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David Poland

By David Poland

Gold Class Cinemas? Not So Much.

I made a point of going out to the new Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas in Pasadena after I got a request from the CBC to discuss what the idea of a new kind of theatrical experience might mean to the industry.
The interview will be on Tuesday and we’ll discuss whatever they want to discuss… but first…
Wow… was that an expensive disappointment!
The theater in Pasedena used to be an AMC that I occasionally frequented. I seem to remember seeing American Pie there the first time. In any case, what Gold Class has done is, as far as I can tell, is to take the 6 theaters that were there, empty the seats, and restructure the floor, so there are between 3 and 6 levels in the room. Then, they installed pairs of seats, extra wide recliners, with outside armrests that double as a place to put your stuff and a tray table permanently affixed between the seats. Our theater was 3 of these double-seats across and 4 back, seating 24. The larger house seemed to be 4 across and 6 back (total seating, 48).
Screen size is mid-range multiplex. Sound seemed fine… nothing special.
The central area, where you would usually find the snack stand, bathrooms, and a place to hang out, has been transformed into a trendy-looking club with liquor and food service.
I guess I will just tell you the story of what happened…

What the cinema wants from its customers is a bit unclear at the start. We arrived at the theater about 45 minutes before our show. I was unclear about whether they were going to try to feed us before the show, what the menu was, etc. We were there for The Experience. The ticket people couldn’t really explain what we “should” do… go for a walk… go downstairs to the bar/restaurant… whatever.
I pre-purchased the tickets, which cost $22 each… and another $3 a piece for the pre-purchase. I found this a little outrageous as it sunk in. After all, there is severely limited seating and the only way to buy tickets early – aside from a trip to the theater – is through their website. Also, to get the $22 ticket – as a free member – and not the $29 ticket, you also have to use their website. So they are charging twice as much as other ticketing services without really much option not to use the service.
So this is really a $25 ticket.
And when I picked them up, they didn’t ask for ID. But they did ask for a credit card for them to run a tab for food and drink.
I kinda got that… but I also found it a little obnoxious on some level. I wasn’t even in the door. I didn’t know whether I wanted to spend a dime more than the $50 I just shelled out for 2 tickets to a movie. And they were already making sure I was going to pay the next bill.
If they had asked, “Would you like to run a tab or would you like to pay as you go for whatever you might buy?,” I think I would have felt less assaulted about dropping more money.
We went down to the restaurant/lounge. It was a nice space with a variety of seating options, from couches to chairs. There was no host. No indication about what the appropriate steps were. After standing around for about 5 minutes, someone came by and told us we could sit, have a drink, and if we ordered food, it would be brought into the theater during the movie. Okay…
We sat, Menus came out. The disco-ish music pounded away… which I found irritating… especially in the middle of the afternoon.
Never saw that waitress again… at least not talking to us.
The menu, as it turns out, was all in tiny print, which we were reading in low light. Two pages of liquor options. One page of food… nothing under $8… nothing over $19. A tiny line at the bottom of the page said there were gourmet popcorns and candy available on request.
About 15 minutes before our movie, another waitress wandered by and asked whether we had ordered yet. We hadn’t. My (pregnant) wife ordered calamari and water. I ordered a Diet Coke and a short rib calzone.
As I was looking for insight, I asked about the candy and popcorn. She knew what kinds of popcorn there were, but she struggled a bit on the candy. She never offered pricing on either.
About 10 minutes later, the drinks arrived. “Do we go into the theater now?” “Someone will come get you when it’s time to go into the theater.”
As the showtime came, no one came to get us. We were there for The Experience. 2 minutes later, no one. 3 minutes later, no one. We stood up and kind of stood there, looking lost. Within a few more minutes, a third waitress saw us standing there and asked up what we needed. We told her and she went and checked on when our show was starting. She then escorted us into the theater… where the very end of the pre-show was playing and the movie was less than 2 minutes from starting.
So we’re in the dark, feeling fortunate that the theater was not full, so we weren’t disturbing many people. My wife’s water was empty. My soda – in 10 oz bar glass with 3 oz of ice – was 3/4 gone. She asks the waitress if she can get some more water. “Of course.”
I notice immediately that the Gold Class Cinemas opening film has a very large scratch on the left side of the frame, from top to bottom. So first I was surprised that a brand new cinema seeking the best experience was still showing celluloid. Doing it at the highest level requires skilled projectionists, which few cinemas are spending the money to hire these days. And how could this place, open just three weeks, be running a promo film that is already looking like it was playing at a grindhouse?
We sit. We use the recline buttons. Cool. The immovable arm rest between us is about 8 inches wide… not very romantic. And the table top, about a foot across and 18″ deep, has a light build into it, that never goes out. So our glasses were reflecting light back at us the whole time. (I eventually covered it with the ticket folder and held it down with my glass… which was irritatingly always in my eye’s view.)
