The day after the stock market plunged nearly 800 points last week, Robert Kirby sat with me in the lobby of a freshly built movie theater, the first of what he hopes will be a chain of 50 luxury cinemas in the U.S. The theater's opening, which had been in the planning for two years, was scheduled for the next night. He projected confidence, but he tapped his finger nervously on a hard drive that contained a digital version of a feature-length film.
I asked if perhaps it wasn't the most auspicious week for the premiere of an upscale concept.
"Well ... it isn't," he said. "It's not perfect timing."
The theater is in a new shopping center in South Barrington, Ill., an affluent suburb located about an hour (and at least one cornfield) northwest of downtown Chicago. As the economic bailout failed in Congress and American capital plunged about 7%, Kirby was incommunicado at 38,000 feet above the Pacific for about 13 hours, traveling from his home in Melbourne, Australia, to LAX for his connection to O'Hare.
"I felt dislocated," he said about his emotional state after he landed and heard the news.
Kirby is a born promoter, the third-generation chairman of Village Roadshow, a global powerhouse that develops theater chains and both distributes films and produces them (successes include "Mad Max," "The Matrix" and "Ocean's Eleven"). But after he settled into a taxi to ride from O'Hare to his newest theater, his nerve almost failed him. Under normal circumstances, he couldn't imagine getting into a cab and not telling the driver that he was bringing a new cinema concept to the area. But talking to a working man about a luxury concept on what appeared to be 2008's version of Black Monday? "It almost seemed inappropriate," he said.
But he did it anyway. And after about five minutes, the cabbie was musing that it might be a great place to bring his wife on her birthday. "I realized this may not be the perfect time to try to get in the news, but still, this concept is a wonderful form of escapism."
I was given a pre-premiere taste of the concept, and it is a wonderful form of escapism. The experience of his theaters, called Gold Class Cinemas, begins with valet parking. A tasteful, high-tone bar serves as the lobby. Theater seating is reserved, so you can relax and chat with companions in the bar until moments before show time, when a server arrives to carry your drink to your seat.
And ah, the seat: You're in one of 45 cushy, high-tech recliners on stepped tiers, so it doesn't matter how tall the patron in front of you is. Your server takes your dinner and drink order (your food will be served during the movie). The wine list is more than adequate, and the fare is gourmet; there is enough variety for three courses, and the closest thing to popcorn would be the potato chips with Saga blue cheese sauce.
Your server also points out the call button and asks if you're comfortable or perhaps would like a plush blanket to snuggle under as you watch.
Comparisons between this experience and first-class airline seating on a top-quality international airline are unavoidable, and Gold Class Cinemas, without having to worry about weight or space restrictions or turbulence or engine noise, comes off quite favorably in the comparison. Those who never have had the privilege of paying thousands of dollars to fly first class can be assured that they've just had an experience that surpasses it, for a $20-to-$35 admission fee and the price of a nice meal.
(Of course, when they walk out the door, they're still in South Barrington. But there are worse places you could fly to, and movie patrons have the added benefit of avoiding the Transportation Security Administration.)
Though Kirby did not bring up the comparison to first-class air, he did use other examples from the travel industry to answer my questions.
"When people ask about the ticket price, I always talk about our $35 ticket, not the $20 you could pay for a Monday matinee. I want them to wonder what's so special. They know that when they pay more to stay at a Four Seasons, they're getting amenities that are superior to a Holiday Inn. I talk about the $35 ticket because I want them to start imagining just how good our seats will be," he said.
But these days, can't people just sit in their own high-end recliners, open their own bottle of good wine, order food from their favorite restaurant and sit down to watch movies on their own giant, flat-screen TV?
"I just took a Silversea cruise that called at Ephesus [Turkey]," he answered, again turning to the travel industry for his example. "We saw a wonderful opera performed in an old Roman amphitheater. I could, of course, have listened to a recording at home, but it's not the same. Shared experiences are important."
It's not surprising that Kirby kept dipping into the travel industry for his analogies: There's ample overlap between what he's doing and what we're doing, synthesizing comfort, food, drink, culture, architecture and entertainment (I could easily see a luxury cruise line adopting his concept for its theaters).
And when we had discussed his timing, opening in the midst of an economic crisis, he said something that seemed to ring true for our industry, as well: "It's not an auspicious week, or year for that matter. But the fundamental economics are designed to work over time, over years."
Indeed, if we can take any comfort from the economic lessons of 9/11, the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000 and even the Great Depression, it is, as Kirby points out, that bad times don't last forever. But the basic truth underlying his observation -- that time is an essential ingredient to any business launch or continued commercial success -- can be, nowadays, either reassuring or ominous.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].