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Is Lake in the Hills the new face of the American movie theater?

Manager ElviJimenez bar lobby AMC Lake Hills 12 Theater Thursday. | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

Manager, Elvia Jimenez at the bar in the lobby of the AMC Lake in the Hills 12 Theater Thursday. | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

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Nationwide, annual movie attendance hit a record 4 billion in the pre-TV, post-war year 1946.

After sliding drastically through the early television era, attendance rose slowly through the 1990s, peaked again at 1.58 billion in 2002 and has slowly declined most years since then.

Last year saw 1.36 billion trips to U.S. cinemas, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA projects this year’s attendance at 1.29 billion.

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Updated: January 24, 2014 6:11AM

LAKE IN THE HILLS — There have been several revolutions in the movie theater business since the 1960s.

The platter projector freed employees from having to switch film reels every 20 minutes.

The multiplex allows one concession counter and one projection room to service as many as 30 auditoriums, and with them a single theater to show virtually all the current movies at once.

Stadium seating lets us see right over that 6-foot-4 guy in front of us who’s wearing that cowboy hat.

Digital projection cuts the cost of distributing movies from thousands of dollars per theater to a fraction of that.

And now another revolution seems to be aborning. As theaters struggle to remain relevant in an era of big-screen, high-def TVs with surround-sound, some theater chains are fighting back by giving their customers all the comforts of home, including a La-Z-Boy-style reclining seat, liquor and hot food.

In our area, this became visible over the summer when Kansas City-based AMC Theatres remodeled its Lake in the Hills 12 Theater along Randall Road to a new standard that includes:

Wide, electrically-operated recliner chairs with more legroom than a first-class airline seat.

A bar called MacGuffin’s that serves hard liquor, beer (on tap or in bottles) and a limited assortment of wine. (The bar, by the way, is named after director Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the goal that keeps the heroes and villains going in a suspense movie. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” for example, the MacGuffin was the missing Ark of the Covenant.)

A “Freestyle” pop machine that electrically allows customers to mix more than 100 different varieties of flavored Coca-Cola, fruit drinks and flavored water.

A concession stand that, besides dishing up the usual popcorn and candy, can cook you a pizza, chicken tenders or hot dogs.

Reserved, numbered seats like those in a live theater or a concert hall, which can be ordered online before you get to the theater using an online seating chart.

Computer-operated electronic LCD signs that can be changed with a few strokes of a keyboard to show different show times, ticket prices and food menus.

Expensive cousins

Many of the new features at the AMC LITH 12 could be found before in the Chicago area, but only at a handful of luxury “boutique” cinemas.

Five years ago, for example, what is now the iPic Arboretum Theater opened in South Barrington’s Arboretum shopping center at Routes 59 and 72. About the same time, a theater named the Muvico opened in Rosemont, in the shadow of O’Hare International Airport. Both offered reclining living-room-style seats, liquor, reserved seating, valet parking and a limited menu of high-cuisine food that would be brought right to your seat by a waiter.

An official for Village Roadshow Pictures, the Australian movie production company whose Gold Class Theaters division built the Arboretum super-cinema, explained that it had been inspired when Village Roadshow’s chairman visited a Hollywood screening room and saw the kind of luxury in which Hollywood studio execs watch their own movies.

If his company could offer the same kind of experience to the general public, that entrepreneur figured, a lot of people would come, even if the experience cost quite a bit more than an ordinary theater’s.

The new features at the LITH 12 parallel most of those in the luxury cinemas, except that LITH 12’s customers have to fetch their own dinner, there is no valet parking, and the food is not “high cuisine” — unless you count chicken tenders and pizza as chefs’ delights. You can’t order a $695 bottle of French wine, either.

But there is one big positive difference between the LITH 12 and the iPic or the Muvico: While it costs $25 to buy a ticket to a “Premium-Plus” seat at the iPic, you can get into the LITH 12 for almost the same price you’d pay at a conventional theater such as the Marcus Elgin Cinema, or Classic Cinemas’ Charlestowne 18 and Cinema 12, or AMC’s own South Barrington 30.

