Chris Forman had a free afternoon and decided to catch a movie.
He visited several local theaters and was unimpressed. The service was subpar, the food was lousy, the lobbies were unattractive and the parking was horrible, he said.
It was 1997, and Forman, whose first job was working as an usher at the Sepulveda Drive-In theater in Van Nuys, was chief executive of Pacific Theatres, a company started by his grandfather in 1946.
“I just went home and said, ‘This is not good,’” the third-generation exhibition executive said.
Forman channeled that frustration into an idea for a new business: a comfortable, high-end movie theater that would become the inspiration for ArcLight Cinemas, which opened its first theater in Hollywood a decade ago on Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street with 14 auditoriums next to the iconic Cinerama Dome.
“We really wanted to create a place of care and respect for the movies, for the filmmakers and for the guests,” said Forman, chief executive of ArcLight Cinemas and parent company Pacific Theatres, which is based in Los Angeles.
By many measures, Forman succeeded in his vision. ArcLight Cinemas, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, has helped to redefine the cinema-going experience in Los Angeles. It serves a mix of programming that includes Hollywood blockbusters, art house fare and cult classics within a luxury environment. Its signature amenities, such as reserved seating, commercial-free movies and gourmet food, have been embraced by other theater companies.
“They’ve become one of the premier theaters in the area,” said Bill Mechanic, film producer and former chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. “It’s extremely well booked and they have interesting pictures. Anybody who is doing a good job forces the competition to get better.”
Having redefined the moviegoing experience in Southern California, ArcLight faces increasing competition. Other theater chains with similarly high-quality services include Landmark Theatres, co-owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner; Robert Redford’s Sundance Cinemas, which is moving into West Hollywood; and Alamo Drafthouse, the quirky Austin, Texas, chain that has announced plans to expand into Los Angeles.
“The ArcLight has grown film culture in Los Angeles in a way we’ve never seen before,” said Jack Foley, president of domestic distribution for Focus Features, the specialty film label of Universal Pictures. “It’s turned the Los Angeles market into one the best art film markets in the country.”
The business model has worked for ArcLight. The company is projected to generate $70 million in revenue this year, up from $50 million in 2009, Forman said.
ArcLight Hollywood consistently ranks among the highest-grossing theaters in the country. Its success has fueled a steady expansion of the circuit, which has opened three additional theaters in Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and El Segundo. A fifth theater in La Jolla will open later this year.
ArcLight is now setting its sights on expanding beyond California, including two theaters at undisclosed locations in the East Coast and the Midwest, company executives say.
Along with new digital projectors and sound systems, the theaters include a full bar and cafe, a gift shop, film exhibits and the characteristic extra-wide stadium seating, along with ArcLight’s signature caramel corn, popcorn (with real butter) and chicken sausage baguettes. Each theater has a designated auditorium for those 21 years and older that is adjacent to a lounge, which allows patrons to bring in beer, wine and cocktails from the bar during special screenings.
There is a no-late-seating policy and ushers are on hand to introduce each movie, check for sound and picture quality and ensure a “hassle-free environment.”
The extra services come at price. Tickets range from $11.75 to $13.75 depending on the day and time, and are about 20% more than at conventional theaters.
“It’s a little bit more pricey, but to me it’s worth it,” said Rebecca Russ, a student at UCLA who frequently goes to the ArcLight Hollywood. “I’ve been to [other theaters] where people are yelling at the screen or talking on their phone. I really enjoy just sitting in the theater with other people that are there to see and experience the movie.”
Building a loyal following among patrons such as Russ has been key to ArcLight’s success. The company encourages customers to join a free membership program. Members get a dollar off admission when they purchase their tickets at home, accumulate points that can be redeemed for tickets and receive advance notice of films, special events and Q&As with filmmakers.
On May 1, for example, ArcLight Hollywood will host a panel with director William Friedkin and playwright John Pielmeier to talk about the original “The Exorcist,” which is screening at the theater to promote the stage adaptation of the 1971 novel at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Other recent panels have featured Diablo Cody, from “Young Adult,” and Will Ferrell, star of “Casa de mi Padre.”
Savvy marketing involving celebrities also has helped the chain build its Hollywood cachet. To mark its 10th anniversary, for example, ArcLight recently posted video testimonials from celebrities such as actor Kal Penn and comedian Adam Corolla about “why they love the ArcLight.”
“We don’t have an Actors Studio here and this is the closest thing we have to it,” said Stephen Glickman, a comedian and star of Nickelodeon’s TV show “Big Time Rush.” “Going to the ArcLight and sitting with a bunch of friends and asking your heroes questions about the film industry — what more could you ask for out of a movie theater?”