As we recently learned, Center City is slated to get its first new theater complex in decades — an AMC facility whose flagship attraction will be a Dolby Cinema theater, the kind the company has in Neshaminy.
Perhaps you can hear it from here.
In order to get an idea of what we can expect at the eight-screen complex planned for the Fashion District (the old Gallery at Market East) in 2019, I checked out the AMC Neshaminy 24’s Dolby Cinema installation for a recent screening of Kingsman: The Gold Circle, and it’s as advertised — supersonic, with vibrations that travel through your seat.
And I mean your seat.
That would be the one your mama gave you.
The reclining seats — push a button and you ease back to dentist-chair position — are comfortable enough for a nap but don’t plan on taking one. It’s loud in there. The technology will be best suited to the kind of effects-driven spectacles that pay most of the bills in Hollywood, and that most audiences prefer the same way they take their rock and roll – turned up to 11.
In the theater, you’re surrounded by an array of more than 100 speakers, part of a patented Dolby Atmos sound design that allows you to hear 128 different sounds simultaneously, and to hear sound moving directionally.
Is it awesome? For many folks, the rumbling Dolby seats are the main attraction. I personally think movies are loud enough already. I’m still traumatized by having seen Dunkirk in an IMAX theater and have periodic nightmares that composer Hans Zimmer is clanging cymbals against my head.
The visual aspect of the Dolby Cinema was more to my liking. Each feature begins with a brief example of the advantages offered by Dolby in clarity, color, contrast, and brightness. Again, as advertised — I noticed a marked improvement in the Dolby version of Kingsman compared to the conventional version I’d seen in a traditional theater.
Dolby achieves its vivid, solid colors by using 4K laser projectors instead of a traditional lamp projector. It’s why the blacks in Dolby are so much blacker – there’s no bulb to dilute the color. A really visually inventive movie – say, Blade Runner 2049 – would benefit from this kind of technology.
You will pay for it, though. It’s $18 per ticket for the Dolby experience; Real D will cost you $16, IMAX 2D $17, and a regular screening only $12. That’s a lot of dough, but it’s the direction in which movie exhibition is headed – exhibitors are finding that moviegoers will pay a little more for better amenities.
Those include not just sound and picture quality, but better seating, access to alcoholic beverages, and better food. It’s an improved experience for the customer, and it pays off for the company. According to AMC CEO Adam Aron, an Abington native and former CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers, AMC theaters retrofitted with better seating have a 50 percent increase in attendance (even if the larger, stadium-style seats reduce overall capacity).
The company is making a big push in the Philadelphia area and elsewhere to upgrade old theaters. It has renovated eight of them in the region — AMC Woodhaven 10 is being upgraded in phases, and North Wales’ AMC 309 Cinema 9 is temporarily closed for a complete overhaul. Aron has said these investments are part of a move to get customers to think of exhibitors as brands, to choose a night at the movies the way they might choose any luxury destination. (AMC has increased membership in its Stubbs loyalty program from two million to six million.)
AMC projects like the proposed Center City complex are part of another, larger trend: exhibition chains returning to downtown areas like Philadelphia. The days of chasing suburban teens have peaked. The next market will cater to empty-nesters and comparatively well-to-do urban professionals, demographic groups within easy walking or Uber distance of AMC theaters.
Analysts who track the industry say spending patterns show these kinds of moviegoers are willing to pay premium prices for a premium experience that includes the latest in technological upgrades.
A word about technology, though: I used Waze to make sure I wouldn’t make any wrong turns on the way to Bensalem, and the creepy female robo-voice told me I’d arrived in “Nesha-Meanie.”
Machine learning still has a long way to go, something to keep in mind when you’re at Blade Runner 2049, wondering whether the weirdo next to you is a replicant.