A single night out at the iPic could cost a couple $100 to $200, including tips for the waiter and parking valet. But on a Monday through Thursday night at the LITH 12, they can see a current movie, each drink a beer, and share chicken tenders and pizza for $47.50.

And Lake in the Hills isn’t the only mainstream theater being converted to this new standard. Wisconsin-based Marcus Theaters, which owns the Marcus Elgin multiplex, recently converted its big Addison moviehouse to all-recliner seating. AMC has converted its Chicago Ridge theater to the new standard and built the two-year-old AMC Randhurst Theater in Mount Prospect with a liquor bar and with recliners in some auditoriums.

Nationwide, AMC has converted approximately 30 multiplexes to all-recliner seating with bars.

Even Dad likes it

The new approach seems to be working. The LITH 12 had 30 cars in its parking lot at 2 p.m. last Thursday, on a day when the local schools remained in session.

Waiting to see the new “Hobbit” movie, 23-year-old Allison Wangrow of Woodstock said she came to the Lake in the Hills theater instead of the closer Regal multiplex in Crystal Lake because “the seats here are a lot better. They’re wider and have more legroom. You can stretch out.”

“Our dad usually sees movies at home. But when we brought him here to see ‘Red 2,’ he loved that he could recline,” said 34-year-old Sarah Nemec of Algonquin as she also waited for “Hobbit” to begin.

“But maybe the seats are too comfortable,” Nemec added. “One man behind us fell asleep in his recliner and we could hear him snoring — and it wasn’t a boring movie, either.”

Patrick Noonan, in charge of public relations at the AMC chain’s Kansas City headquarters, said that “when we replace regular seats with the larger recliners, we lose 50 to 70 percent of our seating capacity.” But except during the busiest times for the most popular movies, the seats lost weren’t being sold anyway, he noted.

“We’re finding that attendance goes up in a big way” after the conversions, Noonan said. “We can’t get into specific numbers, but in Lake in the Hills we have seen ticket sales go up significantly.”

“In the past, so much of the theater business has been about quantity, about getting as many seats as possible into a location,” Noonan said. But with ever-stiffer competition from home television equipment, to say nothing of many digital diversions unheard-of 30 years ago, “Now our emphasis has to be on the quality of the experience,” Noonan said. “We want people to be excited about going to the movies.”

Calling ahead

Noonan admits that the smaller number of seats can cause more shows to be sold out at the most popular times. But AMC claims to have a solution to that, too: Customers pick out which specific numbered seat they want, as they would in a live theater or a concert hall. In fact, LITH 12 Manager Elvia Jimenez estimates that 80 percent of her theater’s moviegoers now order tickets online ahead of time, using a seating chart on the theater’s website.

“A family of six doesn’t have to worry anymore that if they get here right before the movie starts on a Saturday night, they won’t be able to find six empty seats together,” Jimenez said.

Noonan won’t say why his company chose Lake in the Hills for the conversion but said AMC officials look at competition in the area and various other confidential factors. He said they also choose theaters that either are brand new, like the Randhurst, or are old enough to need some remodeling anyway. The LITH 12 was built in 1997 by the Springfield-based Kerasotes Theatres chain and was acquired by AMC several years ago when AMC bought out that regional chain.

Noonan won’t say which other AMC theaters may be converted to the new standard or whether that’s likely to be what all movie theaters will look like eventually. He explained that the AMC corporation made its initial public offering of stock just this past week and therefore the company is restricted by Securities Exchange Commission rules from issuing too many “forward-looking statements” that could affect the stock price.

But “it’s tough to match that big-screen movie experience,” especially now that “we can bring the comfort of your living room out to the theater,” Noonan said.

Sarah Nemec, the “Hobbit”-viewer, said she also hopes that fancy home TV systems never drive movie theaters out of business.

“There’s something magic about watching the big screen while you’re surrounded by a lot of other people sharing the same experience,” the Algonquin woman said.

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