- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

WESTERLY, R.I. - Emily Steffian and Daniel Kamil moved from California with thoughts of opening a movie theater. They wanted to show films that were off the beaten path, but didn’t expect to land there themselves.They envisioned setting up shop in Providence, near the colleges and the capital city’s arts community. But the business climate seemed daunting, and a search for an appropriate and affordable property brought them to the seaside community of Westerly.

To their surprise, the combination of small town and independent film art house has worked.

The Revival House, Westerly’s 1-year-old cinema pub, is one of a growing number of movie theaters nationwide that also serve food and alcohol, allowing patrons to combine their viewing and dining. It is a concept that industry observers say is particularly popular in areas such as the Pacific Northwest and Dallas-Fort Worth, but has only recently begun to take off in other places.

Jim Kozak, spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners, said theaters that serve food and alcohol have been around for years, but they have shown mostly second-run films, movies that run weeks or months after the initial theatrical release.

The theaters are becoming more popular, and many are showing newer films. As of 1997, just 14 first-run theaters in the country served alcohol. Today, the figure is up to 270, said Mr. Kozak, whose organization counts among its members the owners of more than 29,000 of the 36,000 to 37,000 screens in the nation.

He traces the trend to a theater owner in Dallas who ran a second-run cinema pub and persuaded the studio to include his facility in the initial release of the 1998 movie “The Waterboy,” starring Adam Sandler.

The experiment was a success, and the film, a hit nationally, did well at the alcohol- and food-serving venue.

“That opened the floodgate,” Mr. Kozak said.

The earliest first-run cinema pubs tended to be outside major cities — in part because distributors wouldn’t include theaters that served alcohol in initial film releases if they had competition. That has been changing, Mr. Kozak said. But in New England, most cinema pubs are located outside urban centers.

In California, where Mr. Kozak is based, few venues follow the theater-pub model, and just one that does is a first-run theater. However, Mr. Kozak said, ArcLight Cinemas, in Hollywood, seems to do tremendous business. There, a movie and a dinner entree with a glass of wine or a beer runs about $31.

“There’s a lot of consumer interest in being able to enjoy a cocktail while watching a movie,” Mr. Kozak said.

The Revival House features a cafe with a view of Westerly’s downtown and a patio that overlooks the Pawcatuck River. The walls — some painted in red and gold tones and one decorated with a mural — help set apart the single-screen theater from the atmosphere of large multiplexes.

The movie part of the dinner-and-a-movie deal has included nontraditional film offerings, in addition to food and beverage service in a cafe-style theater. Movie tickets sell for $6, while entrees run between $6.95 and $11.95, and a beer is between $3.50 and $7. The food also differs from the fast-food-style offerings of some other cinema pubs, with a meat, olive and cheese platter replacing the cheese fries. The theater also offers lunch, minus the movies.

“What we’re doing is sort of an urban thing in a small town,” Mr. Kamil said.

Miss Steffian and Mr. Kamil now feel comfortably established, staging showings that often sell out even though they are not wider box-office hits.

Pointing to a poster in the window for “Derrida,” a documentary about the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, Mr. Kamil said screening a film about a French philosopher is part of an approach that is “risky, but it’s working.”

Mr. Kamil and Miss Steffian have cut a niche with classic films and with short films they solicit directly from independent filmmakers — films the couple screen before the main feature.

But the cinema pub concept takes a variety of forms.

At venues in Pelham, N.H., and Haverhill, Mass., Chunky’s Cinema Pubs cater to families.

The Pelham location has operated as a first-run cinema pub for about eight years, and the Haverhill location, open for about nine years, has shown first-run films for the past four years, said Al Coburn, chief executive of Chunky’s.

Many patrons leave time before the movie to order their food, which is brought to their restaurant-style seats inside the theater. The theater also does a brisk business in children’s birthday parties, he said.

“It’s a great family atmosphere, obviously for the right movies,” Mr. Coburn said. “It can be a great date atmosphere.”

Theater owners try to keep down the noise by serving meals before the movie begins, but many say they don’t get many complaints about noise.

The model hasn’t worked for all who have tried it.

In 2000, Larry and Anthony Gemma transformed Providence’s Castle Cinema into a cinema cafe and bar, offering “dinner in the movies.” In 2004, saddled with debts, the cinema closed its doors. The owners cited a deal that allowed the theater to run movies only after they had shown at a large multiplex nearby, as well as parking problems and other issues.

Francisco and Adriana Sandoval of Providence drove to North Attleboro one recent evening to catch Nicolas Cage in “National Treasure” at the Route One Cinema Pub in North Attleboro, Mass. The second-run theater — with a menu of appetizers, entrees, beer and wine — was the right spot for a weeknight out, they said.

“You get a chance to go to a movie, have dinner and be home by 9 o’clock,” Mr. Sandoval said.

“The chairs are comfortable, there’s food, and you can have a beer,” Sharon Sullivan of Cumberland said after an evening showing at Route One. “I’m surprised it’s not more popular.”

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