitchen and wait-service
while introducing more mainstream fare to their screen.
Three summers ago the Leagues launched in
Northern Austin the Alamo Village quad, their pioneer FRCE.
two more FRCEs bearing the Alamo name opened in Texas.
Alamo CEO Terrell Braly, who joined the Leagues four months
the Village’s opening, says the first-run programming
was successful from day one.
It “felt like Ray Kroc meeting the McDonald Brothers,” Braly
says of his first encounter with the Leagues. “I thought, ‘Grow
or die.’ They didn’t have the goal to expand,
but we discussed that they had something very magical and
that you can’t stay the same forever.”
Soon thereafter, the trio put together an
expansion plan developing a prototype for franchising.
franchising was the only way that they could be “first to market” in
areas within Texas and surrounding states. They decided to
carry first-run programming over to all subsequent venues,
and in May saw the opening of their first franchise, the
Alamo West Oaks 6-plex in Houston.
“Right now we are a fabulous concept,
branded in Texas with some regional, national and international
name recognition,” says
Braly. “We want to really build the brand in Texas,
so that the branding goes well beyond the borders – and
the next stage is surrounding states.” The company
has already announced plans to open Alamo FRCEs in Texas’ San
Marcos and Dallas markets.
Will the Dallas territory, which already
boasts six first-run cinema-eateries, emerge as an FRCE
Movie Grill’s Schultz says he was unaware of Alamo’s
plans to establish a presence in Dallas, but admits no concern. “I’m
not really worried about a limited market. I think the more
people who do this concept of ‘food in the movie,’ the
better it is for us.”
A huge part of Alamo’s success, says Braly, is attributable
to the amount of national publicity the circuit has received – much
of it traceable to another new and popular cinematic institution
based in Austin, Harry Knowles’ Ain’t-It-Cool-News
(AICN) movie gossip Website.
Founded the year before the Leagues opened
the Alamo Drafthouse, AICN has grown into a kind of cyberspace “ground zero” for
millions of self-described “film geeks” ravenous
for details on upcoming movie projects. Knowles has referenced
an Alamo venue in at least 350 different AICN posts over
the last seven years. That works out to about one plug per
week. “I usually go to the Alamo Village twice a week,” says
Knowles. “It’s nine minutes from my house.”*
Partly because AICN is so widely read among
filmmakers and others in the entertainment industry, the
acquired more than its share of Hollywood-based fans, many
of whom make it a point to visit the facilities when they’re
in Texas. Actress Jessica Biel, who fell hard for the Alamo
concept while in Austin shooting “The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre,” has said she’d like to bring an Alamo
franchise to Los Angeles.
Los Angeles-based screenwriter-director Ed Solomon, whose
credits include “Men in Black,” “Charlie’s
Angels” and “Levity,” serves on Alamo’s
board of advisors. He believes the Alamo’s influence
is behind the explosive growth in Texas cinema-eateries generally. “I
had heard about the Alamo from a number of friends of mine,” he
relates. “I was impressed with the unique vision of
the theatre – and the combination of love for movies
and respect for the audience.”
While nine Texas FRCEs have opened over the last six years,
In Focus was unable to identify any in the world’s
moviemaking capital, Los Angeles. Any, in fact, in all of
California. And, Biel’s ardor notwithstanding, any
specific plans to create one.
Before they became some of the biggest FRCE
operators in Texas, Schultz and the Leagues wanted to build
cinema-eateries in Southern California.
The Leagues actually owned and operated
a non-eatery specialty cinema in Bakersfield, Calif., where
both attended grad
school, but they say they could not obtain the necessary
that would allow them to operate a cinema-eatery in California.
A native of Agoura Hills, Calif., who attended
California State University Chico, Schultz says his first
notion – inspired
by a Cinema Grill facility he visited in Bethesda, Md. – was
to bring the cinema-eatery to Greater Los Angeles. “Because
that’s where I lived! That would be nirvana for me!” But
he says he too found California unfriendly toward the cinema-eatery
Carl DeWing, information officer for California’s
Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC), points
out that policies
and laws regarding alcohol differ greatly from state to
He adds that though there is no blanket
cinemas from obtaining liquor licenses in California, the
DABC has made it a policy to not issue such licenses to
The reason, says DeWing, is linked to how
difficult it can be to police a darkened auditorium, especially
minors. “Alcohol can create situations that may not
be readily noticeable by the licensee,” he offers. “Alcohol
has a way of loosening inhibitions, and people with criminal
intent, if they take alcohol into a theatre, and have something
in mind, it could create problems for people who attend these
“Once you bring [liquor] into an auditorium,
the auditorium is dark, and you don’t know [if any minors might be]
consuming the liquor,” explains NATO of California/Nevada
president Milt Moritz, who adds that selling beer at other
entertainment venues, such as sports stadia, is not an issue
because “the lights are at a level at where you can
detect if minors are drinking.”
