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ArcLight Cinemas: Inside Chicago’s Lovely But Pricey New Theater

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 4, 2015 9:48PM

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(Photo: Joel Wicklund/Chicagoist)

There’s a lot to like about the new ArcLight Cinemas in the recently opened NewCity development. The theaters are extremely attractive (once inside and past the complex’s ugly suburban mall exterior) and those frustrated by modern movie-going irritations will appreciate much of the company’s business model. Those benefits come at a cost, however…the highest standard ticket price of any movie theater in Chicago, excluding IMAX screens.

Chicagoist was included on a media tour of the new venue on Tuesday. Though the official opening is Friday, the theaters have actually been open to the public since last week, during what ArcLight representatives called a soft opening.

The venue is impressively designed, living up to the luxury theater label while still maintaining a welcoming warmth, especially in the hall leading to each auditorium. It’s a long, elegant corridor with subtle lighting and just a few posters for upcoming movies, along with some film-related artwork. It's a stark contrast to the usual overly-bright multiplex, covered in ads.

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ArcLight's lobby featuring their "departure board" of show times, modeled after a vintage train station schedule. (Photo: Joel Wicklund/Chicagoist)
The main lobby and ticketing area are pleasant too, though a little slicker and more overtly upscale. As with most newer cinemas, there is a bar offering cocktails, wine and craft beer. In addition to traditional concessions, there is a "small bites" menu to appeal to foodies. We sampled the margherita flatbread and ahi tuna poke and both were excellent.

Far more important are the auditoriums themselves. ArcLight's website notes their theater design "favors undistracted viewing over opulence," and that's a smart choice. The d├ęcor is a simple but appealing dark blue that makes the theater seem darker when the lights dim (reps call it the "black box" effect), as opposed to brighter colors or bolder designs that can make audiences more aware of their surroundings. Seats are comfortable but made for attentive viewing—not the cushioned recliners in some luxury theaters that are more suitable for napping.

The much-hyped Dolby Atmos sound system (installed in two of the 14 auditoriums) didn't seem significantly different than other immersive audio technologies, but the sound quality was certainly excellent, as was the image quality of the 4K DCP presentation of Bridge of Spies we took in separately from the media day events. To their credit, the theater also has one auditorium equipped for 35mm projection, so some older films not available in the new standard digital format can be presented.

And though a mix of mainstream Hollywood releases and high-profile independent films is the company's bread and butter, revivals of older films will be periodic offerings under the "ArcLight Presents" banner, according to Gretchen McCourt, Executive Vice President in charge of programming. The theater is also planning regular documentary bookings, including some from Chicago's acclaimed Kartemquin Films. And though it's not official yet, following a flirtation with co-hosting this year's Chicago International Film Festival, McCourt told us, "We will definitely be part of the festival next year."

Another plus for ArcLight is that movie trailers are the only advertisements shown before films. The company also has a no late seating policy (though exceptions may be made for very sparsely attended films at a manager's discretion). It's part of an admirable strategy to cut back on intrusions and make going out to a movie more appealing in an era of cheaper streaming and on-demand options.

Of course, all the attention to an ideal viewing environment does have a trade-off. Standard adult admission for evening shows will be $14.50, topping even the steep $14.00 at Kerasotes’ high-end ShowPlace ICON Theatre. It's also $2 higher than ArcLight's other local theater in Glenview. There are discounts for children, seniors, and special offers as part of a membership program. The theater also has $12.50 "non-peak" show time pricing for select films.

Still, while our first taste of the ArcLight experience was first rate, whether the new theaters become a regular part of your movie watching habits will undoubtedly come down to income. In spite of huge box office hauls for the biggest blockbusters, the new focus in marketing the theatrical movie experience is definitely not aimed at the working class.

Theater chains like ArcLight are really not to blame for that trend. Theaters have long struggled to maintain audiences amid ever-changing viewing habits. The large movie studios have hurt their cause by drastically shortening the time between a movie's theatrical window and its debut on home viewing platforms. This destroyed most second-run and mid-run theaters, where tickets sold for $5 or less, and it has hurt the theater industry as a whole.

Add the additional financial stress of some movies debuting on DVD or on-demand simultaneous with their theatrical release (if they open in theaters at all) and it's clear why the industry had to change course. Recent renovations at the Music Box and Logan Theatre show that even independent and neighborhood theaters increasingly need to sell themselves as nightlife destinations, not just movie houses, to survive.

As a major part of this sea change, ArcLight seems to be doing it better than many. Rather than merely creating yuppie pleasure palaces, the company has sound ideas on improving the experience for true movie lovers. That said, you wonder where it all will end. Are we at the dawn of an era when seeing a movie in a theater will be like going to the opera...a cultural experience for a very select crowd with very fat wallets?

ArcLight's new Chicago theaters are located at 1500 N. Clybourn Ave. in the NewCity development.