MICHELE NORRIS, host:
As we just heard, some theaters are trying to coax people back into the seats with the offer of luxury.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited a new theater that's charging a high ticket price and offering perks to match it.
Unidentified Man #1: We have "2012," "The Blind Side," "Invictus."
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It's about 10:30 a.m. on a weekday in Pasadena, just north of Los Angeles, and I'm stopping to buy a couple of tickets to "Invictus," the new movie starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
Unidentified Man #1: For tomorrow and Friday it will be $29 a ticket.
BATES: Excuse me?
Unidentified Man #1: Friday through Sunday is $29. Monday through Thursday is $22.
BATES: Yup, you heard correctly, $29 for a matinee. At the Gold Class Cinemas, my $29 entitles me to a movie in my choice of 40 reserved seats.
Mr. MARK MULCAHY (Vice President of Marketing, Gold Class Cinemas): This is the size auditorium that a normal theater chain would probably put 150 seats, but we only put 40.
BATES: Marketing VP Mark Mulcahy gives me a tour of one of the screening rooms.
Mr. MULCAHY: You can see even if Shaquille O'Neal was sitting in front of you, it wouldn't be a problem because there is no bad seat in the house here.
BATES: Which helps when you're stretched out in one of their microsuede recliners.
(Soundbite of announcement)
Unidentified Man #2: Welcome to Gold Class Cinemas. And now, our feature presentation.
BATES: They'll even bring a pillow and blanket if you want.
Mr. MULCAHY: What our customers often say is they say it's like flying first class.
BATES: And then there's the food. $29 doesn't pay for your food, but it does allow you the privilege of having food and cocktails served to you while watching the film.
Unidentified Woman: I'll be right back with your drinks. And just so you know, there's a server call button right here. So if you need anything, just press that, and I'll be right over.
BATES: The seasonal menus include everything from fried calamari with lemon and ginger to hand-pulled pizzas cooked fresh to order.
Los Angeles theaters have been trending toward luxury for almost a decade now. The Arclight in Hollywood and The Landmark theater in West L.A. claim a phenomenal picture, comfortable seats and excellent sound quality, plus $14 to $19 tickets. But Gold Class Cinema has upped the ante.
Despite that extra $10, some consumers, like Martha Wall, who came to see "The Blind Side," are sold.
Ms. MARTHA WALL: We loved it. This is the only way to go to the movies. We just - wow.
BATES: Her friend Cheryl DiSpaltro admits this will be an occasional indulgence.
Ms. CHERYL DISPALTRO: For once in a while, for a special treat. I'm bringing my husband for our anniversary.
BATES: But is business like this enough to keep Gold Class afloat?
Mr. KEVIN GOETZ (President, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, OTX): The question is, what amenities mean something?
BATES: Kevin Goetz is president of the Worldwide Motion Picture Group at the research firm OTX. In a 2009 OTX survey, Goetz says dinner and a movie under one roof was high on the list of customer wants. Other stuff, not so much.
Mr. GOETZ: Things like alcohol at movies score very low. Valet parking was also low. Even reserved seating was not terribly high.
BATES: Bad news for Gold Class, since the bar is where they expect to make their money.
Mr. GOETZ: With up to only 40 seats, with, I think, something like six screens or whatever they have, is that enough - is that sustainable?
BATES: Good question. These deluxe movie houses have been introduced by Village Roadshow, an Australian entertainment conglomerate. In addition to Pasadena, Gold Class has opened three other theater complexes around the U.S.
According to Goetz, none of their American theaters are as successful as their Australian counterparts. But it's early yet. And if the economy stabilizes, they may do better. Given the past year's economic turmoil, Mark Mulcahy says battered consumers were hungry for a little escapism.
Mr. MULCAHY: This is a great night out. And you may not be going to the Bahamas this year, but this is something you can afford, okay? Everybody can afford this.
BATES: To be successful, what Gold Class needs is enough everybodies who can and will part with that kind of money on a regular basis.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.