The old conception of a night at the movies has died.

Digital downloads, video on demand and DVD rent-by-mail combined with increasingly theater-like home-entertainment setups are leading more customers to think twice before plopping down $10 for tickets, then shell out more for flat sodas and stale popcorn, only to be stuck with a theater full of screaming kids and unruly teens. No wonder the grownups stay home.

Since hitting a 16-year high in 2002 with 1.6 billion moviegoers and $9.52 billion in receipts, attendance has dropped four of the past five years, according to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). Attendance did increase some to 1.45 billion moviegoers in 2006 from 2005. Meanwhile, box office receipts came in at $9.48 billion last year. In 2007, things have been a little brighter, with box office gross up 6.2 percent per screen and attendance up 4.2 percent, year to date, but even keeping up that pace will only just get the industry back to where it was five years ago.

How to woo adults back to the megaplex? Enter a slew of new concepts that put a new spin on the old “dinner and a movie” idea. Entrants such as Studio Movie Grill, Movie Tavern and Cinebarre (a unit of Regal Cinemas), are building venues that offer some combination of reserved seating, alcoholic beverage service, made-to-order dinners and theaters that include leather seating all while projecting the latest films via state-of-the art digital projection systems.

“We are primarily an adult experience – we are not cannibalizing from the traditional theaters, but targeting people who are at home watching their DVDs,” says Terrell Braly, the former CEO of Austin Drafthouse Cinemas and now CEO of Cinebarre.

In March, Movie Tavern signed to open a location in Williamsburg, Va., the latest in its plans to open eight locations by 2008 (giving it 20 in all). Studio Movie Grill earlier this month announced plans to open its fifth location in Arlington, Texas as it ramps up an effort to open 75 properties in the next five years. Meanwhile, Regal Cinemas recently unveiled its own Cinebarre concept and plans to open its first location in July.

NATO has not yet started tracking statistics for movie eateries, but the segment “is growing rapidly,” according to Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research with NATO

The idea is that these new concepts may help stem the tide of move theaters disappearing at an alarming clip. In the past nine years, the number of theaters in the U.S. has dropped 21 percent, according to the association from 7,798 in 1996 to 6,114 in 2005.

“It’s one way exhibitors are trying to make the movie-going experience different from the home viewing experience,” Corcoran says.

Retail real estate developers are embracing the movie eateries because they complement the clientele at the lifestyle centers that have become so popular in recent years. They also make excellent anchors, drawing in neighborhood residents and tourists alike, according to Daniel W. Aston, partner responsible for the Mid-Atlantic region with the Roseland Property Company, a developer based in Portsmouth, Va.

“Everyone thinks that teenagers are the backbone of the movie-going experience, but concepts like Movie Tavern expand your audience instead of making you rely on just one segment,” says Aston.

Roseland recently signed Movie Tavern as a tenant at its 55-acre, mixed-use High Street development in Williamsburg, Va. That Movie Tavern, which will anchor the 250,000-square-foot retail village at High Street, is scheduled to open in August 2008.

Another advantage of movie eateries, which range from 20,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet, is that they require fewer parking spaces than the multiplexes because there are less seats per square foot. With the addition of a full-service kitchen and dining tables, seating capacity at such venues ranges from a 100 to 1,000 seats, less than half of the seating capacity of multiplexes.

For example, Movie Tavern’s patrons are primarily baby boomers and families with children, with median household incomes of at least $60,000. That upscale demographic is coveted by developers of lifestyle centers, says Jeffrey Benson, Movie Tavern’s CEO.

Also based in Dallas, Studio Movie Grill currently operates five locations, primarily in Texas, in communities where annual household incomes top $85,000. The company wants to position itself in lifestyle centers, alongside retail tenants such as Barnes & Noble, Banana Republic and the Cheesecake Factory.

“We are interested in working only with developers who create the best retail environment,” says company co-owner and founder Brian Schultz. “Our major focus is on families, which is very synergistic with what upscale lifestyle centers are looking for.”

Studio Movie Grill sites, which are approximately 40,000 square feet, almost rival the multiplexes. But boutique operators are not the only ones pursuing the movie eatery concept.

Regal Entertainment Group, which operates 6,386 movies screens throughout the United States, is developing Cinebarre in a joint venture with Braly. Cinebarre theaters will serve casual food, including pizza and chicken wings along with beer and wine, during screenings of first run films. They will also offer specialty programming and celebrity events, including appearances by movie stars and theme events centered around popular flicks.

The first Cinebarre is scheduled to open at the 493,000-square-foot Biltmore Square Mall in Ashville, N.C. in July, and an announcement is pending on a second unit. If the venture is successful, Regal will expand the rollout to 20 theaters nationwide over the next five years. Cinebarre executives are planning to renovate outdated Regal properties in areas with annual household incomes of $70,000, a median age of 35 and populations of 200,000 people within a five-mile-radius.

“Going to the traditional movie theater is not relaxing anymore and Cinebarre will meet a definite need in the community,” says Brian Jennings, marketing manager for Biltmore Square, which is managed by Jones Lang LaSalle. “We are trying to put a lifestyle component into the mall and that’s why Cinebarre was such a great fit.”

Muvico, which operates 12 multiplexes, has also launched a concept called the “Premier Experience” at some of its theaters. For twice the price of a normal ticket, adults can reserve seats in the balconies that are connected to its Premier Bistro & Bars. The ticket price includes valet parking and free popcorn. The Premier Experience has been introduced at theaters in Boca Raton, Tampa and West Palm Beach, Fla. and is scheduled to come to the Xanadu Meadowlands in Bergen County and to Aviation Plaza in Linden, N.J.

--Elaine Misonzhnik