The light green accents scattered throughout Carmike Cinemas’s Ovation Cinema Grill 9
in Holly Springs suggest, ever so subtly, the vintage Art Deco motif of the early twentieth century’s golden age of movie houses. It’s the last bit of nostalgia you’re likely to detect in western Wake County’s newest cinema, the latest addition to the burgeoning boutique movie theater scene.
The long-gestating Holly Springs multiplex concludes a weeklong soft opening tomorrow and begins showing first-run films on Thursday, October 13. The nine-screen theater includes eight traditional screens, three of them 3-D capable. It also sports Carmike’s branded BigD auditorium, only the third in North Carolina, which boasts wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling screen and audio processing supported by quad-amplified speakers and subwoofers.
When plans were approved in January 2014 for phase two of the Holly Springs Towne Center shopping complex along the Highway 55 bypass, they included a combination movie theater, restaurant, and bowling alley owned by Frank Theatres, which operates the CineBowl & Grill in Cary
. When Frank Theatres bowed out in November 2014, Carmike Cinemas, the Columbus, Georgia-based nationwide chain, stepped in.
Carmike currently operates more than a dozen boutique cinemas that offer upscale food and beverage options in limited auditoriums or isolated sections of the facility. The Holly Springs theater is the fourth iteration of Carmike’s Ovation concept, which offers dining service throughout the entire theater, including all auditoriums. Indeed, the 257-seat BigD auditorium is the first to offer a dine-in option.
Brian Dobson, director of restaurant operations for Carmike Cinemas, says there are two big pushes in the current movie theater industry. One is upgraded seating, something already being adopted by nationwide, big-box theater chains. All seats in the Ovation Cinema Grill 9 are reserved, and the stadium seating in each auditorium features electric, leather recliners that allow patrons to request food service to their seats. The other push is full-service, dine-in concepts.
“I think it’s where we are as a society—it’s the one-stop shop,” Dobson says. “People love the idea of dinner and a movie. That’s been around for years. We just put it all under one roof for you, so you’re not running to one space to get a dinner reservation, then worrying to get back to the movie theater to get parking. And then there was always that anxiety to get there early enough to get the good seats.”
Inside the venue’s entrance, the spacious lobby is divided into two halves. To the right is the ticket bar and kiosks. On the left is a large gathering area replete with fabric lounge seats, an outdoor patio, a working fireplace, a bank of televisions, and a crescent-shaped bar stocked with liquor, wine, and local craft beers. There’s no traditional restaurant area, but patrons are welcome to enjoy a meal and drink even without taking in a film.
The American bistro-inspired menu features varied yet traditional offerings like gourmet burgers, wraps, salads, flatbreads, and assorted starters. Dishes like Cavatappi Pesto Alfredo and Grilled Shrimp Tacos are as fancy as the menu gets. According to Dobson, all the food is prepared in house and to order, from the turkey patties to the battered shrimp and hummus plate. Hidden from public view, the kitchen is much more than a couple of panini presses and a microwave. It’s a large, full-service galley with the capacity to serve more than a thousand customers at a time during peak hours.
Carmike Cinemas’s emphasis on enhanced food and beverage offerings falls in line with market trends. According to Carmike’s latest quarterly report, total attendance at its theaters for the second quarter of 2016 decreased 10.4 percent from the same period last year, accounting for a $14.4 million decrease in quarterly operating revenues. At the same time, average per-patron concession spending rose by 10 percent, marking twenty-six consecutive reporting periods of year-over-year concessions spending growth and highlighting the value of strategies to further leverage “food, beverage, and concession initiatives.”
“This industry trend goes back ten to twelve years, even drafthouse cinemas twenty years ago,” Dobson says. “Only in the last five to ten years has it really blown up, now with the game changer of upgraded food and beverage options.”
Dobson says the Ovation Cinema Grill 9 aims for a suburban customer base, more upscale than brands like CineBowl but more family-friendly than iPic Theaters or the CineBistro at Waverly Place in Cary.
“You see that in our tickets prices and movie offerings,” Dobson explains. “There are other [boutique theater] concepts out there that really skew to the twenty-one-plus crowds with their menu and ticket prices. We want to be in a community as opposed to a downtown area.”
Movie-only ticket prices top out at $10.50 per adult during prime time, down to matinee rates of $6 for children and seniors. There’s a $3 upcharge for 3-D movies. Carmike also offers a special $5.95 ticket price all day every Tuesday. Dobson says the theater will also feature Carmike’s “Sensory Sensitive Cinema” on particular Saturday mornings for children with autism and other developmental challenges. These screenings contain no previews, the house lights dim only halfway, the volume is reduced from usual levels, and attendees are welcome to freely move about the auditorium.
Propelling everything is a staff of approximately 125 employees, compared to an average of thirty to forty workers at a traditional nine-screen theater. Dobson says employees are not programed with a script or spiel, but instead are asked to exude a sense of “genuine friendliness.”
“What really drives these [boutique theaters] is the guest service,” he says. “All of us in the dine-in movie industry are going to be separated by that. We’re all showing the same movies. Nowadays, pretty much everybody has great projection and sound systems. So when you look at why people would spend their money at concept A versus concept B, the training guidelines and expectations for the staff are built around this being their hometown theater.”