Culture Shock: Dining Out at the Movies

Written by Film

Down this hallway is a cornucopia of film and food excess!Even in a year in which unemployment in America hovered above nine percent, Americans pulled it together enough to bring the top ten films at the box office to a collective sum of $4.8 billion in domestic grosses. That’s an impressive commitment to watching vampires pout to the adoration of teen girls or seeing Shrek fart his way through another 90-minute feature. In the face of financial adversity, our country sticks to its guns, even if those guns just shoot out little flags that say “BANG!”

And the moviegoing experience only gets more excessive with time. If you had approached 14-year-old me on the line for, say, Spider-Man and revealed that I’d blow $28 on a date to see Tangled in eye-popping 3-D some nine years later, I’d have to imagine one of us was crazy. Judging by recent events, I’d be the crazy one. (And yet, the National Association of Theater Owners put average ticket prices last year at $7.89. What theaters are driving this average down, and are they Big Momma-free zones?)

How can it get more ridiculous? Enter AMC Dine-In Theatres. Deftly combining “dinner and a movie” with “your crazy friend who claimed to sneak a Thanksgiving turkey into that screening of Little Fockers,” the chain has introduced seven locations across the country (an eighth is slated to open at Walt Disney World in May), featuring full-service dining and a bar. With three of these establishments located in my home state, a territory already internationally known for its excesses, it was inevitable that I’d put on my pop-culture guinea pig hat for the underprivileged masses, head to the newly-reopened location at the Menlo Park Mall in Edison, NJ and come back with a full report on the situation.

The first objective for patrons at a Dine-In Theatre is to forget every standard idea of a local multiplex. There is no neon-colored interior, no arcade – not even a ticket booth. That process is self-contained; you buy your tickets from a machine. That’s not a new idea, but to a traditionalist, the lack of human interaction is pretty jarring. So is the lack of posters in the brightly-lit lobby; ads for the food, drink and ticketing options are your new pre-show eye candy, along with a few flatscreen TVs at MacGuffin’s, the fully-functioning bar located in the center of the lobby. (Virtual high-fives to you if you got the meaning of the bar’s name.)

Once inside, screening rooms aren’t all that different from your average auditorium. Granted, most theatres don’t have have assigned seats with leather backings, but those inane trivia questions and Diet Coke ads don’t get any better in swankier settings. The menu has about the kind of selection you’d expect at Applebee’s – think burgers, chicken, pizza and other fried foods – but they run a little more on the wallet than your local grill-bar. But Applebee’s doesn’t have a burger named after a 1966 World War I film…so that’s something, right?

Honestly, the food was as good as could be expected – the mozzarella sticks were particularly good, the entrees selected (chicken tenders and a quesadilla platter, respectively) were fine enough – but the major issue was the feeling of intrusion from the waiters and waitresses with regard to the movie. Imagine if someone came into your living room and asked you a few questions while you were trying to watch Inception. It would be kind of annoying, no? Granted, it’s nice to be waited on, but getting anything bigger than a popcorn and soft drink delivered to your seat is going to distract you. And while the swiveling, armrest-anchored trays are sturdy enough to hold a few baskets of food, they provide the only drawback to the extra legroom and deeply reclining seats, in that there’s no real comfortable way to eat without drawing your upper torso at an acute angle.

One particularly prickly moment came toward the end of the film, when the wait staff stood by waiting to receive the bill they delivered 20 minutes prior. It’s bad enough to nearly have a film’s climax damaged by someone coming by with a check – imagine that happening during Citizen Kane or a Lord of the Rings flick – but as a devoted watcher of end credits, it was a bit annoying to have people hovering with hands outstretched while I was trying to figure out what songs appeared in the film. My date was particularly unnerved, and had little choice but to nag me in turn. (If you’re reading this, darling, I’m sorry I got mad.)

Ultimately, while the Dine-In Theatre was a novel excursion (albeit a costly one – some $65 was spent between tickets and food, about twice the cost of two tickets and a small snack at the local multiplex), it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to keep drawing in Joe and Jane Suburbia month after month. If you particularly despise the parts of a dinner-and-movie date in which you interact your significant other, it’s pure gold. But it’ll never replace the simple (if still far from cheap) pleasures of kicking back some Buncha Crunch and a Coke while attempting to stretch your gangly legs without hitting the seat in front of you.

Perhaps it’s ironic that the whole experience was set to the ‘80s comedy Take Me Home Tonight, a movie about an era characterized by cheap thrills and cheaper consumer experiences – and one that just didn’t work well enough to keep me coming back.