In the Know: Opening set for $13 million CMX CinéBistro, just in time for big movie blockbusters

Phil Fernandez
Naples Daily News

As In the Know first reported last year, the once-dormant CMX CinéBistro project during the pandemic is very much alive at the Coastland Center in Naples.

But even then, with COVID-19's uncertainty, questions lingered for CMX Cinemas USA, which had been working through a bankruptcy process that has been resolved. And besides a few of you maybe, no one is more pumped about what's about to emerge than Matt Russell, a top dog at the Miami-based chain.

"We're just so much better than the last time I talked to you," said Russell, CMX vice president of operations. "It was a lot more hope, Phil. It was a lot of hope. Now, it's actually a lot of results. A lot of reality. I'm a very positive person, and so I know the difference between when I'm hoping things are going to happen, strategically planning them to work out, and then when they actually do. They're both good feelings, but man, it feels great for it to come to fruition."

Southwest Florida's CMX CinéBistro, a rare theater opening in America, plans to debut at the Coastland Center in Naples, ahead of a nearly historic series of blockbuster movies and sequels. Many of the motion pictures had been delayed due to coronavirus, leading to a 2021 like no other for the industry.

Those fruits are almost ready for the picking with the chain's focus on Southwest Florida on a rare upcoming new theater opening for an industry of which Motley Fool financial advisors issued a report Tuesday, declaring, "Their heyday seems long past."

And a couple of days earlier, IAC/InterActive holding company chairman Barry Diller had gone further. The FOX founder and head of mostly media and Internet brands across 100 countries said theaters are dead and "will never come back."

Previously: CMX CinéBistro project comes back to life, The Collective update and a touch of Fifth Avenue South at the Mercato

More:What does Retail-tainment's demise mean for CineBistro, Coastland Center and more?

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Not everyone is ready to dim the lights, citing what happened as recently as a week ago.

The Associated Press reported audiences went to the movie house in pandemic record numbers to catch the first Marvel feature in two years, even with an option to watch "Black Widow" at home.

The picture grossed more than $215 million in its first weekend and provided the largest domestic opening since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in pre-COVID 2019, Walt Disney Co. said.

“A pretty monumental weekend for the industry,” said Paul Dergarabedian, Comscore’s senior media analyst. “Black Widow played well on big screens and small screens. And it actually strengthens the case for movie theaters.”

Dergarabedian noted that the vast majority of profits, $158.8 million, came from cinemas: The "future now looks very bright and bodes well for the big films now in the pipeline set for release in the coming weeks and months."

$13 million SWFL investment

That's what Russell is counting on for the $13 million Southwest Florida investment of a 40,000-square-foot theater, with the potential of Naples being a top venue, and how critical success is at the location.

"This is definitely the future," Russell said. "Sarasota, right a little bit north, is one of our best units. Oh yeah, from a volume standpoint. From a consistency standpoint. Obviously, from a company profit standpoint. You name it. (One of) the, if not the best (and) we want to build that same model in Naples. Not just for serving the community's sake but for the brand."

Southwest Florida's CMX CinéBistro, a rare theater opening in America, plans to debut at the Coastland Center in Naples, ahead of a nearly historic series of blockbuster movies and sequels. Many of the motion pictures had been delayed due to coronavirus, leading to a 2021 like no other for the industry.

The original 2020 completion goal got pushed to about now, but in a year of Chapter 11, coronavirus and a few supply line challenges, Russell revealed the updated debut date for the first time.

"If I would put my finger on it, I would say October is certainly going to be where we want to be," he said. "I gotta tell you I was excited last time I talked to you to have some progress, some positive signs, momentum. And now, I can tell you that we're on top of the wave, riding it all the way down."

And when I said the Collier launch was a rarity, there won't be another one for at least another year, in a high-end Washington, D.C. suburb. Naples will join an exclusive club of now a dozen CinéBistros at some of the nation's finest addresses, with the last two in Georgia's Alpharetta and Peachtree Corners in 2019 and Doral down south in 2017.

"The biggest challenge was the blip with the pandemic itself. That, just from an overall workage, scheduling, that was the biggest blip piece," Russell said. "As far as materials, those impacted us less because we were so far along prior to the pandemic. Now, it's more about finish (work.) We're making all the nice interior, exterior finish work pieces. That just takes time and craftmanship."

Craftsmanship, indeed. This ain't no conventional outfit with the sticky floors and gum stuck under the armrests.

