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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Movie theaters are once again trying to reinvent themselves. The reason is that many of us are walking right pass the concession stand without buying their buttery popcorn or their buckets of soda. So theaters from Florida to California are starting to offer options that are healthier, hotter and more substantial.

Laura Ziegler of member station KCUR reports on the trend toward the dine-in movie experience.

LAURA ZIEGLER: Don't worry, there's still going to be the popcorn.

Mr. GEORGE PATTERSON (Senior Vice President of Food and Beverage, AMC Entertainment Inc.): I recently had somebody tell me whatever you do, never change the popcorn. She said, I grew up as a kid going to movies with my dad, and it was always about the - don't change the popcorn.

ZIEGLER: So George Patterson, the vice president for food and beverage at Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment, is keeping what works. But he knows concessions are the company's bread and butter, and a third of his moviegoers don't buy anything to eat at all.

To entice that group, Patterson has brought premium restaurant dining to the movies: reserved seats, luxury recliners, seat-side service, including cocktails.

(Soundbite of movie, "Madea's Big Happy Family")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) ...superstores, we'll find the best...

ZIEGLER: And AMC Mainstreet in downtown Kansas City is one of the premier locations.

Unidentified Man #1: ...and obstructions. In case you don't (unintelligible).

ZIEGLER: And the first thing you notice when you come in is there aren't very many seats here. They've yanked up most of the movie seats, but they're not just your usual movie seats. They're not the velour old movie seats. They're like soft leather recliners. In the middle is a table with a low light and salt and pepper and ketchup and...

(Soundbite of movie, "Madea's Big Happy Family")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) If there's no drummer(ph), there's no (unintelligible). Can you hear the drummer?

ZIEGLER: ...with two TV trays.

(Soundbite of movie, "Madea's Big Happy Family")

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) And they bought the phone(ph)? Like no one else could.

ZIEGLER: I asked local food critic Charles Ferruzza to come along to "Madea's Big Happy Family."

Mr. CHARLES FERRUZZA (Food Critic): It's like an Applebee's menu. It's very accessible food, nothing, you know, too exotic.

(Soundbite of movie, "Madea's Big Happy Family")

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) ...on me.

Unidentified Man #3: (as character) I was a 16-year-old kid. What the hell did I know?

ZIEGLER: And no accident, an Applebee's corporate chef was hired to help with food service. We press the little red button, like we were calling the stewardess on an airplane, and a young waiter glides over to take our order.

Mr. FERRUZZA: I'll have the Classic Italiano Flatbread pizza.

Mr. SHAWN EDMUNDS (Waiter): OK. Would you like a side salad or anything else to go with that?

Mr. FERRUZZA: Yeah, I'll have a side salad. What dressing do you have?

Mr. EDMUNDS: We can get, like, a side Caesar, or if you get the garden, then we have like ranch and mustard.

ZIEGLER: Side salad? Who wants to sit next to someone in a movie crunching a salad? But everyone else is eating, says our waiter Shawn Edmunds, and he says he gets few complaints. Occasionally, someone will get annoyed when he crouches over in the dark to take their order.

Mr. EDMUNDS: Some people, you know, like, whenever you go to talk to them, they'll just, like, kind of shoo you away a little bit. But usually, you know, I try to walk pretty fast, so it's not that bad.

ZIEGLER: The food comes, the critic gives it a thumbs-up.

(Soundbite of music)

ZIEGLER: AMC's George Patterson is aware of certain problems and says the company is working on them. It's all about becoming what he calls more guest-centric, giving people choices, like baseball did when it expanded from beer and brats to barbecue and sushi.

Meanwhile, the company is continuing to develop the dine-in concept. It's opened one in Orlando, and another will open in Phoenix by the end of the year.

With movies now in high def, 3-D and surround sound, George Patterson believes people are looking for an upgrade in their eating experience as well.

Mr. PATTERSON: Just soft drinks and popcorn. And although those elements have paid the bills for the last 90 years for AMC, we have to look beyond that. What does the guest expect? And then what can we do to exceed that expectation?

ZIEGLER: Patterson says the company is testing the dine-in concept as one of a dozen new initiatives aimed at boosting revenues.

While the numbers have been good so far, he admits it's too soon to know whether customers will take to the idea of having more ambitious meals with their movies.

For NPR, I'm Laura Ziegler in Kansas City.

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