Rocklin theater now offers dinner and a movie in style

Ryan Gent serves a meal to moviegoers Manuel Ruiz and his wife Vanessa Ruiz of Natomas at the new Studio Movie Grill in Rocklin on Tuesday. The new theater serves dine-in food and alcohol. It is the first daily theater of its kind in the region.
Ryan Gent serves a meal to moviegoers Manuel Ruiz and his wife Vanessa Ruiz of Natomas at the new Studio Movie Grill in Rocklin on Tuesday. The new theater serves dine-in food and alcohol. It is the first daily theater of its kind in the region. rbenton@sacbee.com

Paul and Debbie Porter weren’t going to leave the comfort of home without some serious enticing.

The Granite Bay couple had gotten used to streaming movies through Netflix, watching them at home on their 65-inch, curved-screen, ultra-high-definition TV. But Tuesday night, the Porters eagerly left home for a new Sacramento market offering: a movie house turned dinner theater with creature comforts, expansive food selections and alcoholic libations.

Along with their adult sons, Jonathan and Brian Porter, and Brian’s girlfriend, Tara Boucher, they settled into cushy leather seats at the Studio Movie Grill, a $10 million newly opened cinema complex in Rocklin, where they watched the early evening 3-D showing of “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

Before the movie, they pored over the menu, which includes selections from a full-service bar and a wine list with estate-grown varietals marketed under the theater’s own label. They reviewed offerings from the theater kitchen, including the Loli-Chop Pork Chop with Agave Nectar sauce for $14.50, the St. Louis Ribs for $14.95 and the Sriracha Chicken Sliders for $9.50.

“I want it all. Show me everything,” Paul Porter exulted after a waitress delivered the menu to his tray table, which was equipped with an ordering button for service before and during the movie.

The nine-screen theater, which opened last week, is designed for an audience demanding more than the traditional cinema experience. As viewers increasingly do their movie-watching via big-screen TV, streaming video and surround-sound home theater systems, total box office admissions have declined in the United States and Canada, falling from 1.5 billion moviegoers in 2004 to 1.34 billion last year.

The industry is hoping to lure people back by embracing a full-service entertainment concept piloted by some niche movie houses two decades ago.

Studio Movie Grill, a Texas-based company born in 2000, is the grandest example of the approach to open so far in the Sacramento region. The Rocklin complex is the company’s 19th facility and marks its first foray in California; it has plans for another in the Ventura County community of Simi Valley.

“We realized this was a huge opportunity to bring our concept to the Sacramento area as an in-theater dining place,” said Studio Movie Grill CEO and founder Brian Schultz.

A graduate of California State University, Chico, Schultz first experimented with the cinema/eatery idea in 1993, opening a one-screen theater in Dallas that started “with frozen food, low-quality service and warm beer.”

He said he promised his mother and three brothers, who live in the capital region, a decidedly more upscale version close to home. The Rocklin cinema, with more than 200 employees, has servers who guide customers to their seats and deliver hand-crafted cocktails, finger foods and entrees. Ticket prices range from $6 for children 10 and under to $12 for adults viewing 3-D films.

Other theaters are following suit.

Early next year, the historic Crest Theatre on the downtown K Street Mall will replace two downstairs movie parlors with a gourmet breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant that will serve customers watching films in the theater’s remaining main screen. Michael Thiemann, chef and co-owner of K Street vegetarian restaurant Mother, will offer moviegoers a carnivore-friendly establishment. The Crest’s Empress Tavern will allow guests to carry beer, wine, mixed drinks and meal selections of slow-roasted meats to their theater seats.

“We’re connected to a Sacramento icon, and it is going to be a real fun time seeing the metamorphosis going on, with a really strong food and breakfast program in an historic theater,” Thiemann said.

In Woodland, the State Theatre, a 1937 showplace that closed in 2010, will be reborn in a $9 million project that will connect the old theater to a new 10-screen multiplex. Cinema West, the developer, plans to offer restaurant-quality cuisine, beer and wine to meet expectations for a fuller experience.

The movie theater dining concept has been thriving for years in other states. It is growing in California, thanks in part to a new understanding between the movie theater industry and the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which had generally frowned at the notion of serving booze in theaters frequented by children and young adults.

Matthew Botting, the ABC’s general counsel, said the agency told movie industry executives that they could get restaurant/liquor licenses if they expanded the theater kitchens and food offerings beyond “popcorn and candy.” The industry, in turn, agreed that ushers and waiters would police theaters to prevent alcohol consumption by minors.

“They had to be able to change their business structure and their physical structure to be able to qualify for a liquor license,” Botting said.

As a result, the National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that scores of movie houses in California have been built or remade to include restaurant and bar service.

Many are decidedly small-scale, such as the Public House Theater, a Tahoe Park bar and movie house that offers beer and wine and plans to serve fresh pizzas and paninis during cult classic films and live sporting events.

Meanwhile, grander palaces offer in-theater table service, with waiters striding through broad aisles to take orders, speaking softly and ducking low while movies play on vast screens.

“The industry is trying to find a way to provide what people are looking for,” said Milton Moritz, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of California/Nevada. “It’s gourmet-style, with spacious seating and recliners. The movie theater experience is trying to provide a step up for people who are going out.”

So the Porter family of Granite Bay stepped up – and out – at the Studio Movie Grill. Paul Porter settled for a soft drink and a $12.50 fire-roasted “Pork&Burger” sandwich. Debbie went with popcorn and a Long Island iced tea.

Down the row, Brian and his girlfriend opted for meatball pizza, chicken tenders and a hot chocolate dessert, and were served well before the previews were over.

“It’s a date night hole-in-one,” Brian said.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.