"These are all full-size luxury recliners, tables that are integrated to facilitate the best in-theater service," Russell said. "We're very, very proud of that in-theater dining experience because that's what separates us from, not just theaters, but from anybody who's trying to offer food and beverage."

Southwest Florida's CMX CinéBistro, a rare theater opening in America, plans to debut at the Coastland Center in Naples, ahead of a nearly historic series of blockbuster movies and sequels. Many of the motion pictures had been delayed due to coronavirus, leading to a 2021 like no other for the industry.

The social distancing age

Through a bit of pure luck, this sucker, featuring a half-dozen auditoriums and lots of upgrades, fits nicely in the social distancing age.

"Each auditorium is an equivalent size of a traditional theater that sits about 200 people. So we're putting 80 to 100, and the difference is, again, the size of the recliners. The fact that they are recliners so it has the larger space between the aisles. You don't have to crab walk. You know what I'm talking about," Russell said. "The extra amenities, because, again, we make our money on quality over quantity."

More emphasis is also going to be put on one aspect in Naples than anywhere else before, and CMX wants to see how it goes.

"One of the different factors of this location is going to be the focus that we're putting into the lounge/restaurant/bar experience," Russell said. "This is going to have floor to ceiling windows overlooking everything. This will be a 120-seat restaurant bar and lounge."

And then there's the half-million dollars invested in the half-dozen two-story building sized screens.

"It symbolizes the last gasp of construction when those things go in," Russell said. "There's a lot of little details that people will never know that go into putting up a movie screen. Sounds so simple, but it's one of the hardest parts."

You had me at, "people will never know." This is, after all, the In the Know column. Let's fill in our readers.

"Fingerprints, man," Russell said. "It's also very technical in the fact that the screens, if there's dust in the air, if there's particulates, you can't get anything (on) those things. We buy such high-quality screens."

What Russell described was a little like a sterilized hospital operating room. Almost picturing everybody clad in surgical whites, wearing astronaut suits or something, and slowly but surely wedging these in place while floating there via specialized scaffolding. Probably got the NASA control center team, with their headsets, like directing the mantling of the International Space Station.

"If you put your fingers on it, your fingerprints stay on it. It's really that sensitive. At $80,000 a piece, you don't want to mess with that stuff," Russell said, then noting an industry standard. "If we're installing six screens, we'll reject at least two of them upon installation and get new screens sent to us because something is going to happen. In the shipping. The manufacturing. The installation. There's just some thing."

The struggle to find employees

But he has another challenge ahead of him: Hiring.

"Not just CMX, industrywide, that is one of the biggest points of contention," he said. "A lot of our locations are at 100% capacity. (The) ones that aren't, are simply because of staffing. (We) have more opportunities than we have people to fill the spaces."

For Russell, it's a delicate balance.

"We want to make sure that every guest that comes in has the absolute best experience. To do that, we are very careful to make sure we don't overextend our team members. We take care of them. We want them working the right hours. We're trying to keep everybody fresh. It's very similar from a sports analogy," he said. "Doing all the things necessary throughout a game to keep everybody fresh, motivated for the best experience, plays."

And he's picky.

The wide leather chairs in the Cobb Liberty Luxury 15 & CineBistro recline. All seats are reserved. Movie goers will be impressed by the Dolby Atmos surround sound.

"The challenge in itself: Making sure you stay true to your standards and find the very best team members," he said. "To do it at that level of quality we do, the products we offer, the service that we have, no one else is bold enough to do it."

And with good reason.

"Every half-hour we're sitting a different theater. (When) I say no one is bold to do what we do, it's because it's hard. When you're doing 80 people back to back to back to back to back, there's no break. It's like literally going downhill 90 mph," he said. "Nobody has gumption. No one's bold enough to do what we do. Everybody else does the continuous service. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not who we are.

"We want to respect the movie as much as we respect the dining experience. So when you come into a CinéBistro, you're going to be pampered from the dining aspect as far as when you're ordering, your drinks arrive, when the food gets there. We're going to check on you. We're going to make sure you have everything you could possibly want, but when the lights go down, when the movie kicks on, we're gone."

And while he hasn't started the interviewing for nearly all the hourly positions and not sure what to expect, Russell said he's pleased with the early hires.

"From a management, leadership point, we're on track," he said. "We've been finding a lot of great talent."

Russell is developing plans to help with recruiting, related to pay and other benefits.

"It does vary per position," he said. "We are offering hiring bonuses, retention incentives right now. It can be upwards of $3,000 per salaried leadership position."

What's it going to cost you?

