Now Showing, or Maybe Not

 

The Plaza Cinema Café’s bumpy opening goes into an extended run, raising questions about the downtown multiplex’s management. 




Jim Duffy
Jim Duffy of American Theater Corporation says the Plaza
Cinema Café is drawing people downtown.   

The new Plaza Cinema Café in Orlando bills itself as a swanky place to watch a movie while sipping a glass of wine—a moderately priced luxury that could inject some vitality into downtown’s moribund evening entertainment scene.

Several weeks after the multiplex’s opening, however, many patrons remained skeptical of its operations. Message boards, blogs and word-of-mouth complaints echoed with tales of problems at the theater. The litany included a Web site with no rating information, an odd mix of first-run and dated movies, no phone number for movie-listings information, phone calls and e-mails to theater managers going unanswered, long waits for subpar food, movies advertised but not shown, movies shown but not advertised, mix-ups with valet parking, shortages of beer and food, malfunctioning bar registers, and theater employees obviously frustrated with recurring foul-ups.

The operational hiccups raise the question: Will the young business survive?

Jim Duffy, a 35-year veteran of the movie-exhibition industry and the CEO of the company that planned the Cinema Café, says yes. His rose-colored view of the theater’s first weeks includes streams of satisfied customers.

“People say walking into the building is almost like walking into a resort or a W hotel,” he says, referring to the luxury boutique inn. “It’s a very unique experience.”

It is a beautiful multiplex, to be sure, with Art Deco influences and comfy faux-leather, high-back seats. But Brian Orndorf, a local film critic and writer for eFilmCritic.com, says the theater is unique in an entirely different way than Duffy suggests. 

“It seems the management is making easily avoidable poor choices at every turn these days, at a rate I’ve never seen before from a brand-new theater,” Orndorf says.

He reports driving downtown to catch a flick that the Cinema Café’s Web site listed for a certain time, only to discover it was playing at a completely different time. That sort of experience was so common that the city’s economic development director, Frank Billingsley, told the Orlando Sentinel that he sent the theater’s owner, RP Realty, a letter raising concerns about the Cinema Café’s customer service.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who has long championed an urban movie theater as vital to downtown’s redevelopment, says the new theater just needs some time to work out the kinks.

The city has a financial interest in the 12-screen theater, having lent California-based developer RP Realty $6 million to complete the facility inside The Plaza condo tower on Orange Avenue. The Plaza’s original developer, Cameron Kuhn, lost his stake in the project as well as in several downtown properties when his businesses fell into bankruptcy.

RP Realty hired Duffy, head of American Theater Corporation, to develop the theater, citing his long experience with movie houses that serve food beyond the usual snacks of popcorn and hot dogs. Stuart Rubin, RP’s CEO, says the movie theater chains his company talked to lacked that experience.

Rubin also says he wasn’t concerned that some of Duffy’s past endeavors had been hit by lawsuits and allegations of unpaid rents. For example, Duffy had a $2.5 million judgment levied against him and his associates in Texas.

Duffy says lawsuits are a fact of a life in the theater business.

Although RP Realty chose American Theater to plan the Cinema Café, Duffy does not handle the day-to-day operations. That’s left to Orlando Movie Company, an ATC subsidiary run by Tim Johnson, who has managed theaters for the LeFont and Regal chains.

Johnson agreed to a phone interview for this article but he did not answer his phone and didn’t return messages left over a week. He did, however, tell the Sentinel that the theater was “working on” booking releases by Disney and Warner Brothers—companies that reliably produce summer blockbusters but whose films have been noticeably absent from the theater.

Duffy says the theater’s ultimate programming goal is a combination of mainstream hits and independent films designed to lure a more sophisticated audience than suburban theaters.

“We’re going to be a little less on the family, Disney-type film,” Duffy says.

Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners, says independent works could help distinguish an urban theater from its suburban competitors. 

Corcoran emphasizes two survival necessities for such a theater as the Cinema Café —the addition of non-mainstream showings and marketing, views echoed by the theater’s management.

So where is that unique programming? Duffy says the young Orlando Film Festival, which will hold its event at the Cinema Café in November, and the Downtown Arts District, which promotes art appreciation downtown, both plan to bring independent works to the theater. Duffy says there soon may be one night a week dedicated to independent films.

Marketing also has been conspicuously absent. Marketing director Michelle Briscoe says the theater is relying on its Web site to advertise shows and promotions. But six weeks after the theater’s opening, the site remained bare bones. It didn’t list any information about the many promotions Briscoe talks about—including an independent film contest slated for August. 

Briscoe says that a new Web site is on the way with “all sorts of information,” but by the time it is expected to be launched the theater will have been open nearly two months.

Still, theater officials say customers are coming in droves. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise: On a recent Saturday evening (prime-time for movie-going) fewer than 40 people stood in line for tickets and some auditoriums were nearly empty. 

Duffy says the theater had 14,000 customers the last week of June, adding that the Cinema Café expects a first-year attendance of 350,000 customers. “We are reaching out and bringing people downtown,” he says. But not nearly the 600,000 customers the city had projected as part of its justification for lending RP Realty $6 million to open the multiplex.

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