Boutique ArcLight theaters may shake up local cinema scene

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

2:53 PM EST, November 7, 2013


We keep hearing it: The theatrical exhibition component of the movie business is on a slow fade to extinction. Well. Besides taxes, cockroaches and "Two and a Half Men," what isn't going away, ultimately?

Try telling that to ArcLight Cinemas. The prestige wing of the Pacific Theatres chain, ArcLight opened a 14-screen multiplex in Hollywood in 2002 and audiences love it. I've been; I love it too. It's a swirl of complementary pluses, from gift shop to adjoining bar and restaurant to seriously comfy seats. I've always been mixed on the assigned-seating policy (not unique to ArcLight) but the ambience works. Excellent sound. Adult beverages, no annoying ads, no late seating. Texters, I believe, can be shot on sight.

Five ArcLight multiplexes currently screen movies in Southern California, and next year the company's expansion will include its first East Coast outpost, in Bethesda, Md. Here's the Chicago angle: Scheduled to open in fall 2015, a 14-screen ArcLight will serve as an anchor tenant of an 8-acre mixed-use project known as New City, developed by Bucksbaum Retail Properties LLC, located along the Clybourn Corridor, near the intersection of Clybourn Avenue and Halsted Street. Not far from the Apple Store.

The programming promises a mix of mainstream Hollywood and art-house fare. This week ArcLight representatives confirmed that one of the 14 auditoriums will be equipped with 35-millimeter projection, so that "ArcLight Presents" retrospectives can accommodate archival prints if needed.

What this means for the existing nearby multiplexes — Regal Webster Place; the downtown AMC River East; the Roosevelt Road Kerasotes ShowPlace ICON; Landmark's Century Centre Cinema on Clark Street — is anybody's guess. But if New City works, if the 500,000-square-foot development flows well and avoids any traces of hermetic Universal CityWalk "Logan's Run" anti-urbanism ... then Chicago filmgoers may end up 14 screens for the better, in a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest sense.

"It's a key location for our national expansion," ArcLight Chief Operating Officer Nora Dashwood told me via email this week.

We'll leave this prospect with a question: Would the Chicago International Film Festival be wise to consider negotiating a relocation from its current home, the AMC River East, to ArcLight in two or three years' time?

I wonder. Programming issues and other limitations aside, it has always frustrated me that the festival planners and programmers can't get any decent signage outside the River East 21 entrance on Illinois Street. Or anywhere near it, really. The festival does well enough, and attendance was good this year, according to festival officials. But it remains semi-visible at best as a Chicago cultural entity.

Festival managing director Vivian Teng asserts the value of sticking with AMC River East, citing the new hotel going in across Illinois Street, and the "very good relationships we've developed with AMC corporate." She does, however, acknowledge that ArcLight is planting its Chicago flag in "a very good area. And a lot of our regular festival attendees live in that general area. Will they offer free parking? That's always the enticement to beat."

Says ArcLight's Dashwood: "I can't speak to the future plans of the Chicago International Film Festival, but I can say that ArcLight has had a lot of success in hosting major film festivals, as our commitment to the celebration of movies of all kinds is what ArcLight is about."

Northwest Territory Update

Ardent devotees of 35 mm film projection, the folks behind the Northwest Chicago Film Society have bailed out of the climatologically challenging Patio Theater and are relocating, for now, to the downtown Gene Siskel Film Center to complete their current calendar of events.

It's a boiler problem, according to the film society's Rebecca Hall. The Patio's 1926 boiler is on the fritz, which means heat — a nice thing to have when you're seeing movies indoors in the colder months — could not be assured for the film society's customer base in the coming weeks.

"But we're really crossing our fingers for 2014," she says. "The Patio's a unique and beautiful place."

For the revised schedule of Sunday screenings at the Film Center, go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org/calendar/classic.