By Brooks Barnes
CreditChristopher Smith for The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — The next big multiplex trend involves eliminating what some theater owners call the “popcorn pinch point.”
The largest multiplex chains in North America, AMC Theaters and Regal are rolling out technology that allows customers to preorder and prepay for food and drinks from the comfort of their smartphones. The goal is to significantly reduce that pinch point — the time moviegoers spend waiting in line at the concession counter.
“Hopefully, along the way we will sell more food,” said John D. McDonald, AMC’s executive vice president for United States operations. He added: “Early results are very strong, albeit with a few expected operational bumps, which we are solving. We think this is another big innovation for our industry, right up there with luxury seating.”
AMC has been testing its version of the service at four theaters in Kansas City. The test will expand to other cities in January, and roll out nationwide “as fast as we absolutely can,” Mr. McDonald said. The system is similar to the ones companies like Starbucks and Chipotle have already widely introduced: Customers order and pay using an app, and then, upon arriving, collect their items at a pickup station.
At theaters that offer reserved seating, AMC might even begin delivering orders placed in advance directly to people in their chairs.
Regal, which has roughly 570 theaters (AMC has about 350), is offering mobile food ordering through a partnership with Atom Tickets, a California start-up that counts Lions Gate Entertainment as an owner. The Atom app is currently available for use at five Regal theaters in Knoxville, Tenn., with expansion planned to the entire Regal chain.
Atom, which also wants to bring dynamic ticket pricing to theaters (less expensive during slow periods and more expensive on busy weekends), declined to comment. Regal did not respond to requests for comment.
As in-home theater systems have proliferated, the multiplex chains have had to work harder to attract crowds, particularly the teenagers who used to show up regardless of what was playing on the screen but who now visit less frequently. “Various challenges have really drawn the industry toward improving the overall theatrical experience,” said Leo Kulp, an exhibition industry analyst with RBC Capital Markets.
Recent years have brought seats that move in synchronization with the on-screen action, as well as larger screens and reclining chairs. But movie theater owners make their primary living at the concession counter. Roughly 50 percent of ticket sales are returned to movie studios, while food and beverage operations provide profit margins of 85 percent or higher, Mr. Kulp noted. Theaters have expanded menu offerings and started serving alcohol to keep their concession businesses growing.
About one-third of moviegoers, however, do not buy anything at the theater to eat or drink. Some people find the prices exorbitant, surveys have shown. Other attendees simply are not hungry, have other dining plans or do not like the food options. But gridlock may be the primary force holding people back.
“People simply do not like to wait in line,” Mr. McDonald said.