If you’re opening a new movie theater in Wisconsin and you want to stand out from the competition, emphasizing the beer is a pretty good way to go.
The first thing patrons notice while walking up to the new Flix Brewhouse at East Towne Mall is the giant, gleaming silver fermentation tanks. Flix, a Texas-based theater chain opening its first Madison location on Friday, lays claim to be the first movie theater that’s also a working brewpub.
“We are a Wisconsin brewery,” said Greg Johnson, director of sales and marketing, on a recent tour as workers were busy putting the finishing touches on the theater. “The restaurant is of equal importance to the movie experience. It’s not an afterthought.”
Beer was already fermenting, timed so that when the theater opened it would have a dozen of its own beers ready to pour for the grand opening, from Umbra Chocolate Stout to Nebulas IPA. Johnson said that Wisconsin brewers, especially Ale Asylum, have been extremely welcoming and helpful as Flix brewmasters started its brewing process from scratch.
Such amenities, once thought of as extras for movie theaters, have increasingly become central to the moviegoing experience as theaters look to compete with Netflix and other forms of entertainment. Reclining seats, lobby bars, even meals served directly to the viewer’s seat has become standard operating procedure in most Madison theaters.
But making and serving its own beer is something new. Johnson said the Flix blueprint was designed with that in mind; the company has considered buying and refurbishing older theaters, but just couldn’t make the layout fit their needs. At Flix, customers are flowing into the theater restaurant and beyond into the 10 theaters, the beer is moving above them across catwalks from the fermentation tanks into one of 11 serving tanks located above and behind the bar area.
While the lobby restaurant area is big enough to seat 100 to 120 people, Johnson said the ideal Flix experience is to not linger there for very long.
“My tip to anybody is start at the bar, get a first round, and then come in and enjoy the pre-show. Then everything else happens in here,” Johnson said.
“Everything else” includes ordering food and more drinks in the theater, including made-to-order pizzas, sandwiches and salads, which are whisked to your seat by servers. Marcus Palace in Sun Prairie is the only other theater in the region to offer a similar service.
To entice audiences to get seated early, Flix offers a half-hour “pre-show” of viral videos, interviews, movie clips and other curated content, all tied to the particular movie that the viewer is getting ready to see. Johnson said that Flix will show primarily first-run mainstream movies (“Ant-Man and the Wasp” will be a big draw this weekend) with some one-off screenings of old favorites.
One way that Flix goes against the grain of many modern movie theaters is the seating. While the front few rows of any theater are reclining seats, the elevated back half of the theater has rocker seats. Johnson said Flix has found that eating in a reclined seat is just too awkward for viewers.
Instead, the customer sits in the rocker seats and is able to slide a movable table top towards them, a patented device called an Easy Glider. When the meal is over, the customer can simply slide the Easy Glider noiselessly forward and enjoy the movie. Johnson said the overall experience is much easier for diners and much less intrusive for those around them.
“There was only one time when I was aware of the sound of chewing in the theater,” Johnson said. “And that was during ‘A Quiet Place.’”
With the Madison opening, Flix Brewhouse will have theaters in six cities and is developing theaters for another six more. Cinema fans may see some similarities between Flix and another Texas-based movie chain, Alamo Drafthouse. What’s the difference between the two?
“The other company, which I won’t name, is focused on preserving cinema as it was,” he said. “We are very focused on what’s happening now and delivering a total experience where the food matters as much as the movie experience, and the beer matters as much as the food.”