It's hard for young children to sit still for two hours, and that can turn a trip to the movies into an ordeal for parents. So what if the solution were to let the kids play at the cinema?
Mexico-based movie theater chain Cinepolis is betting it can lure more families back to the multiplex with its new in-theater playground concept, Cinepolis Junior, which makes its U.S. debut at two Southern California locations next week. The remodeled auditoriums at Cinepolis USA's Pico Rivera and Vista theaters each feature a colorful play area near the screen in front of the seats, a jungle gym, and cushy beanbag chairs.
Cinepolis, the world's fourth-largest cinema operator, hopes the new kid-oriented theaters — which charge up to $3 more than a regular ticket — will help it better compete with Netflix and other at-home options by enticing more parents and children to go to the theater. Designed for ages 3 to 12, the two children's auditoriums open March 16 to screen Disney's live-action "Beauty and the Beast" remake.
"It's really intended to make kids feel welcome and comfortable," said Cinepolis USA Chief Executive Adrian Mijares Elizondo. "The whole idea is to make it easier for parents to take their kids to the movies and let the kids have more fun."
The kids' auditoriums, which each cost about $500,000 to retrofit, is the latest idea cinema owners have devised to stem the long-term slowdown in theatrical attendance, especially among younger consumers. Cinema operators including AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment have spent heavily in recent years to remake their multiplexes with luxury amenities to stop the erosion. Admissions totaled an estimated 1.3 billion in the U.S. and Canada last year, down from about 1.4 billion a decade ago.
Many American moviegoers will no doubt balk at the idea of letting kids play freely in a movie theater. But the concept could be attractive to families with young children, analysts said.
"Some may argue that it's disrespectful to the movie, but in this scenario it may be the best way for the kids to experience the film," said box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of ComScore. "You might actually get more parents to come and bring their kids. Even in the greatest movies, kids get restless and bored."
The kid-friendly push reflects the increasing importance of the family audience as Hollywood studios spend heavily on animated productions. Half of the top 10 domestic grossing movies in 2016 were geared toward kids: "Finding Dory," "The Secret Life of Pets," "The Jungle Book," "Zootopia" and "Sing." "Dory" and "Zootopia" each collected more than $1 billion in worldwide box-office receipts.
Child-friendly auditoriums could help theaters fill seats in years when the family movie slate is weak, Mijares said.
Attendance levels among families with young kids fluctuate heavily from year to year. When "Frozen" and "Despicable Me 2" were released in 2013, for example, the number of people aged 2 to 11 who went to the movies at least once a month totaled 4.3 million, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. That number fell 33% in 2015, the most recent year figures were available. Young children make up about 13% of moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada.
Cinepolis Junior was first introduced in Mexico, where it is known as Sala Junior, in January 2014. The concept later broadened to theaters in Spain, Costa Rica and Guatemala. But the company had to address stricter indoor playground safety regulations to bring Cinepolis Junior to the U.S. Kids have to be between 3 and 5 feet tall to use the play structure, there are no shoes, food or drink allowed in the jungle gym or play area, and running in the theater is prohibited.
The theaters will allow families into the theater early so the kids can climb on the plastic hippos and alligators in the faux-turf, fenced-in play space, and explore the slides and obstacle course on the side aisle. They will also have time to play for about 15 minutes after the movie ends. The auditoriums boast beanbag seats and poolside lounge-style chairs.
Sala Junior cinemas in Mexico and other international locations feature a 15-minute intermission during the movies to let kids explore and use the restroom. The company has not decided whether do the same in the U.S. Cinepolis also is considering leaving the house lights on during the movie so that restless children can easily get up to play.
The new kid-friendly auditoriums are part of the company's broader expansion into the U.S. Since 2011, Cinepolis USA has opened 16 theaters nationwide and plans 20 additional U.S. theaters in the coming years.
Cinepolis was among the first chains to serve beer, wine and cocktails in its theaters, including its luxury cinema in Westlake Village, in an effort to cater to a more upscale crowd. It also became one of the first to add immersive so-called 4DX cinema technology to its offerings. The Southern California locations are also introducing 4DX theaters, which use rumbling seats and other physical effects to enhance the movie.
One hurdle for families looking to try out Cinepolis Junior could be cost, as added amenities continue to drive up ticket prices. A regular adult ticket for an evening screening at Cinepolis Pico Rivera costs about $14.
But if the idea catches on, the company plans to add three to four Cinepolis Junior auditoriums a year during the next four to five years, Mijares said. The company is betting the idea will help usher in the next generation of moviegoers by getting them hooked early.
"It's very valuable for us and the market to bring kids in early and for them to have a good time," Mijares said. "I think that will increase the possibility of those guests becoming strong moviegoers as teenagers and adults."