The movie starts… and there is the same big old scratch on the left side of the movie. Every minute of the show. It was the projection in this theater – not an aging print with a problem from elsewhere – that caused this. I’m paying $25 a ticket and the gold standard is ruining the print.
About 10 minutes later, the food arrived. Besides the interruption, delivery was pleasant enough. My wife, who never did receive her promised water, asked again. “No problem.” My empty Diet Coke glass elicited neither the question of whether I wanted another or a refill.
The experience of eating in a movie theater was not good. Sensing that my food could drip, I covered my chest with the napkin they provided. The sandwich dripped…. so much so that it went right through the napkin and stained my shirt. I ate the rest over the table, hunched over like I was a squirrel protecting a nut. My wife had no way of doing what she might normally do… like squirting lemon on her squid… because the seat was awkward, it was dark, and the cone-style service meant she had to reach above the level of her head, while seated, to get to the food.
10 minutes later, no one had appeared with water. I pushed the “call button” that is on the table top. Great idea. But no one answered for about 15 more minutes. Once someone arrived, we got some water in about 5 minutes… about 35 minutes after we first asked for it. And my need for liquid was never addressed at all.
The movie sucked… but that wasn’t their fault.
They had my credit card, so signing the check, which arrived with about 10 minutes left in the movie, was easy enough. I noticed when we were in the bar/restaurant that people who wanted to pay cash or something other than just charging to whatever they gave upstairs when they arrived, required asking a lot of people to try to help them and was at least a 10 minute process after the movie ended.
Our bill for a high-quality short rib Hot Pocket, a mediocre Calamari appetizer and a Coke was $42.17, including tip.
So, with a parking tab that validation brought down to $7, plus tip, this was a $102.12 movie and light lunch for 2 with projection problems, mediocre food, and bad service.
But otherwise, I loved it!
I got the clear sense that the goal here was to get you to come in, buy a couple of $12 drinks, eat at least $15 a head in food, come out of the theater and decide to hang out and to have some $9 dessert instead of going elsewhere, maybe having another drink, and turning movie night into a $100 a head evening.
I don’t know how this business can work on a basic economic level without the average spend per person being a minimum of $40… maybe $50. The ticket gets them half way there. But if people just show up for the screening room experience – and I have to say, I am not sure I would be too thrilled if my first and last experience of Avatar was in there – the boat will not float.
The obvious point of comparison is Alamo Draft House in Austin and other places. There, the room seats 100 – 125, as I recall. And the atmosphere is DRAFT HOUSE. This is not the optimal screening experience either, but it is college fun. Food is priced appropriately to its fried expectations. And the utter lack of pretense is part of the joyous experience.
I think that Gold Class Cinemas would be great if it balanced between the two tones, theirs and Alamo’s. Double the number of seats. Get smaller seats and make it a little more cozy. Give away the very inexpensive popcorn and soda for your $25 ticket cost… and let people feel good about choosing to spend more on other stuff instead of making it feel like you are expected to go to the nightclub and spend on the way in and out. OR offer bottomless popcorn and soda plus a candy for $15 a person… more expensive than a regular theater, but part of this experience… or the other experience of buying a meal and liquor. But either way is a happy choice.
Thing is, the pretense of this being “worth the money” raises expectations and the way things are being done there now… it’s not up to that standard. And it would be really difficult to get it to that standard without increasing the amount of staff. (Note that we were there at a quiet time. Imagining 6 full theaters and a busy bar/restaurant on Saturday night is scary.) The food was fine, but hardly special. And a scratch on a print through an entire film bugs me anywhere, but at $25 a ticket, it makes me want (and deserve) a refund.
I wasn’t expecting perfection. But our level of disappointment of the experience was surprising. Too expensive would have been okay. There are plenty of people who would never notice at the end of the month if the movie was $12 or 25. The quality experience is worth it. But it wasn’t, “That was great, but I don’t know how often I’d spend that much for it.” It was, “I have a better time at The Grove with 200 idiots with cell phones and babies.” And we could go to The Grove, buy tickets online, eat whatever crap we wanted, have two an overpriced, but completely satisfying meals at The Farm afterward, and it would be cheaper and better.
It wouldn’t be that much cheaper… or that much better. But there would not be that nagging feeling that you have been a bit overpromised and underserved. And truth be told, I didn’t particularly like eating my way through a movie. It was like being in the living room with a bigger screen, but no remote to pause the film… but still distracting.
I’m sure we’ll try it again someday. But not in a rush. And if the experience isn’t better the next time, I would likely refuse to go a third time.
Too bad.

