Movie theaters have faced plenty of challenges in recent years, but as pandemic restrictions ease, they face what could be their biggest challenge ever: how to get people back in seats.
Living-room couches are comfortable. Popcorn, candy and drinks are cheaper when they come from our own kitchens. And for those who can afford them, home theaters are beginning to deliver higher-quality sound as well as larger screens.
For many chains, the solution has been to upgrade the experience with cozier seating, higher-end food and better sound. Some, like Alamo Drafthouse, have coupled movie-going with at-seat dining and interactive events. That can be fun, as long as you don’t mind a server walking in front of the screen or cashing out in the dark during a movie’s climax.
The new AMC+9 CO 10, which opened in March at 826 Albion Street, in the new development at Colorado Boulevard and Ninth Avenue that replaced the University of Colorado hospital complex, offers plenty of upgrades on the traditional movie-theater experience. Some work, others are overpriced, and a few are just plain distracting.
With its slanted roof and modern design, the new AMC promises a higher-end movie-going experience than big-block multiplexes of the past offered. The spacious downstairs lobby has plenty of touch-screen ticketing machines and a few bored but helpful staffers to take pre-ordered tickets from smartphones. Unlike in pre-pandemic times, when there were long lines of eager movie-goers chatting away, on this past Saturday night the lobby was largely empty — a testament either to the efficiency of these systems or to AMC’s struggle to draw a crowd.
For the unvaccinated, the theater offers free masks and hand sanitizer stations. Keeping some COVID-19 precautions in place makes sense, as summer blockbuster season is entirely dependent on whether families feel safe taking their kids to the movies.
To get to the second floor, there are both an elevator and escalator, though the latter was broken the night we went. In one section of the upscale, upstairs lobby are concessions, which can be ordered ahead of time or from the efficient staff at the counter. While spendy, the menu includes a few extras like chicken strips, mac-and-cheese balls, chilled Junior Mints, gourmet and regular popcorn, and those delightful touch-screen soda fountains that include an impressive mix of options...if you can afford them.
Once you buy tickets and snacks, a family could easily shell out a hundred bucks for a night here.
The lobby also has a lounge, with space for a pre- or post-movie drink and conversation, a full-screen TV, and a fully stocked bar with overpriced booze.
The place was hotter than most over-chilled theaters — not good on a balmy summer day. Apparently, some of the seats offer temperature control, though not ours. The theaters are reserved-seating only and equipped with those big cushy recliners that envelop you and let you prop up your feet, creating an illusion of home. Assuming you’re watching a noisy blockbuster, that works well.
But we went to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical tribute to Washington Heights and the sueñitos, or little dreams, of the people living in the neighborhood, struggling with U.S. immigration policy, gentrification, racism and a citywide blackout. The musical has long, quiet, sad sections, and my fellow movie-goers decided those were the perfect time to rearrange their seats, disrupting the movie’s mood. While wiggly watchers can be annoying in their own right, the buzzing of the mechanical chairs and the squeak of the leathery fabric were the real nuisance, making me long for the days of quieter, fixed, upright chairs — at least the well-oiled ones.
But the image was sharp and in focus, much better than anything I've seen in a home theater. The sound was all-consuming through most of the show, and the arrangement of chairs kept even the most distracting viewers below us out of view, offering perfect sight lines for viewers of all ages.
Still, the best part of watching movies in a crowd — hearing strangers laugh and cry with us — was the real delight of the evening. That's something home theaters will never provide, and all the upgrades in the world cannot improve.
As long as people still go to the movies.
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