New York theatre serves up old movies, gourmet fare and new profit streams for troubled industry
There’s popcorn and movies, there’s the infamous frozen TV dinner, and then, in one corner of New York, there’s getting a top chef to feed you delicacies that echo the story unfolding on the big screen.
Old fashioned junk food won’t cut the moviegoer’s mustard in the hipster hotbed of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
At a screening this week of hit French film “Amelie,” the mere whiff of processed cheese and nachos would have been sacrilege. Patrons at the Nitehawk Cinema tucked into five courses of classic French fare, kicking off with a mushroom-and-black-truffle-laced Croque Madame.
Far from slurping on the monster sodas so beloved in US theaters — and targeted for a ban by New York’s health-conscious mayor — moviegoers washed down their starter with a glass of prosecco, before plunging into absinthe cocktails.
“It changes the game,” said Amy Wilkinson, a 33-year-old bartender and make-up artist, as she eased into one of the 60 seats, each of which had a small table attached. “It heightens the senses.”
Nitehawk has pioneered the foodie-movie in the Big Apple since 2011, when New York State overturned a Prohibition-era ban on liquor in theaters. This year the cinema launched a program of high-end evenings where celebrity chefs choose the movie and menu.
In other parts of the United States the eat-while-you-watch concept is already thriving — and helping to breathe life into an increasingly outmoded cinema industry, said Ross Melnick, assistant professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara.
“Today we have great big TVs, we have iPhones and laptops and thousands of distractions. People have stopped going to the movies as an activity as we once did,” he said. But now “there have been a number of companies who have figured out how to make movie-going into an event.”
Some, like the Alamo Drafthouse chain, produce entire movie-themed evenings. Others concentrate on a more epicurean formula, Nitehawk-style. But even a mega chain like AMC has started to serve food in some of its theaters.
“They’re getting people to stop thinking of the movie theater as a kind of blank space,” Ross said.
Nitehawk event director Julia Schweizer said the aim of the new gourmet nights, which cost around $95 a head, is not to reenact the movie, but to play around its edges.
For “Amelie,” they brought in chef Sara Nguyen. Last month, at the inaugural event, the audience munched on 1980s dishes prepared by a top chef who picked the seemingly less-than-appetizing “American Psycho” about a homicidal, sex-crazed Wall Street banker.
Nitehawk also has regular evenings, where less sophisticated menus, and even a rather fancy version of popcorn, are offered.
So do people come for the film or the food?
“You say tom-ay-to, I say to-ma-to,” Schweizer answered. “Doing these sorts of dinners, it’s marrying the two things.”
The “Amelie” experience began with a pre-show crash course in French slang known as “verlan.”
“Linguists go to the ghettos to study this all the time. They love it,” the young teacher, sporting the beard that is de rigeur among Brooklyn hipsters, explained to a group sipping on Hollywood-inspired cocktails.
Nguyen briefly popped from the kitchen to greet theatergoers, telling them they were about to watch “my favorite movie.”
Then finally the lights dimmed.
Black-clad waiters served course after course, drink after drink. Moving as stealthily as stage hands on a set change, they rarely disrupted the film, in which Audrey Tautou’s winsome heroine Amelie dashes through a series of archetypally Gallic scenes.
The prosecco arrived just as the movie showed glasses shaking on a table. The first course coincided with an early key plot twist that sets up Amelie’s fate.
The food — pork rillettes, moules, a foie gras and duck crepe — and salvos of absinthe kept on coming, right up to angel food cake with plum jam and Pernod Absinthe cream, which referenced Amelie’s own plum cake. Plus a glass of damson plum gin.
“Amelie” is a renowned feel-good movie, but half a dozen strong drinks and fine food will take feeling good to a whole new level.
As the credits rolled, the audience burst into applause.
“A lot of people feel a movie is what you watch, but here a chef was bringing out your senses,” said Christian Ling, 25, a Boston law student who came on a romantic evening out with his girlfriend.
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