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Coming soon, to a theater near you: Self-serve cocktails, cotton candy robots

Updated April 15, 2024 - 6:09 pm

Movie theaters have been presumed dead more times than Jason Voorhees.

From the threats of radio, television and color television to cable, VCRs and streaming, reports of the demise of theaters go back roughly to the morning after the first one opened.

Now that theater owners have emerged from the pandemic more or less intact — the valley lost the Regal multiplexes at the Colonnade, Fiesta Henderson, Texas Station and Village Square — many of them are looking for new ways to fill their auditoriums and get customers to part with more money.

“We have to continue to reach out and get younger audiences and new audiences,” Michael O’Leary, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said during an interview at CinemaCon. “And if we can show them something that’s special and meaningful, they’re more likely to come.”

So what exactly does that look like?

Based on several trips through the trade show at CinemaCon, the annual gathering of movie theater owners that ended Thursday at Caesars Palace, the solution might be found in self-serve cocktail dispensers powered by facial recognition.

Or, possibly, robots that make cotton candy.

Or it could be as simple as realistically detailed drink cups and popcorn containers — especially when they go hilariously wrong like a certain viral collectible from “Dune: Part Two.”

Demand for collectibles

For decades, moviegoers never gave much thought to containers for drinks and popcorn unless they somehow failed.

Then came Zinc Group, which branched out from making embossed metal tins and started creating 3-D vessels that look like beloved movie characters or props. The company, founded in Australia in 2005, had been producing the containers for other countries for years. When it tried to break into the U.S. market in 2016, though, theaters weren’t interested. Those fancy cups, Zinc was told, don’t fit inside our cup holders.

“The cinemas were very stuck in their ways,” said Rod Mason, Zinc’s vice president of business development. “They didn’t get the financial model. They didn’t understand the demand from the consumers.”

That would change three years later when, tied to the release of “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” Zinc released a full-bodied R2-D2 that could hold 44 ounces of liquid in its head and 140 ounces of popcorn in its torso. It was an immediate sensation.

In the ensuing years, Zinc and its competitors began releasing some kind of innovative design — various masked heads for Marvel movies, a pink Corvette for “Barbie,” a ghost trap for “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” — for most event movies. The majority are exclusive to a particular theater chain, which drives fans to see movies and spend money at those cinemas.

These collectibles didn’t really cross over into the mainstream until January with the release of the first images of AMC’s sandworm-inspired popcorn bucket for the “Dune” sequel. Fans quickly noticed its resemblance to what once was euphemistically referred to as a marital aid.

Before it was delayed to last month, “Dune: Part Two” was intended to be released in November. Zinc produced the buckets, which Mason said were approved by Legendary Entertainment, the film’s co-producer, last June.

“They sat in our office for, like, six months,” Mason recalled. “They sat in AMC’s office for six months. And no one said a word.”

Then, photos of the bucket hit Reddit, and a meme was born. Asked about the bucket, “Dune” director Denis Villeneuve told the New York Times, “When I saw it, I went, ‘Hoooooly smokes.’ What the (expletive)!?” On Feb. 24, “Saturday Night Live” aired a music video in which a character sang about wanting to lose his virginity to the bucket.

“Once it gets to social media, there’s no stopping it,” Mason said. “And then when the ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit came out, it was, like, ‘Oh my goodness. Really?’ ”

Empty “Dune 2” buckets that had retailed for $24.99, including a large popcorn, began selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Despite the initial embarrassment, Mason said there’s a silver lining to the saga.

“Honestly, what it’s done is, it’s revitalized the industry,” he said. “It really has.”

Concessions become experience

If it seems like robots are taking over the world, well, they are. The next stop? Concessions.

Sweet Robo sells machines that add a dose of interactivity as they dispense personalized popcorn and ice cream with a choice of flavors and toppings. The Brooklyn-based company’s breakout hit is its cotton candy robot.

Arousha Ashegh, Sweet Robo’s vice president of sales, said consumers can choose from six colors as well as 30 shapes and sizes of 3-D flowers. Then the robot grabs a paper stick and begins spinning the sugar. Sixty to 90 seconds later, you have your bespoke cotton candy.

The robot adds an experiential element to concessions, Ashegh said, pointing out the window that lets customers watch the entire process.

“You’ll feel like you’re a kid in an amusement park,” she attested.

Place for sports?

Brunswick first attempted to enter multiplexes more than a decade ago, but “there were some drawbacks to traditional bowling lanes,” said Jen Waldo, the company’s director of marketing and client relations. Those negatives mostly involved square footage and the startup cost of so many balls and shoes.

Enter Duckpin Social.

It’s Brunswick’s take on duckpin bowling, the variant with roots in the Northeast and Canada that uses shorter lanes, smaller pins and smaller balls without finger holes. Also, players wear their own shoes.

Duckpin Social is nearing its 80th U.S. installation, Waldo said, with theaters typically installing six to eight lanes. So far, it’s been a mix of new construction and repurposing auditoriums and other areas.

In addition to being another revenue stream for theater owners, Waldo said, “it allows the guests to have another way to socialize after seeing a movie or before.”

Brunswick isn’t alone in bringing obscure-ish sports to American cinemas. A company called Absolute Padel had a trade show booth with the goal of installing courts for the fast-growing padel, a game with similarities to tennis and squash, at movie theaters.

High-tech cocktails

“We’re a very small startup,” Justin Davis said. “Eight people.”

As the field ops manager for TendedBar, Davis walked attendees through the company’s automated cocktail dispenser that uses facial recognition to identify customers, and know that they’re at least 21, before mixing them a drink.

When users create a profile, their face, driver’s license and credit card remain on file. Once that’s done, they’ll be recognized by any TendedBar machine anywhere in the country. Customers can choose from up to 10 liquors and 18 mixers, and they’ll be billed automatically. At the end of the night, TendedBar machines close out customers and text them a receipt.

The technology debuted in 2021 during Jaguars games at EverBank Stadium in TendedBar’s home of Jacksonville, Florida. It was first deployed locally during the 2022 Pro Bowl at Allegiant Stadium.

Now, the company is looking to break into movie theaters — at least in jurisdictions where that’s allowed.

“Some of these states,” Davis admitted, “the laws haven’t quite caught up to where our technology is yet.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on X.

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