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15 Responses to “Gold Class Cinemas? Not So Much.”

  1. tfresca says:

    Get thee to an Alamo Drafthouse. Tickets are the same as a regular theater. Food is optional. The theater has little tables and just enough light to read a menu. Get a drink, a burger, etc. All reasonably priced. To me they are a better version of the kind of experience you are talking about. The theaters have an appreciation for film if not an appreciation for the latest projection technology.

  2. moviesquad says:

    The Alamo’s still owned by Tim League have fantastic projection. The one on South Lamar just installed new digital projectors especially for Avatar, and I’d say the only problem there is the noise of the other people eating and the waiters coming in and out. Generally, the tradeoff is worth it since the Alamo has better projection and sound than other theaters and town plus the beer helps make bad movies tolerable.
    They are opening a Gold Class in Austin soon, and I’m thinking it will be a huge bomb with a population that is already used to the Alamo Drafthouse experience.

  3. moviesquad says:

    I’m curious as to if a brand new Gold Class like they are building in Austin will have a better projection/theatrical experience than a retrofitted one, but I’m not willing to spend the $100+ to find out. Thanks for saving me some money.
    Supposedly this company does very well with this concept in their home country of Australia.

  4. LYT says:

    Love this article..wishing the alleged experience were more.

  5. MeekayD says:

    Wow. Just wow. I was talking about this concept with a friend the other day, convincing myself that the high ticket price would be worth it for the very occasional special night out… with the expectation that the experience would be the 5-star restaurant of movie theaters.
    Sufficiently competent and numerous staff is what’s *missing* from the multi-plexes, so the fact that your $25 + tab can’t buy it either boggles. And while I’ve only been to a Drafthouse location once (and enjoyed myself), the bar really isn’t set that high!
    It’s a tired refrain but “customer service is dead”.

  6. Wowsers. For the powers that be, this must smart something awful.
    By the way, given the state of things, I thought “My wife’s water was empty” was some way of announcing that the little one had decided to make his way into the world on this excursion. Had to read that one twice.

  7. movielocke says:

    for some reason I got an email blast from them, followed the link (despite loathing to go to pasadena since it’s a hellacious drive) and signed up. I have somewhere in my email a pass for a buy one get one free ticket to there and I had intended on using it.
    But the table BETWEEN the seats is an absolute and utter dealbreaker for me, the biggest problem at the Aero is the incredibly uncomfortable seats (especially in comparison to the fabulous Egyptian, a shame the Aero has programming that is routinely 10 times better than the Egyptians). And the biggest reason to go to the Landmark is catching a movie in the screening lounge on a date. When I took my girlfriend there, she pretty much fell in love with the place and thought it was just about the best place to see a movie ever. If the arclight had a screening lounge like area we’d probably go there often because the projection is so measurably better at the arclight than at any other theatre except the Samuel Goldwyn.
    The fact that the movie experience, the dining experience and the luxury seat experience of Gold Class cinemas was so inadequate means I’ll definitely never go. I’m willing to spend a lot on a movie, but if I’m going to drop 112 on a date, I’d rather we go to Bazaar and have fun ordering dumb expensive stuff all night and making each other laugh in what by all accounts is absolutely superb dining experience.

