As Hollywood churns out ever more attractive big-budget films, laden with 3D and other special effects, little has changed at theaters, where audiences can find worn seats, stale popcorn, and overpriced candy.
Under pressure from viewers as well as movie-industry executives, the country's theater chains are trying to win back moviegoers—with food. Audiences at a growing number of theaters can order such dishes as chinois chicken salad rolls or limoncello-tossed shrimp. More middle-of-the-road fare is also available, like cheeseburgers and chicken caesar salads. Seats in these so-called "in-theater dining" cinemas are big and plush. Lobbies are luxurious, with art on the walls and mood lighting. Popcorn is often complimentary and a full bar is de rigueur.
Theater chains hope the new style of film-watching—which has previously been the realm chiefly of small independent theaters—will help boost the number of moviegoers after years of flat attendance. Other recent efforts to get more people in the doors include offering reserve seating online and more movies in 3D. But in-theater dining represents one of the movie-theater industry's biggest bets to expand its static audience size.
"I am one hundred percent sure that these theaters are the future of movie-going, " says Jeffrey Katzenberg, an industry veteran who once served as studio chairman at Walt Disney Co.DIS -0.65 % and is now chief executive of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. "These new theaters really up the quality of experience because they require a high degree of service that movie theaters have lost."
A few years ago, a handful of such theaters existed in the country. Now, the National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that the U.S. plays home to roughly 300 to 400 cinemas with restaurant service out of roughly 5, 750 total theaters. Industry analysts predict that number could double over the next few years.