At Thursday night’s grand opening of the remodeled Emagine Willow Creek movie theater, I ordered a martini from the lobby bar. They didn’t have any vermouth, so it was just a glass of gin with a couple of olives, but that was more gin and more olives than I was ever able to get at the Roseville 4.
Emagine, a Michigan-based theater chain, is expanding into Minnesota with last year’s purchase of Muller Family Theatres — a venerable eight-theater chain whose aging owners were ready to retire. The Willow Creek location, a 12-screen house facing a strip mall with a Chinese restaurant and a nail salon, is the first of the Muller theaters to have a complete renovation under Emagine’s auspices.
There’s only so much you can do to such a theater without completely gutting it, and Emagine has gone right up to that line. Seating has been reduced by about two-thirds, but the remaining seats are fit for royalty: every single chair is a power recliner, and they’ll be sold as assigned seats so you know which one you’re getting. Refreshments have been upgraded (there’s a stone pizza oven in its own glass chamber), and of course there’s a full(ish) bar with drinks that can be delivered directly to your seats.
That’s a lot of comfort, but Emagine’s co-owner Jon Goldstein understands it’s just table ante. Waiting to talk with him, I overheard Goldstein telling the manager of one former Muller theater that the upcoming Beauty and the Beast remake presents a golden opportunity: it’s a movie guaranteed a massive audience, and it will play on multiple screens in the theater. “Try screenings at different times,” Goldstein said, “and see which ones sell the best. You’ll learn what your audience wants.”
Turning to me, Goldstein explained that he knows movie theaters have to change along with people’s increasingly customized lifestyles. Our lives, he pointed out, used to be anchored to the daily TV schedule. Now, we watch TV whenever we want. Movie theaters can’t expect patrons to bend their lives to standard 5:00, 7:30, 10:00 showtimes. “Give me any time of day,” he said to me, “and I can find you someone whose ideal movie time that is.”
Gesturing to the bar, Goldstein pointed out how much data they have on consumer preferences. They know how much, of what, and when refreshments — from popcorn tubs to microbrews — are sold. That’s information they can use to tailor their offerings accordingly. The same goes for titles and showtimes.
Showtimes aren’t just a challenge facing movie theaters: live entertainment of all kinds is grappling with the reality that an increasing amount of digital entertainment is available on demand, whenever it’s convenient for the consumer. There’s nothing like seeing a movie in a theater — or a play in a theater, or a rock show at a club — but if they want to compete, proprietors are going to have to be highly sensitive to changing lifestyles.
A company like Emagine might need a guy like Goldstein to crunch those numbers if its model is going to work with houses like Willow Creek: it’s now a very, very nice movie theater, but people probably aren’t going to drive across town to get there like they might do for the towering Great Clips IMAX screen or the Mall of America’s upcoming destination movie experience.
Emagine Willow Creek is going to find its bread and butter in the near western suburbs of Minneapolis, or not at all. That puts it in competition with St. Louis Park’s Showplace ICON, which isn’t quite as schmancy at the high end — no power recliners — but offers two levels of seating options along with a full-service bar and restaurant, and more nearby retail shops. Willow Creek’s tougher competitors, though, might be the screens on its potential patrons’ living room walls.
Goldstein said that while certain features of the Willow Creek cinema will be common across the remodeled Muller theaters (every one, for example, will get the reclining chairs and the “freestyle” soda machines that let you pick your own drinks from dozens of options), the company is approaching each location individually.
The Delano theater will have a much different vibe, with vintage-looking Edison bulbs and other features that might make it feel more like a trendy restaurant than an sleek multiplex. Speaking of multiplexes, Goldstein still doesn’t seem entirely sure how he’s going to handle the 21-screen Lakeville theater, a bigger house than anything in the region — or in Emagine’s previous holdings.
Whatever approach the company takes, it will have to be what the people want. What they don’t want, it’s clear, is the status quo.