Could Movie Theater Playgrounds Really Save the Industry?

Movie theater chains are doing everything in their power to drive up attendance. They added 3D to practically every screen, they invented seats that rumble, and now Cinépolis is putting a whole children’s playground inside of the theater, so that the children don’t actually have to watch the movie their parents took them to see.

Cinépolis Junior is a new motion picture experience, aimed at families, in which an actual jungle gym is placed next to the theater seats. Children are allowed and, indeed, encouraged to run around and play while their parents watch the movie. Two of these theaters are opening on March 16 for screenings of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Tickets for these movie theater playgrounds will cost $3 more than regular admission.

Cinepolis USA Chief Executive Adrian Mijares Elizondo told the Los Angeles Times that “It’s really intended to make kids feel welcome and comfortable,” and that “the whole idea is to make it easier for parents to take their kids to the movies and let the kids have more fun.”

One could argue that this is an odd statement for a movie theater executive to make, since it implies that the movies they’re peddling aren’t already sufficiently fun for kids. However, we need to consider the fact that Cinépolis Junior is part of a complex conversation the film industry is currently having with audiences. In an environment where the home theater experience is increasingly comparable to the theatrical experience (and significantly cheaper), how do we get audiences to flock back to theaters?

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Also: Twenty Years Later, ‘Rogue One’ is the New ‘Star Wars’ Special Edition

Cinephiles will likely balk at this prospect. It creates a lousy environment to enjoy a movie, one in which the lights would presumably be up to prevent kids from hurting themselves on the playground, and in which the typical noisiness of children at play will be a constant distraction from the screen anyway.

But Cinépolis clearly isn’t catering to the cinephile demographic. It seems unlikely that any Cinépolis Junior theaters would ever play serious and quiet dramas like Moonlight or Silence. These theaters would cater to a family demographic – the people who want to bring their kids to the movies and to have a shared experience – not to mention the people who simply can’t find babysitters.

What could get lost in this conversation, however, is the fact that there are other options. You don’t have to keep children out of the moviegoing experience altogether and you don’t have to acquiesce to their short attention spans. You can present motion pictures that keep children rapt and also boost the experience with other incentives, like interactive elements that take place before, after and between the films. Games, actors in costume, read-alongs, there are plenty of options that are being passed over in favor of keeping kids distracted from the very movies that their parents paid for them to see.

It’s possible to make movie theaters fun without teaching kids the wrong lessons. Films warrant our full attention, especially in a theatrical environment (otherwise, what else did you pay all that money for?). Teaching children to respect the art of movies and also to respect the other audience members by staying in their seat and staying focused is an important aspect of their personal growth.

While many parents might look to Cinépolis Junior as an entertaining outing, and perhaps it that’s exactly what it will be, I do hope those same parents consider that movies aren’t just entertainment, they’re an opportunity to expand a child’s horizons. Encouraging a child to sit down and actually watch a movie, to experience the world through entirely new eyes, has significant value.

For some of us, it’s hard to look at Cinépolis Junior as anything other than a well-intentioned but misguided idea. Basically you can spend $3 extra per person to let your child play on the kind of playground that’s available for free at the park, or you can save $3 per person and actually get to watch the movie you paid for without the sort of constant distractions you’d normally get at home.

But movie theaters are going to keep trying to expand their business and boost their attendance, so experiments like Cinépolis Junior are going to be at least a semi-regular occurrence for a while. It’s too early to say whether Cinépolis Junior will be the cure for what ails the industry. If it’s not, they’re just going try another new idea and then another until they start making money again or go out of business altogether.

We want movie theaters to stay in business. There’s nothing quite like them. For an avid cinephile they’re practically our version of church. We’d all like to keep theaters alive. Let’s just hope we can keep them alive and HEALTHY, both respected and respectable.

Top Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.