With screens at our fingertips and Hollywood movies on-demand just weeks after (or at the same time as) theater debuts, going out to the movies isn’t as compelling as it once was. Plus, waiting in line for a seat is never fun, not to mention the recurring offense of paying way too much for stale popcorn and sugary soda.

Then there’s the time it takes. When you’re streaming at home, you can watch only part of a flick, or take a break in the middle. At a theater, you’ve got to dedicate a whole 2-hour-plus chunk of your life.

What else takes around two hours? Eating dinner at a restaurant. In a mash-up that keeps getting better as technology advances, dine-in movie theaters combine the two — it’s like killing two birds with one stone and having a phoenix of fun rise from their ashes. And Philly is about to be surrounded by them.

Out of politics, into the movies

Back in the early nineties, when he was living in Philly and working for U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, Studio Movie Grill co-owner and CEO Brian Schultz thought he might want to go into politics. An idealistic young go-getter, he was interested in making people’s lives better, but he quickly learned D.C’s red tape made it difficult.

Once he determined he wasn’t going to change the world in Washington, he decided to go a different route. Inspired by a cinema pub in Maryland he once visited with Specter, Schultz set about updating the idea of dinner and a movie.

Theaters that combined eateries and films were already around, but usually the food wasn’t very good, and the movies were all old. There was a reason for that — studios simply refused to sell first-run releases to dine-in establishments. Too distracting, they said.

That wasn’t good enough for Schultz, who had built a theater in Dallas with a full-service restaurant inside. He doggedly pursued studio execs, at one point calling, faxing and running after them for 60 days in a row. Finally, one of the Disney heads relented, and offered him one movie. It was Waterboy, starring an unknown Adam Sandler, and nobody thought the film would make any money anyway.

Instead, it was a runaway hit that eventually grossed $161 million, with Studio Movie Grill being the top-grossing establishment in all of Dallas, the fifth largest media market in the country. By the next week, all the other Hollywood executives were calling and begging to get into the SMG schedule. It was the beginning of a new era.

Here they come

Though Schultz was the first to do it, he certainly wasn’t the last — dine-in theaters are now the fastest growing segment of the cinema industry. Already super-popular in the South, they’re finally spreading to our region.

Movie Tavern has actually been open in Collegeville since 2011, but now the company has two more planned in the vicinity. By September, Flourtown will get one of the chain’s new luxury theaters — all of the seats recline — and by the end of the year, another is slated to be open in Exton.

Last year, the AMC in Painter’s Crossing closed its nine-screen West Chester movie house for three months and relaunched as a dine-in venue. Malvern is also getting one, although it’s two years out — a Cinebistro will be landing at the Uptown Worthington retail complex with 15 screens fronted by leather rocking chairs.

When Studio Movie Grill opens its 21st location this August in Upper Darby, it’ll offer the first chance for Philly city dwellers to experience the concept without the need for a car. Located at 53 S. 69th St. (most recently a United Artists movie house), the nine auditoriums are literally steps away from SEPTA’s 69th Street Terminal. Though the interior will be totally modern, the beautiful retro Art Deco facade will remain.

High-end food and ninja servers

How does the whole dine-in movie thing work? When you buy a ticket, you automatically get a reserved seat, so there’s no time wasted standing in line. Arrive 30 minutes or so early, settle in, and order from a menu or a touchscreen built into your seat — dinner should be served just before the show begins.

Throughout the film, you can press a button on your seat to call the waiters, who are specially trained to not get in the way of the main event. They’re not exactly ninjas — “They don’t crawl on the ground,” says a Studio Movie Grill spokesperson — but they do know how to be very unobtrusive. They’ll bring you a second glass of wine, a dessert, anything you need, at any time.

The popularity of the concept seems to prove that if it is a distraction, as those original movie execs feared, it’s not one that keeps people from returning. After all, it can’t be worse than the crinkling of people unwrapping their hoagies that seem to be like a built-in soundtrack at some of the theaters in Philadelphia. And who hasn’t pulled out their smartphone at the dinner table from time to time? Dine-in theaters just take the multi-tasking from the small screen to the large one.

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Thetelegraphfield from 2019 to 2023.