Cinema of the Month: Star Cinema Grill – Houston, Texas

By J. Sperling Reich | December 16, 2019 10:40 pm PST
Star Cinema Grill in Richmond, Texas

Celluloid Junkie is proud to have partnered with Vista Cinema for the Cinema of the Month series. Vista is the world’s leading cinema management software solutions company. We won’t just be featuring cinemas whose operators use Vista, but we will surely mention when that is the case. CJ would like to thank everyone at Vista for partnering with CJ to showcase some of the most interesting, innovative and inspiring cinemas from around the world. 

In Richmond, Texas, a suburb 30 miles (48 kilometres) southwest of Houston, at the intersection of the Westpark Tollway and State Highway 99, a windowless three story building rises up out of an expansive open field. The asphalt of the building’s generously sized parking lot is all that breaks up the green grassy pasture and adjacent watershed. Given the sparse surroundings it’s easy to assume the structure is a warehouse or big box store. If it weren’t for the signage hanging on the front, one would never suspect a technologically advanced multiplex could be found through its glass entryway.

On paper, the Star Cinema Grill’s 12-screen Richmond location, which opened in June of this year, might hardly stand out from some other cinemas in Houston. Sure, the theatre may have the largest Samsung Onyx screen in North America and a Dolby Atmos auditorium, but its dine-in concept hardly make it unique in a place like Texas, a state that launched such dine-in circuits as Alamo Drafthouse, Flix Brewhouse, Movie Tavern (now owned by Marcus Theatres), and Studio Movie Grill. And many of these chains have locations within spitting distance of the new Star Cinema Grill, which will eventually be a part of District West, a 100 acre upscale mixed use development.

The only Alamo Drafthouse in Houston is just one highway exit down the road (which in Texas is considered across the street). One of iPic’s three locations are closer to midtown. Studio Movie Grill has three cinemas throughout the region and Movie Tavern has two. That’s not even counting the traditional cinemas that are nearby. There is the Regal Grand Parkway 22 just five minutes away, the AMC Katy Mills 22 just to the north as well as both the AMC First Colony 24 and AMC Fountain 18 to the south. It’s a good thing that Houston is one of the fastest growing cities in America, allowing for there to be a large enough market for so many cinemas.

The amount of competition among movie theatres in the Houston market actually has a beneficial side effect. “I think it pushes you to be better,” says Jason Ostrow, Vice President of Development at Star Cinema Grill. “We probably would never have designed to this level had it not been for people like iPic pushing us to that level. When Studio Movie Grill decides to build down the block, it’s probably not going to be a cookie cutter Studio Movie Grill. They are probably gonna have to step it up, which is going to benefit the customer as well.”

It is in that competitive environment and with this mindset that Star Cinema Grill set out to build its eighth location in the Houston area; a USD $15 million (EUR €13.5 million) multiplex designed by the San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler. And when we say build, we mean that in its most literal sense. Star Cinema Grill runs its own construction crews to build each new location. Such an effort would seem to be outside of a cinema operator’s core strengths, though it allows the company to save at least 25% on construction costs while maintaining control and, most importantly, ensuring the quality of each new complex.

This requires senior management to be unusually hands-on with each new cinema they open; making decisions on everything from lighting fixtures, wallpaper, lobby furniture and even power outlet covers. No detail is too small for Ostrow, who was quick to point out he personally selected the metal Schluters stylishly placed between each board of wood flooring in various parts of the Richmond venue. (Definitely Google Schluter for some fun info on construction material.)

Ostrow understands that as the company grows, and takes on more employees at additional locations, senior management may not always have the luxury to devote so much time to each new theatre. For now though, one step inside the Star Cinema Grill in Richmond and it’s quick to see how all this individualized attention pays off.

Making A Dramatic Entrance
The interior of the Star Cinema Grill’s 52,150 square foot (4,845 square metres) Richmond site is an antithesis to its non-descript exterior. Walking through its glass doors visitors enter an extended corridor made up of lush high-end materials. It is designed to impress.