  8. ployp says:

    Almost every cinema in Thailand has had a gold class since over 10 years ago. The ticket is about double the normal ones. Popcorn and a glass of soda is complimentary. We also get a small pillow, about the size of the ones on airplanes, and a blanket. I usually go to these with my parents, otherwise, I get the special seats in normal theaters. These are about half a foot larger than the standard ones and are located in the last 4 rows. They cost 20 to 40 baht more (33.5 baht = 1 dollar; standard seats cost 120 to 140 baht).

  9. I’ve been to Gold Class twice – once for Hairspray because my three friends and I all received tickets as birthday or Christmas presents, and Australia as a birthday gift from the bf – and while neither time has been dramatically brilliant, I did enjoy it. I don’t think it works to eat an actual meal there although that’s the selling point, I instead of potato wedges which were quite delicious.
    You didn’t mention though about the interval thing. You can request drinks or food at certain points of your movie. I had popcorn at the start of Australia, but request some hot chips with an hour to go and with a drink. During Hairspray one of my friends requested a coffee when there was 30mins left. I think that was pretty nifty.
    It is annoying about the intimacy thing. Impossible to cuddle up despite it being a selling point that you get to be closer to your partner as you watch the movie.
    The Gold Class cinemas are routinely well-attended here. Friday night and the weekends especially. Yesterday when I was seeing Sherlock Holmes (in normal Village cinema) every single gold class session was either sold out or “selling fast” and they were screening Avatar (only in 2D), Sherlock Holmes and New Moon.

  10. White Label says:

    This reminds me of the Cinema Cafe trend we had in Minnesota for awhile in the late 90s. They were all 2nd run theaters, so you were only paying $5 for your movie, and then sitting with a counter-top in front of you. Meals were simple fast-food type fare. And it was decent, but no one would call it gold-class or elegant.
    They’ve all since closed.

  11. The InSneider says:

    Wow, that sounds like a nightmare, DP! Sucks to hear. Having said that, this was a very entertaining story. Would love to read more like it in the future. Happy New Year!

  12. David Poland says:

    Kami – There was never any offer of anything to be delivered at any particular point. As I note, even pushing the call button got no response for over 15 minutes.
    Normally, I would assume they were just going through the shakeout process, but as your comment suggests, Village Roadshow has been at this for a good while.

  13. David R. says:

    The better part of ten years ago, I experienced a similar cinema down in Wellington, NZ (recliner seats, upscale food, table service, etc.). Thought it was fabulous, and couldn’t wait for it to come to Los Angeles. It sounds like this version is very poorly executed, but the memory of the films I saw in Wellington still leave me with hope that someone can and will do a premium cinema experience here in LA.

  14. jeffmcm says:

    Is this the place that until recently was a Laemmle theater, down in a basement of a shopping mall thing?
    If so, I tried to stop over there to see A Christmas Carol before Avatar took over the screens. When I found out that it was no longer just a dinky multiplex but rather would cost $22, I went home.

  15. RDP says:

    They’re building a Gold Class cinema relatively near me, and I wondered what it was all about.
    We have Studio Movie Grills here in the Dallas area, which are similar to the Alamo Drafthouse (same concept, not quite as well executed), which originally started by retrofitting older theaters and has since began to build its own theaters. I’ve enjoyed the experience there well enough, but the ticket prices are competitive with a regular theater and the food prices are reasonable for what it is.
    I’m interested to see how the Gold Class cinema in suburban Dallas does now. For those prices, I think it would be difficult to offer enough of an experience to make it worth it.

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