So what does it cost to go to CinéBistro, including the finest restaurant dishes by world class culinary executive chefs?

"How I explain it, is from a gift card standpoint," Russell said. "What I tell people when they come in to purchase a gift card is ask how many people that this is intended to be a gift for. Normally, it's two. We're very much a couples-based business. I'm not saying families don't come. I'm not saying singles don't come. It's just our bread and butter is two people. I would tell them to get a $100 gift card.

"And that's between tickets, food and beverage. People spend less. People spend more. But if you have to quantify the averages, it's around $50 per (person.) Look, we sell millions of dollars in gift cards. We are very proud to be a gift to (people.) I'm selling a lot of gift cards, Phil."

Besides movies, look for other programming.

"We get the Met Opera from New York beamed live into our theaters so you get the Met experience without having to go out there. And we've been doing this for decades. And it sells out every seat. All season," Russell said. "Our sound system, right on the big screen, so it feels like you're there. You can have the opera in one house and literally next door, you could be having a UFC fight. Two completely different audiences enjoying the same facility at the same time and never interacting."

Russell said it's also about viewing the best of what Hollywood has to offer with upscale dining ambience. And that's a reason why an October deployment is vital.

"You got 'Dune', James Bond, 'Halloween Kills'. You've got some classics and some mega-franchises that are opening in October," Russell said. "Well, look. Two years ago, when they said the last Halloween that came out was the final one, Jaime Lee Curtis came back, all this stuff. It made so much darn money. They can't help themselves. They're going to ride that horse. I mean, that's what, 40 years for the Halloweens."

Judy Greer (seated) plays the daughter of Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode in the new "Halloween" trilogy, which shot its second installment "Halloween Kills" in Wilmington in 2019.

What are the upcoming movies?

In a time like no other, the 22-year-old Rotten Tomatoes movie reviews site says about 25 of the most highly anticipated productions roll out in the last three months of 2021, on top of many flicks. With schedules changing constantly, this is just a tiny sampling:

► Oct. 1: "The Many Saints of Newark", a prequel to HBO's The Sopranos, that showcases Michael Gandolfini, the son of the former series' late star, and Ray Liotta.

► Oct. 8: "No Time To Die", the 25th James Bond film, with Daniel Craig returning for perhaps a final turn as 007 and includes Naomie Harris and Lashana Lynch.

► Oct. 15: "Halloween Kills", the latest sequel, with the return of Jamie Lee Curtis and joined by Judy Greer and Anthony Michael Hall.

► Oct. 15: The Last Duel. an Edwardian tale of knights and maidens, that reunites Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and also has Adam Driver and Jodie Comer.

► Oct. 22: "Dune", re-adaption of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic more than 30 years after the last one. Timothée Chalamet and Josh Brolin are among the stars.

► Oct. 22: "The French Dispatch". A "love letter to journalists," it features Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson.

 ► Oct. 22: "Jackass Forever", from Johnny Knoxville, featuring stunts and pranks that some love and some just, meh. A shark attack, announced Friday, is part of it.

 ► Oct. 22: "Last Night in Soho", a horror by director Edgar Wright that includes the late Diana Rigg, Anya Taylor-Joy and Terence Stamp.

 ► Nov. 5: "Eternals", a Marvel installment about immortals who helped shape Earth's humanity and history, with Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani on the cast.

 ► Nov. 11: "Ghostbusters: Afterlife", a sequel by director Jason Reitman that has Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace and Paul Rudd.

 ► Nov. 19: "Top Gun: Maverick", 31 years after the original, returning Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer, accompanied by Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Jay Ellis and Miles Teller.

 ► Dec. 3: "Nightmare Alley", about a manipulative carnival hustler and dangerous psychiatrist that has Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe and Ron Perlman.

 ► Dec. 10: "West Side Story", Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation that has the return of Rita Moreno and stars Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler,

 ► Dec. 17: "Spider-Man: No Way Home", directed by Jon Watts, and includes Tom Holland, Zendaya,  Jamie Foxx, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alfred Molina.

Zendaya as MJ and Tom Holland as Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) in Marvel’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” (JoJo Whilden/Sony Pictures)

 ► Dec. 22: "Sing 2", the cartoon about a koala talent agent with Matthew McConaughey, Selena Gomez, Idina Menzel, Resse Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson.

 ► Dec. 22: "The King's Man", third installment of the Kingsman franchise with all-stars Harris Dickinson, Ralph Fiennes, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Gemma Arterton and Stanley Tucci.

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez (pfernandez@gannett.com) writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.