Although DeWing allows that a few cinemas
in the state have been granted licenses in the past, he
says it will
be the exception, not the rule, as heavy conditions are
placed on cinemas serving alcohol (13 varying conditions
to be exact).
He also notes that stipulations can and do vary according
to local zoning ordinances in each city.*
For the record, alcohol licensing does not
appear to be the only hurdle a California cinema-eatery
One veteran exhibitor who asked not to be identified
suggested that labor laws in both California and New
York make those
states particularly unfriendly toward the cinema-eatery
And All At Once”
The FRCE business is so new it’s almost like an industry
of prototypes. No two companies seem to operate alike.
“When you are serving people a restaurant-type
meal, they want to be taken care of in the dark just as
well as if they
were at a restaurant,” says Hollywood Blvd.’s
Bulthaup. “They have a right to expect it, but we
have to do it in the dark, and all at once.”
Bulthaup says that on a normal busy evening,
his kitchen and staff are equipped to prepare around 1,000
meals in an hour, along with cocktail, beer and wine orders
that are prepared at the bar.
“Anybody else serving this much food and this much beverage
in such a short period of time is called a banquet hall,” he
Hollywood Blvd. moviegoers sit in rolling
executive leather desk chairs, either behind counter-tables
parallel to the
screen or at individual tables of four. Once seated in
the auditoria, guests give their food and drink orders
servers. Although the facility is set up to provide continuous
service throughout the film, Bulthaup, like most cinema-eatery
owners, encourages moviegoers to arrive around 30 to
40 minutes prior to the start of the show. Patrons under
allowed inside the facility during any show, with the
exception of select weekend matinee screenings.
Phoning It In
Brian Edge, who in June 2002 opened his first-run Carolina
Theatre/Grill in Downtown Elizabeth City, N.C. (population
14,000), decided after a trip to Virginia to model his
operation after the elegant style of the Commodore.
Doors at the Carolina open an hour prior
to the start of the movie. After moviegoers let the box
know if they will be dining or not, an usher takes them
to their seats. Non-eaters are led to conventional cinema
close to the screen; those choosing to indulge are led
to dining tables in the rear. Using individual phones provided
at each table, diners dial into a service area where someone
picks up and takes the order. A server then runs the food
into the auditorium.
Edge says that in order to cut down on the
noise and concerns over excessive alcohol consumption,
the phone systems are
cut off 30 minutes after the movie starts. Patrons may
still get up at anytime and order from a separate alcohol-free
As a Culinary Institute of America graduate,
Edge says that he never wanted to be a “burgers, fries and nachos” place.
Though he owns a separate restaurant right around the corner,
Edge doesn’t offer elaborate entree selections at his
cinema because they require too much noise and overhead light
to eat comfortably. The Carolina’s cuisine runs more
toward buffalo wings, onion blossoms, grilled shrimp, gourmet
sandwiches and salads.
Although there are no age restrictions at
the Carolina, Edge has made it a policy to never show G-rated
facility, screening instead mostly PG-13 and R-rated fare.
Stealthy and Alert
From the beginning, Alamo venues have enforced a strict
policy of prohibiting children under six from attending
shows. No one under 18 is admitted to any regular show
unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Patrons at all Alamo sites are seated behind
long, thin tables situated before each row; on the other
side of the
are narrow access spaces for servers. “The waiter’s
job is to be stealthy and stay hidden, but at the same time,
serve you whenever you need something,” explains
Alamo food and beverage vice president Paul Michie. Paper
are provided with the menus, so patrons can write down
their orders and stick them in a special clip. Once in
the paper acts as a flag, alerting the server to collect
Usually, Michie says, all of the communication
is through written commands, but servers are trained to
get a sense
of how much a patron wants to talk. Checks are dropped
off 30 minutes prior to the end of the film when the servers
announce last call.
AICN’s Knowles says one of his favorite aspects of
the Alamo chain is its use of vintage trailers (many hand-picked
from Tim League’s personal film library) to get moviegoers
in the mood for the main feature. “Kill Bill,” for
example, was preceded by a trailer for a film that helped
inspire it, the 1974 Swedish revenge actioner “They
Call Her One-Eye.”
Back To Port
Operating an FRCE can be personally satisfying and enormously
lucrative, says the Commodore’s Schoenfeld, even
if establishing one might require more energy and money
than a traditional cinema.
After operating the Commodore for nearly
13 years, Schoenfeld, 58, says he has no interest in opening
another FRCE, and
instead serves as a consultant to those who do. One senses
he has a lot of consulting ahead of him.
When people leave the Commodore, says Schoenfeld, “they
almost always ask, ‘How come we don’t have
anything like this in our town?’”