How to go to the movies in style
I don't like going to the movies. The whole ''sitting next to strangers in the dark with a sticky floor'' thing has too much of a Plato's Retreat vibe for me. The only way I'm willing to be mixed with the general public for two hours is once a year at a seder, and even then I'm not crazy about my dad's new wife's extended family. At the movies, I hate people talking to the screen, laughing at the wrong time, or not being hot enough for me to stare at. But like all elitists, I consider myself a man of the people, a character in a Billy Joel song. So I was prepared to hate the ArcLight Cinema. An L.A. movie palace for the pampered, the ArcLight opened its doors last spring, with a top ticket price of $14, compared with the $9 or so charged just down the block at Loews. For that extra five-spot, you get a better-designed multiplex, some extra adjectives in the concession menu, and, most important, a theater filled only with snobs willing to pay a 56 percent markup. This was a group I could see a movie with. Especially since I was expensing my ticket.
Excited to be freed from the shackles of social democracy, I went to the ArcLight and bought two tickets to ''The Pianist'' from a woman named Grae, whose name-plate revealed that her favorite film is ''Rushmore.'' The ArcLight even makes it easy to hit on the staffers. Grae informed me that she had some ''really great availability'' in the center of the theater: Lower 5, Seats 26 and 27. It was like dealing with an airline, only with nice people.
Although I wasn't hungry enough for the sausage baguette with watermelon barbecue sauce ($4.50), I did pick up the popcorn with real butter ($4.75), served in tubs instead of bags to reduce audience noise. Lower 5, Seat 26 turned out to be a beauty; made of crushed velvet, it looked like it had been lifted from a Cadillac Escalade. An usher came into the theater to introduce the movie, and, like a newscaster, overpronounced all the foreign names (Polanshki). Adrien Brody, he said, had been a guest speaker here recently. Our usher was name-dropping. I was in love with this place.
After the film, my friend Ross and I went to the ArcLight cafe, where we chewed on the Holocaust and drank $9.50 glasses of the Clos du Bois Alexander Valley merlot. Happier than I've ever been at the movies, I realized not only that the ArcLight experience was wholly contemptible, but that I am a wholly contemptible person.
Asking people to pay a huge markup that in actuality adds up to only a few dollars is a brilliant business plan. It's like opening a SuperStarbucks, where the venti lattes are eight bucks but the lines are shorter. I asked Chris Forman, CEO of ArcLight, how he came up with the idea of charging people more for -- let's face it -- the same 148 minutes of ''The Pianist,'' and misunderstanding me, he got testy. Tickets are only $11 during the week, he told me, and that includes parking. There is no surcharge for buying over the phone, no ads before the movie, and with every visit members get points toward a free admission. Forman knows the only thing the tasting-menu set likes more than money is frequent-flier miles. I'd let my wife cheat on me if I could get miles for it.
Though he claims the place is not for ''rich people'' but ''people with an emotional connection to the cinema,'' Forman admitted the ArcLight brings in a different clientele: ''One of the segments we're not appealing to is people looking to kill time. They can go somewhere else.'' My dad's seder, perhaps.
There's something sad about witnessing the final stratification of our bifurcated caste system. Waiting anxiously to see if Vin Diesel can eke out a third facial expression is the last experience our country enjoys en masse, our last chance to laugh and cry with someone from the opposite class. The Loews is the town square of the suburban age. And yet, I've never been so happy to give that up for a sausage baguette with watermelon barbecue sauce. If I wanted to rub elbows with the great unwashed, I'd eat at the Olive Garden. So I've become an ArcLight member. I hope I don't see you there.