The entranceway provides an immediate sense of arriving at a fine dining restaurant, hip hotel or nightclub. At the end of the walkway is a hostess desk, not a box office. Just beyond that, a lobby bar can be spotted. Lining the walls along the hallway are plush green benches for patrons to lounge while waiting for friends. Just behind each bench, tucked into alcoves, are the kiosks used to pick up or purchase tickets. The walls, made up of rich wood, are adorned with well known quotes from classic movies such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca.”

Have A Drink and Stay Awhile
Arriving early for a screening at the Star Cinema Grill has its benefits, since you can hang out at the lobby bar, which serves any type of alcoholic cocktail one can think of as well as offers 18 draft beers. The lounge has more than enough tables and seating to spend as much as an hour or two over dinner or lunch before or after a showing of the latest blockbuster.

The ceiling is adorned with stylish coffers along with accompanying accented lighting. The cluster of pendant lighting fixtures hanging above the bar is a particularly nice touch. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might think you were in the lobby of a W Hotel rather than a movie theatre.

The Richmond multiplex is laid out in a horseshoe shape, with the lobby in the toe and five screens housed in each branch. The kitchen runs down the entire center of the building (the middle of the horseshoe) providing the wait staff with easy access to food orders when whisking them to patrons in any of the auditoriums. (More on the kitchen and dining options in a moment.)

Lining each of the two hallways are eye-catching murals made up of tall photographs of big screen icons lit by bold lighting. The combination serves to entice patrons further down the corridor toward their auditorium. Digital signage outside each auditorium lets audiences know what film is playing inside.

Go Big or Go Home
The Star Cinema Grill in Richmond has roughly 1,200 seats in total, but the most coveted ones are in the auditoriums featuring Samsung’s Onyx LED screen or another with Dolby Atmos. Both are at the front of the complex, just off the lobby.

The 46-foot (14 metre) Onyx display is the largest cinema LED screen in the United States. It stretches nearly wall-to-wall in the 186 seat auditorium. It’s not just the size of the giant screen that is so striking, so is the clarity of the image and the richness of its colors. Of course, those are two of the benefits of a cinema-grade LED screen along with a bright picture and support for high dynamic range (HDR) content.

If you really wanted to nit pick (no pun intended), when getting a little too close to the screen – standing in front of the first row of seats – just as with any digital cinema projector, you can start to see a “barn door” between individual pixels. But you have to be right on top of the 3.33mm pixel pitch display and truly be looking for it. Should any patron ever wander that close, certainly the audience would shortly be screaming, “Hey, down in front!”

Much has been written about what many see as a major downside to cinema LED screens; sound can not penetrate the solid display. Speakers can not be placed behind it to give the illusion that sound is coming from its on-screen source. Instead, speakers are placed above and below the screen and directly to either side. There are also speakers that reflect sound off the surface of the LED display.

To be sure, that’s an oversimplification of the configuration, though somehow the technicians at Harman performed their voodoo and have managed to tune the room at the Star Cinema Grill so well that it is one of the best cinema LED audio setups we’ve heard. Except if you know where to stand and what to listen for, you can’t really tell the sound isn’t behind the screen. This is true even as you get closer to the screen itself.

Ostrow says his customers come out of the Onyx auditorium raving about the sound and not always the picture. He thinks this is because audiences are expecting to be blown away by the clarity and color of the image and thus the Onyx lives up to their expectations. What they aren’t expecting is the audio to be better than it would be in any other cinema.

Yet, the LED screen was a last minute addition. Star Cinema Grill was already under construction of their Richmond location when they started to consider the Samsung Onyx display. If they were going to install one Omar Khan, the President and CEO of Star Cinema Grill, wanted it to be the biggest one Samsung offered, because, as Ostrow confesses, the company has a “go big or go home” mentality. (Did we mention they have 18 beers on tap?)

