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Wednesday, November 21,2012

Coming soon: a theater near you

Upscale movie theater will provide an intimate, full-service experience

by ALLAN I. ROSS
Sometime in 2015, “Star Wars: Episode VII” will come out and you can already picture the midnight premiere: middle-aged fanboys and fangirls dressed like Vader, Fett and Slave Leia, swinging plastic lightsabers at each other as they stand in 12-hour lines that stretch around the movie theater. Even for a die-hard fan of the Skywalker saga, all that waiting and uncertainty of a good seat sounds like a day in Dagobah. 

Now picture yourself calmly walking up to the ticket booth at 11:55 p.m., picking up your ticket and strolling into the sea of costumed characters who’ve been in line all day. You plop into a plush, reclining seat just in time for the previews. No long line, no racing into the theater to fight for your seat. In fact, here comes a waiter with some free popcorn to take your drink order (wine or beer?)  and see if you’d like to order a late dinner. The Wookie in the next row looks over in bewilderment — what’s going on here, Jedi mind games? 

Not exactly — you’re at Studio C!, an upscale specialty movie house that’s part of the Celebration! Cinema family. Studio C! opens Dec. 10 at 1999 Central Park Drive in Okemos, in the former AMC Meridian 6 near the Meridian Mall. It will consist of six theaters — two 200-seaters, two 150-seaters and two 100-seaters — and feature a full dinner menu, a liquor license and pick-your-own seating. It will also include the aforementioned preferred seating (for a $7 premium charge), which comes with swanky recliners, complimentary popcorn and full-service waitstaff (to which each theater will dedicate about 15 percent of its floor space). 

“This is part of a bigger trend in movie-going,” says Ron Van Timmeren, vice president in charge of programming for Loeks Theatres Inc., which does business as Celebration! Cinema. “We’ve seen it work pretty well in major markets like New York and Chicago, so we’re testing the waters here. But the date-and-a-movie concept is all-American — I feel this will work in the Lansing area.”

And the man knows his trends. In 2003, Van Timmeren told City Pulse that he predicted 3-D and IMAX movies would become a major force in the movie market, a claim that proved to be quite prescient. A lot of it had to do with “Avatar,” which changed the course of movie watching: bigger became better again. But now Van Timmeren is gambling on the small. 

And so Studio C! is reversing that trend — the idea is to make movie watching a more intimate and service-oriented experience. You see, even though Lansing already has two megaplexes — Lansing Township’s NCG Cinemas to the north and Lansing’s Celebration! Cinemas to the south — the first-come, first-serve seating rule is in hard effect and your best options for food are still hot dogs and nachos. Moreover, neither is known for showing foreign, art house or local films. Case in point: “The Intouchables,” a French film that set worldwide box offices on fire earlier this year. But chances are you haven’t heard of it — unless, perhaps, you were at the East Lansing Film Festival. 

Susan Woods, director of the ELFF, heard international buzz about “Intouchables” and fought to bring it here last week, and she says the audience response was worth it.   

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audience laugh harder at a movie before,” she said. “I was so, so happy to play a part in introducing that film to the Lansing area. It’s what I love to do. And with Studio C!, it will be a lot easier do that.” 

Woods, 60, was recently picked by Celebration to do programming for one of Studio C!’s six theaters. For 15 years, she has built up the ELFF as well as its sibling, the East Lansing Film Society, which grew from a ragtag group of a few dozen film fans to over 2,300 members. She started with a 35mm projector in Michigan State University’s Wells Hall showing classics films. 

“But that bombed,” she says. “Then I started showing independent and foreign movies and that’s when it really took off.”  

A lifelong fan of film, Woods created the ELFF and ELFS to fill what she saw as a void in the artistic landscape. After successfully nurturing them for 15 years, she says she was “elated” when Van Timmeren & Co. contacted her about programming. 

“If you’d asked me in my 30s what my dream job was, I’d have said programming films,” Woods says. “Now I’m doing it. How many people can say that?”

Woods doesn’t have an official title yet, but she starts on Jan. 15 — the heart of Oscar season. And what’s one of the first things she’s bringing? 

“I can’t wait to make ‘Intouchables’ available to everyone, whenever they want to see it,” she says. “That’s the only problem with the film festival — the rigid schedule.”

Both Woods and Van Timmeren say the roster will also probably include locally produced shorts and features, which will play before the main attraction.  

“This isn’t meant to be competitive with the multiplexes in town — it’s a viable alternative,” Van Timmeren says. “We want to attract the people who want that alternative experience.”

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