What Do Most Dine-In Movie Theaters Get Wrong?

By  · Published on December 2nd, 2012

In lieu of a Movie Houses of Worship column (in part due to a lack of entries from readers), this week I’d like to discuss a part of the cinema industry that I feel needs addressing. Think of it alternately as a sermon, to keep the religious aspect of moviegoing analogy going. The topic of this sermon is dine-in theaters, aka movie-grills, aka Drafthouse-type cinemas.

The other night I attended the grand opening of a new Movie Studio Grill location in Duluth, GA. It’s a beautiful place, one of the more upscale dine-in movie theaters (leather chairs!) yet not so hoity toity as those that sell themselves on signature cocktails and fancy foods sprinkled with magic truffle dust and such. And for the most part I had a great time in spite of the movie shown to us being the very messy Hyde Park on Hudson (in a way, though, the film’s culture-clashing themes worked for the fancy digs meets bar food concept). I should point out for full disclosure, by the way, that I was fed at this event. Not that it should influence anything since the experience has prompted a larger complaint about this cinema concept. I honestly wasn’t a fan of most of what I ate, though my companion (okay, it was my mom), loved every bite.

Right there is one of my issues with these sorts of establishments. A lot of them – many much worse than Studio Movie Grill – put the concept first and everything else seems to come second. The food options, while not bad, especially not completely, are fairly bland and basic fried things and burgers and pizzas and quesadillas with little personality or passion put into it. Not all dine-ins need to have movie-themed food, whether permanent staples or current-release specials (the best of which I’ve had is a Descendants-inspired pork sandwich at the Nitehawk in Brooklyn, NY), but there should be something to my meal that doesn’t make me feel like I just brought in some to-go food from the local diner.

There’s obviously going to be a decrease in a certain unique specialness the larger a chain like this gets. Few franchises ever retain the feel of the original operation that started it all, and uniformity of quality takes away from the quality of character. We even saw this happen to the Alamo Drafthouse chain when it first sold off franchise rights. For them, though, the brand is a big deal. We associate Alamo Drafthouses with great food clearly made by expert chefs on the premises, with a sense of community that adds to the whole excitement of moviegoing and the local and global film culture, and most notably with standards of etiquette. You go to an Alamo Drafthouse not just for the dine-in experience, which is increasingly common all over, but for a distinguished atmosphere and the trust that they are about the love of movies and the love of food more than the novelty of their set-up. This makes sense, since they’re more than 10 years old and the novelty of concept isn’t enough anymore.

Still, the dine-in idea is one that I enjoy and maybe even prefer. And as long as there are still no plans to bring an Alamo Drafthouse to Atlanta, I’m okay with the Studio Movie Grill, the AMC Fork & Screen and (to a lesser extent, particularly food-wise), the Movie Tavern chains dotting my vicinity. But there is one really unfortunate thing that I’ve noticed about every non-Alamo dine-in chain I’ve ever patronized (save for, I think, my once-beloved yet no-longer-existing Speakeasy theaters of the Oakland, CA, area): talking waitstaff. First and foremost, these are movie theaters, and we are trying hard to pay attention to Bill Murray’s FDR impersonation. I would think these companies would figure out a way to allow non-distracting communication between the audience and the theater’s service employees.

All they need to do is look to the Alamo Drafthouse for the easy solution. At their theaters, same as other chains, customers are encouraged to order their meal or concessions before the show begins. But during the movie, at Alamo you write down your order (or additional orders for those of us who’d like another beer midway through) on a little slip of paper, and the waiter comes by and grabs it as stealthily as possible. Now, I have had idiot waiters at Drafthouses who strangely feel the need to repeat my order back to me when they grab the paper, which obviously goes against the whole point, and talk too much when the food is brought out and when the check is handed over. Also, unfortunately, some Drafthouse patrons likely require clarification if their handwriting or lack of detail is an issue for the employees. But for the most part, it’s a good system.

Another way to do it, which was the practice of the Speakeasy brand, is to just have all orders put in at a concession stand, after which a number is provided to be placed on your table. Then the server simply comes out with your food when it’s ready, silently. Both ways do allow for more distraction than you have at a regular movie theater, but so does eating dinner while watching a movie anyway. There are some things to be expected of the dine-in theater experience over all. But as we see more and more chains pop up – and bigger chains develop their own copycats – we are getting various differences that eventually will provide us with preferred establishments depending on anything from what kind of tables we like (long bar; tray attached to your seat; etc.) to draft beer selection (another plus for Drafthouse, which a beer snob like me has never seen topped at other dine-ins) to quality of service and non-robotic friendliness of the staff.

What do you look for most in a dine-in style movie theater, and what do you think most of them get wrong?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.