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How 1 Company Wants to Turn Your Idea of a Night at the Movies Completely Upside Down

Luxury film theater? Nope, that’s definitely not an oxymoron anymore.

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BY Wanda Thibodeaux - 02 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Ah, the movies. The surround sound (and sound of text alerts). The buttery popcorn (that doesn't do my waistline any favors). The films are decent. But the overall experience? Maybe 3 out of 5 stars on a good day.

 

That mediocre, cookie-cutter theater model likely won't cut it for long. That's according to Hamid Hashemi, CEO and President of iPic Entertainment.

 

And Hashemi knows a little something about the system. He's spent roughly 30 years building and operating the standard 20- to 24-screen theaters most people are familiar with.

 

"I think the word experiential is so overplayed today, but it's the reality. You're not going to go out of your home for a commodity experience. [...] Mediocre just doesn't work anymore, [...] because [it's] a lot easier [to do activities] at home. So there's got to be a reason for you to go out, and people come out for an experience."

 

Not only that, Hashemi explains, but the usual theater model isn't flexible, either. If your dinner at a restaurant is served late, for example, you can miss your movie. It's also not easy to be spontaneous if you've got kids, as it's a challenge to set up last-minute child care.

 

The solution? Combine the unexpected. Put the top entertainment choices under one roof and turn them into luxury options.

 

A new objective

 

In contrast to a standard theater, iPic theaters feature elements like blankets, pillows and escorts to your seat. You can get popcorn, sure, but you also can nosh on high-quality food from reknowned chefs like Sherry Yard or have a drink prepped by the likes of mixologist Adam Seger. And instead of up to 24 auditoriums going at a time, there's only six to eight, leaving you with a more exclusive feel.

 

"Theaters were always perceived as a mechanism or as a vehicle to deliver the film, and the focus was on the film itself. What we've done is, we've really turned it around [to put] the experience first, film second. And our goal was to change the mentality of how we make our decision on how we pick our theater, and to change the way people perceive the movie-going experience to the point where they will pick the theater first and then the movie."

 

Changing the script

 

Hashemi says his biggest hurdle was just convincing others that turning the traditional theater model upside down was viable. Without something physical to see, essential professionals like executive chefs and developers were skeptical that working for Hashemi would benefit their reputations or careers. Hashemi got a bit of a break, however, when a friend in development urged him to try the idea in Milwaukee, Wisconsin--the area would allow him to be a big fish in a small pond, even as the city stood as one of the leading business magnets in the country. The strategy worked, with the first iPic location being an immediate success that offered credibility for more facilities.

 

But Hashemi still had to fight the stereotype of the typical theater with each location. He knew that, like his employees, customers needed to get in the space to really be sold. So rather than invest in standard marketing like billboards or email campaigns, Hashemi developed a membership program. If you signed up for a membership before the iPic theater opened, you'd get a free ticket you could use any time in the four to six weeks following the launch. That membership program now boasts 1.8 million members.

 

Lastly, there was the issue of cost. A ticket to an iPic film costs you anywhere from $14 to $27. But unlike the standard theaters, that fee includes your extras, such as a tub of popcorn, wait service or a 3D option. Hashemi argues that it ends up not being much more than working a la carte at other theaters, and the small differential entitles you to better service and choices. So the last prong in Hashemi's implementation approach has been simply educating people about what they already spend when they see a film and showing them it doesn't cost a lot more to be respected and pampered.

 

"For us, what it boils down to is [...] building a much better-looking and a more relevant space. But that is something that anybody can do. What really [...] turns it into an experience is how we treat our guests. It's the personal touch that we add to it when you walk through the door. That is the differentiating point. That is the experience that people buy. It really comes down to how you're treated. You want to feel good about your choices and decisions, and it is up to us to deliver on your experience so you feel good about your choice."

 

Today, iPic Entertainment hosts 16 locations, 10 of which have restaurants in conjunction with the theater, and shows movies on a total of 121 screens. The company also officially just closed their IPO under the Jobs Act as of February 1, 2018. Since the Jobs Act regulations are relatively new, he hopes to serve as a model for other entertainment entrepreneurs who want to get started under that option. He predicts the biggest growth in experiential entertainment will be in areas like golf and bowling--Top Golf, for example, is already leaning toward experiential modeling.

 

iPic is still evolving as it grows. But they've shown that it's worth combining elements you might not normally pair to redefine what a particular service can be. The fact that the company got started and thrived even in the wake of the Great Recession also demonstrates that, even when people don't have a ton of money to spend, they're willing to invest what they do have for a memory and the feeling of personal worth. Those lessons apply to any industry, not just entertainment. Whatever your goal, whatever your title, start there.