Ostrow said the decision to go ahead with Samsung was not a monetary one, for senior management at Star Cinema Grill knew they probably weren’t going to make money specifically because of the screen. “But as long as it doesn’t cost us money, there’s a larger benefit to our brand and to the facility,” Ostrow explains. “And the benefit has been a tremendous amount of attention for our brand; locally, nationally, internationally. Lots of developers are coming to us now. Maybe they were talking to AMC or Studio Movie Girl or iPic. They hear about this, and they hear about the design of the theatre and one of the side effects and advantages of having the Onyx is that people are seeing what we’re capable of. Now we’re in the conversation for all sorts of developments that maybe we wouldn’t have even been considered for previously.”

The other popular auditorium at the Star Cinema Grill is the one that features 54 speakers worth of Dolby Atmos audio. It is the mirror layout of the Onyx room and just across the hall. For those who are wondering, a GDC server drives the Onyx screen, whereas the rest of the facility is kitted out with Sony 4K laser projectors, SLS speakers and Harkness screens.

Kick Your Heels Up (Squared)
These days brand new cinemas often are furnished with reclining seats and the Star Cinema Grill is no different. Each of the auditoriums has recliners from Inorca along with accompanying dining trays. As well, every screen features one or two rows of premium privacy pods; two seats placed together with pony walls separating each pair. These seats are only sold in pairs at an up-charge of USD $18 to USD $20 (EUR €16 to EUR €18) per seat. They also come with a blanket and swivel tray for those that wish to dine-in.

A Big Screen Inspired Menu
It’s hard to believe that one of the last things we’re talking about when it comes to a dine-in movie theatre such as the Star Cinema Grill in Richmond is their food and beverage offerings. It’s definitely not the last thing the company thinks about. In fact, they earn more from selling food items than from movie ticket sales and it’s easy to see why.

All of the food on the menu is prepared in-house from scratch. For example the Love Me Tenders (chicken tenders) are hand breaded and the pizza dough for The Godfather pie is prepped each morning. Many of the dishes on the menu take their names from popular movies. There are Honey I Shrunk The Sandwiches sliders, a Fight Club sandwich a Hail Caesar salad and a Gone With the Wings appetizer to name but a few. Half the fun in ordering is reading the menu and identifying all the movie references. Even the headings of each section on the menu relate to the big screen. Particularly clever is the selection of deserts; Closing Credits.

The company often works with local chefs who bring in their own rotating dishes or craft cocktails. It is also worth noting that the Star Cinema Grill has a sister company named Culinary Khancepts (a play on the owner’s name) which operates restaurants such as State Fare.

All of the food at the Star Cinema Grill is prepared in a massive 3,500 square foot (325 square metre) kitchen that would make many a Michelin starred chef envious. Ostrow says the company figured they had a whole bunch of space in the middle of their horseshoe building layout, so why not use it? Naturally, there is also space set aside for standard fair such as popcorn and sodas, arranged in an assembly line fashion for high-volume expediency during prime showings.

We can highly recommend those chicken tenders by the way, as well as the southwest egg rolls and the pizza, which is all we were able to sample during our visit (and not for lack of wanting).

Hitchcock Presents… The Restrooms
Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” So, it seems fitting that a giant silhouette of the filmmaker along with some of his infamous birds should adorn the wall adjacent to the men’s restroom. A silhouette of Audrey Hepburn marks the entrance to the women’s room.

If you really want to understand the thought Star Cinema Grill puts into every detail of its cinemas, just visit the bathrooms at their Richmond multiplex. They have an industrial-chic design that show off the wooden stall doors, beveled subway tile, Ceasarstone sinks and brass plumbing. The wall at the far end of each restroom is covered entirely with a black and white photo; early James Bond for the men’s room and what looks like “The Sound of Music” for the women’s room. The handicapped restroom is adorned with a still image from “The Wizard of Oz”.

If the bathroom is the last stop you make before leaving the theatre, then you will be on your way with a very good impression of the cinema. Indeed, it was also Hitchcock that said, “A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it.”

In that case, the Star Cinema Grill in Richmond absolutely delivers perfectly on two of those three criteria… now if only they could solve the babysitting conundrum.

J. Sperling Reich