When the Dallas International Film Festival kicks off Thursday, there's going to be one big difference from previous years: location.
Opening night is taking place in the brand-new, $17 million, 11-screen complex called Look Cinemas, built on the North Dallas site of what used to be a Studio Movie Grill.
This is just the latest salvo in what seems to be a dine-in movie theater war brewing in this part of North Texas, as Studio Movie Grill has two relatively new locations within four miles of each other in the area and Austin's much-anticipated Alamo Drafthouse is also set to open soon in nearby Richardson.
But the guys behind Look don't seem to be too worried. With their emphasis on chef-inspired food -- outposts of the popular Nick & Sam's Grill and Coal Vines Pizza & Wine Bar are part of the development -- and four levels of cinematic experiences, they feel they are doing something unique.
"We thought, 'How can we pair great food, great service and add it to a great movie complex?'" says co-founder Tom Stephenson, formerly the CEO of Rave Motion Pictures, who has partnered in this venture with restaurateur Joseph Palladino (co-owner of Nick & Sam's Steakhouse and the guy behind Nick & Sam's Grill and Coal Vines) and entrepreneur Brian Mason. "For what we're doing, there is no competition."
The three partners -- film fans, foodies and golf buddies -- decided they wanted to build their ideal theater after being consistently disappointed when taking their families out to the movies.
"Some of them provide pretty good [film] experiences, but the food is so-so," Mason says.
So here's how Look, which is in the middle of a soft opening this week, works. Programming will include mainstream and art-house fare, and films will be shown in four types of auditoriums:
Dining: With their "pod" seating and Nick & Sam's/Coal Vines menu, this is what you choose for the full food experience. The rooms are supposedly designed in such a way that servers will not block the views of patrons.
The Loft: Located on the second floor and restricted to those 21 and over, these are for moviegoers who want something more romantic. The emphasis is on small plates, a full bar with craft cocktails, handmade nachos and sushi.
Evolution: These are designed for the blockbuster crowd, with 70-foot curved screens and the latest in 3-D and digital technologies, including Dolby Atmos sound.
General admission: For those who don't want all the high-end stuff and just want to see the movie.
But even if you choose the latter, the owners say it's still an upgrade from the standard moviegoing experience. Take, for example, the concessions.
"I want you to be able to go off your diet as much as you want, but at the same time we're going to have a lot of clean offerings," says Palladino of the menu. "You want a turkey wrap with avocado, you want a veggie wrap, things people can enjoy and stay on their diets. I think that's important. I think people who eat clean and want to stay clean can enjoy themselves as well. And that you don't see anywhere."
And, for those who don't want to see a movie at all, you can still just dine at Nick & Sam's or Coal Vines (opening in several weeks), because both are located in a plaza out front with separate entrances.
Admission to Look Cinemas ranges from $7 to $16, depending on time of day. That doesn't include the cost of food or the $3 upcharge for 3-D.
If the idea takes off, there may be Look Cinemas coming near you, perhaps on the western side of the Metroplex or even across the country. According to California's Santa Monica Daily Press, Look -- along with two other operators -- have been exploring the idea of building a complex in downtown Santa Monica.
"The city is interested in what we're doing. [But] it's a lot of work to do one of these," Stephenson says. "The combination of what we're doing and the way we're doing it and how it fits with the companies we've built before, it exports very well. It is something we feel strongly about taking around the country."
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571