How movie theaters are changing with the times

John Paul Harris would be proud.

The Pittsburgh businessman and politician opened the country’s first modern motion picture theater in 1905 on Smithfield Street in Downtown.

The Nickelodeon charged a nickel to theatergoers, who lined up by the thousands to catch their first glimpse of moving pictures.

More than a century later, we still flock, with popcorn and soda in hand, into the cool, dark cavern known as the movie theater — our eyes riveted on the screen to forget about life for a while.

Once the focal point of nearly every town‘‍s main street — and the place to go for a Saturday night date — movie theaters followed the masses to the suburbs as shopping malls displaced small-town stores and became the staple of retail development in the 1960s.    

And, just as malls continue to transform themselves to meet the needs of a different type of retail consumer, the theaters, too, have done their share of changing, adding digital projectors and offering multiple screens with more of an eye toward comfort with roomier stadium-style seats and amenities such as cup holders.

Although big-name entertainment companies, such as Cinemark and Carmike, no longer are building hundreds of new theaters at a time, they continue to invest in Pittsburgh.

Cinemark, based in Plano, Texas, opened a new theater in Monroeville in November and plans to open another, possibly by Labor Day, in McCandless. The company operates 486 theaters with 5,595 screens in 40 U.S. states plus Brazil, Argentina and 11 other Latin American countries.

Carmike Cinemas of Columbus, Ga., recently renovated its movie theater at the Galleria in Mt. Lebanon, adding stadium-style terrace seating with oversized, plush rocking seats. It also recently replaced its theater at nearby South Hills Village. 

Entertainment entrepreneurs Brent Brown and Brian Mendelssohn think they know what the future of movie theater experiences will look like — and so far their ideas are catching on.

Mr. Brown’s Latitude 360 in North Fayette has turned the concept of the movie theater on its head.

The Robinson native now resides in Florida, where he opened his first Latitude 360 in Jacksonville. In addition to the one in North Fayette, there is one in Indianapolis and new locations are planned for Albany, N.Y., and Boston.

“When [Mr. Brown] started in 2007 on the back of a napkin with the Latitude concept, it included a dine-in theater and bowling lanes and all of the other components we have here for the whole entertainment experience,” said Carlene Gnazzo, vice president of marketing for the theater. “It’s a restaurant and entertainment venue all in one place.”

The business isn’t so much a theater as it is an entertainment destination, with a bar and grill, luxury bowling lanes, a cigar lounge and 85 interactive video games.

But the piece de resistance is Latitude’s Cinegrille, a combination restaurant/movie theater where as many as 85 guests can have a full-service meal while watching a movie.

“All of our guests truly love it because not only can you see a movie at a reasonable price, you can enjoy the luxury seating and tableside service and enjoy your family or use it as a private location for a corporate event because we can stream in movies or a motivational speech,” Ms. Gnazzo said.

The Cinegrille shows second-run films — those that have finished their initial theater release but haven‘‍t yet been made available on Netflix, pay-per-view or On Demand.

“We can be very selective about the movies we bring in,” Ms. Gnazzo said. 

Latitude 360 isn‘‍t the only local theater with a new business model.

In Lawrenceville, Row House Cinema opened June 21, converting a boarded-up, 4,000-square-foot discount market on Butler Street into what could be an economic generator for the neighborhood.

“There was definitely a building boom in the suburbs when the multiplexes were growing quickly,” Mr. Mendelssohn, the owner, said.  “Ours is a very different format. It’s much easier to compete because we’re not trying to go head-to-head with those theaters. We feel there’s room for us in this market.”

What makes the theater different?  It features classic movies and offers patrons a cold beer while they watch. And the concessions are first rate — real butter for the popcorn, vegan pastries and bakery-fresh soft pretzels.

Adjacent to the theater is Atlas Bottle Works, where guests can choose from 300 craft and imported brews. Coming soon to the location is the restaurant Smoke Taqueria, which recently closed its Homestead location to move in with Row House Cinema and Atlas Bottle Works.

Mr. Mendelssohn expects to have a similar relationship with Smoke Taqueria owners, offering dinner and movie nights for couples with alcoholic beverages provided by Atlas.

“That‘‍s the crowd we hope to appeal to,” said Mr. Mendelssohn, who worked for two years to design seats with cup holders that could stabilize dinner trays while not crowding people in the 83-seat, single-screen theater. He spent $2 million renovating the building.

“We’ve put in a lot of effort not to cram seats and make the experience ideal from the movie-watching perspective,” Mr. Mendelssohn said.

Classic films such as “The Shining,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Big Lebowski,” combined with beers has created the perfect movie-going atmosphere, he said.

“It’s been fantastic,” Mr. Mendelssohn said.  “We’ve had a a lot of sellout shows.”

At Latitude 360, movies aren’‍t the only thing on the big screen.

“We’ve been very creative,” Ms. Gnazzo said.  “People use it to watch a Penguins game, and mommies have rented it so their kids can play Wii.”  

The location also features a stage with seating for 245 that can host small concerts and comedy acts, a sports theater that recently showed the World Cup around the clock, and a bar and grill that hosts live musical acts on weekends.

Ms. Gnazzo said she wasn‘‍t sure whether venues like Latitude 360 would be the wave of the future, but she said the concept is especially popular for families with varied interests.

“We’re very excited to have something like this — people love it,” Ms. Gnazzo said.  “Plus it’s air conditioned and affordable.  Where else can you go and have an affordable family night out?”

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159.

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