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LEATHER GOES A LONG WAY AT BRIDGE.

Innovations in the exhibition industry often arrive in America from distant lands, but the latest emigre hasn't traveled by steerage.

Newly washed up on the nation's Left Coast is something called cinema de lux. At least that's how National Amusements affiliate CineBridge Ventures describes the concept, ever so continentally.

But hold the caviar. Judging from reactions of several first-time visitors, the site seems oversold as a deluxe theater, especially if that description is meant to conjure visions of seat-side canapes and bubbly -- or even substantially boosted theater amenities.

CineBridge jumped into the breach after a bankrupt Edwards Theaters bowed out of a newly constructed 17-plex on Los Angeles' affluent West Side. Dubbing the site the Bridge, CineBridge hired designer Dayna Lee of chi-chi W Hotels fame and targeted a July 4 opening -- later postponed, ominously, to Friday the 13th.

By the numbers

Patrons of the Bridge pay a market-high $9.75 weekdays and $10.50 weekends for admission to theaters offering stadium seating and reclining seats -- not unlike those available at many other new multiplexes nationwide. Even more aggressive is the $13 charge for admission to movies shown in two "directors hall" auditoriums.

Prerelease publicity promised directors halls would offer not only boosted ambiance and reserved-seating convenience, but upgraded food and beverage, including in-theater booze sales.

As it turns out, directors hall auditoriums look exactly the same as other theaters in the multiplex -- and are even smaller than some.

Their slightly wider fixed seats, though leather-bound, are similar to the high-back recliners enjoyed by patrons paying substantially less for movies shown on other screens at the Bridge.

Worse, the reserved seating, while offering the chance to select specific theater seats, will often randomly assign patrons to bad seats if an early, careful selection isn't made in advance.

And the only bubbly on tap in the premium hall is from the soft drinks that arrive by pushcart, accompanied by such haute cuisine as popcorn and Jujubes. It's an experience that's more Lower East Side than Rodeo Drive.

Compare that with the situation say, in Australia, where a premium charge for movie tickets at any of the top chains provides not only extra-comfy chairs but the availability of food, booze and other beverages served up right at a patron's seat. Moviegoers can even specify when during the film they'd like their champagne glasses freshened.

Now that's cinema de lux.

Distracting munchies

Execs at the Bridge believe seatside food service is too distracting to other patrons. So moviegoers wanting fare more substantial than the skimpy pushcart offerings have to schlep out to the lobby, where promises of upscale food and beverage yield only fruit smoothies and minipizzas.

When the venue gets its liquor license, adult drinks will be sold from a second-floor bar far removed from downstairs screenings -- including those in a so-called "Center Stage" auditorium.

In that space, a standup comic or other entertainer puts on a seven-minute show before the movie. Luck of the draw determines which film and showtime place that a ticket gets you in the Center Stage theater. One recent weekend, one had to buy a ticket for vidgame spinoff "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" to rate a chuckle or two before the movie. At least the comic, unlike any actors in the film, was real.

Philly connection

CineBridge aims to roll out the whole Bridge concept in two or three other cities within 12-18 months. A site near Philly's U. of Pennsylvania, formerly envisioned as a multiplex to be run by the now-defunct Sundance Cinemas, is believed targeted as the next Bridge location.

Meanwhile, there's little evidence its early L.A. experience has caused the highfalutin exhib to second-guess its aggressive pricing policies. In fact, one of the sites' 17 auditoriums still under construction may open as a third directors hall rather than as the conventional space originally planned.

Execs say ticket sales for the first two halls have exceeded expectations, a situation they refuse to attribute to any novelty factor.

View from the Bridge

Or, as circuit topper Shari Redstone puts it, "Frankly, with all that we are delivering to our patrons at the Bridge, we feel the ticket price is a bargain."

Redstone should have a word with the recent male customer who emerged from an encounter with an overly chatty men's room attendant to observe, "Maybe they could knock a little off the ticket price, and lose the men's room guy."

Don Groves in Sydney contributed to this report.
BREAKING DOWN THE BRIDGE

The deluxe 17-screen multiplex is situated in the Hughes
Corporate Center near the L.A. airport.

Theater type     2 directors       1 center        13 plexed
                  halls(*)           stage          screens

Amenities       fixed leather     5-7 minute       reclining
                    seats       live comedy act   fabric seats

Weekend price      $13.00           $10.50          $10.50

(*) a third directors hall is being readied, and an 18th theater is
planned to accommodate giant-screen films.
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Title Annotation:deluxe theater with leather-bound seats
Comment:LEATHER GOES A LONG WAY AT BRIDGE.(deluxe theater with leather-bound seats)
Author:DiORIO, CARL
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 23, 2001
Words:813
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