Thursday, May 13, 2004

Baby & Me at the Movies

I saw "Mean Girls" this past Tuesday with my 15-week-old son, helping to make the "Reel Moms" movie matinee program "Reel Dads" too. It only feels odd sitting in a theatre with a hundred infants for a few minutes. However, a couple times during the movie, when a baby began to cry uncontrollably, I thought, "Who brings a baby to a movie?!?!?" And then I looked down at my baby and laugh.

Bringing up baby, but not giving up movies
By Micheline Maynard
New York Times News Service
Apr. 28, 2004

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Up on the big screen, Jim Carrey sat behind his steering wheel, sobbing uncontrollably as the opening credits for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" rolled by.

In the theater some members of the audience cried, too. One, Sophia Lee, waved a clean cloth diaper at Carrey, a not inappropriate gesture considering that Sophia is only 9 1/2 months old.

These pint-size patrons, accompanied by their mothers and a stray father or two, were at the Madstone Theater for their weekly morning movie outing one Tuesday in early spring.

It used to be that new parents were fated to watch "The Lion King" or "Finding Nemo" endlessly on video while waiting for current, more adult fare to be released for the home market. But now thousands of moms and dads across the country are taking advantage of new programs that enable them to see first-run films with their children.

Theater chains like Loews Entertainment, Showcase Cinemas and the Madstone group and some individually owned theaters have begun holding weekly showings for parents and babies, usually 2 and younger.

"Regular paying customers don't want crying babies in their theaters, and parents don't want to be the ones who have that crying baby," said Staci Torgeson, Madstone's director of audience services. "This was a market that was waiting for movies to come out on DVD. They were not going to the movies."

Loews Entertainment, which has expanded its Reel Moms program to 24 theaters in 20 cities in the last two years, has shown romantic comedies like "Along Came Polly," action films like "Hidalgo" and the thriller "Spartan."

The showings are most popular at its theaters in New York, Chicago and Washington, cities with lots of young parents, said John McCauley, the senior vice president for marketing at Loews.

"There are a fair number of intelligent people who want to get out during their day with their kids," said Rachel Thompson, a health care consultant, who took her 7-month-old son, Charlie, to the Madstone in Ann Arbor.

In today's family-friendly culture, which no longer has sharp separations between adult- and child-centered activities, and in which children can be spotted at museums and tony restaurants, mommy-and-me movies are a natural. Thompson, for instance, already attends a mom-and-baby yoga class and a mother-and-child music program with Charlie. (He generally sleeps through the films, said Thompson, though he did wake up and wail during a loud moment in "Big Fish.")

Crowds vary according to the movie, said McCauley of Loews, adding that up to 600 mothers, fathers and babies attend showings. As a father of two young children, he has been one of them. He started the Loews program in late 2001 at its theater on 34th Street in New York after the birth of his daughter, Jane, now 2 1/2.

McCauley, who was previously senior director of marketing and entertainment for the National Football League, used to see as many as 40 movies a year with his wife, Hope, before their daughter was born. They also have a 7-month-old son, Drew.

When his wife was preparing to return to her job after her first maternity leave, McCauley said he was distressed to learn that she hadn't seen a single film during her time off. "How am I going to the movies? I can't bring her to the movies," he recalled her saying about their daughter.

Now, he said, he receives frequent e-mail messages from parents telling him that they have entered their movie outings in their baby books.

National Amusements, which owns Showcase Cinemas, began its program, Baby Pictures, last year at a single theater in Randolph, Mass., where the company is based, and has since expanded it to five states, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio and New York.

The Madstone chain, whose nine theaters nationwide are in cities and suburbs, mostly features independent films. It began its BYOBaby (Bring Your Own Baby) program in December, drawing 50 to 100 parents with children to its movie theaters like the one in Ann Arbor.

Culture-deprived parents, not to mention moviegoers sick of other people's noisy children, are happy as are theater owners, who are attracting customers when their houses would otherwise sit empty. (Parents pay the matinee price, about $6 in most parts of the country, while babies get in free.)

"It feels very normal to buy your ticket and get some popcorn, even if you have a baby on your lap," said Amy Kett, of Ann Arbor, the mother of 8-month-old Henry John, adding that she had skipped just one movie since the program began.

At the Madstone, dozens of mothers began arriving with babies in strollers, car seats and on their shoulders about half an hour before the 10:30 a.m. showtime.

Soon there were babies everywhere. Some were crawling around on blankets, other sat quietly with their mothers, like Sophia Lee, who was perched on the lap of her mother, Jen.

At the back of the auditorium, a line formed to use a changing table, with baby wipes, powder and lotion provided by the theater.

Eventually, the lights went down, but only part way, so parents could keep an eye on their children and retrieve them when they crawled too far. That wasn't a problem for Walden Jones-Perpich, who at 6 weeks was attending his first film, rocked throughout by his mother, Katie Jones.

Mindful that its youthful audience is aging, McCauley is working on a ReelToddlers program. But it will be more difficult with slightly older children, said Torgeson at Madstone, which is also exploring the concept.

Toddlers are more active than babies and have shorter attention spans. "They won't be able to sit still for an hour and a half," she said, and "kids will be seeing things that they shouldn't be seeing." By sticking with babies, she said, the chains can continue to show a variety of fare, which at the Madstone theaters includes foreign films along with mass-market ones.

Torgeson said lighter movies like "Jersey Girl" tend to draw more moms and babies than darker, more serious films like "Osama." But many parents will come no matter what is being shown, happy for the chance to get out of the house with their little ones.

"After 10 years of working 80 hours a week," before having a child, Thompson said, "it's nice to be able to go to the movies on a Tuesday."

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