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The big-screen scene: Wenatchee’s newest movie complex a lot more than just shows

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Before the main feature starts, people get comfortable in their oversized loveseat-style leather seats while watching a movie in the VIP Spot at Gateway Cinemas in Wenatchee.

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With so much available today in the comfort of our own homes, from surround sound to theater-style seating, and movies on demand the theater experience has to offer something special to lure moviegoers.

When people go out, they want to have a special experience. They want to be treated like a VIP.

Gateway Cinemas in Wenatchee has got the VIP treatment down.

Of the 12 screens in the multi-plex, two are reserved for VIPs. Qualifications for entry into the VIP lounge and auditoriums are simply a slightly higher ticket price and a minimum age of 21.

Viewers sit in stadium-style seating with comfortable leg and elbow room in oversized loveseat-style leather seats. Add state-of-the-art, high-definition video, surround sound and healthy food made to order that’s delivered to guests’ seats. Even beer and wine are on the menu.

It was a new and exciting experience for us to build the first VIP cinemas in Eastern Washington,” said Bryan Cook, owner and general manager of Sun Basin Theatres (ncwmovies.com), parent company to Gateway Cinemas. “It was a learning curve, and it took us about six months to work out all the kinks. It’s kind of like a cinema within a cinema, and we treat it almost like it’s a separate entity. We see a trend where people like to get out and go to a movie specifically oriented to adults. Our VIP theaters have been very well received here and have outperformed expectations.”

The VIP lounge and cinemas aren’t the only elements that set Gateway Cinemas, a hit in the area since it opened two years ago, apart from the others.

Its Juice Zone gives customers healthier food and drink options than the traditional calorie-laden theater fare of buttered popcorn, candy and sodas. It features salads, panini sandwiches, fruit smoothies, wraps, non-fat yogurt and freshly squeezed juices. The Juice Zone makes it possible to have a healthy lunch or dinner and a movie all at the theater complex. It will even deliver prepared food orders right to your seat in the VIP lounge or auditoriums.

The Juice Zone makes a lot of sense with society’s shift toward healthier eating habits.

I don’t know of any other cinema in the state that offers healthy food options for patrons,” Cook said. “A lot of work, thought and expense went into the food area. It has been a great addition to our lineup.”

Gateway Cinemas is one of four cinema complexes — two in Port Angeles and two in Wenatchee — collectively known as Sun Basin Theatres and owned by the family of entrepreneur Phil Lassila.

In 1976, Lassila already owned a cinema in Port Angeles when he came to Wenatchee and bought the Liberty Theater and Vue Dale drive-in. Cook began working for Lassila in 1980, and eventually married his daughter, Anne. This is a family business, with Anne’s sister, Theresa, working at the Port Angeles cinemas and Bryan and Anne’s two daughters working for the business in Wenatchee. Today, Sun Basin Theatres employs about 100 people, and Lassila is semi-retired.

The old Kmart store in Olds Station, 151 Easy St., had been vacant for four years when it drew the eye of the owners of Sun Basin Theatres.

This was a depressed shopping center,” Cook said. “We thought we could come in and help energize it. The location was attractive because it already had lots of parking and easy access from all of North Central Washington. This location has worked well for us.”

Sun Basin Theatres purchased the property at a Department of Natural Resources auction in 2009 and hired Forte Architects of Wenatchee to design the upscale Gateway Cinema movie complex. Blodgett Construction of Wenatchee turned the dream from paper to reality, and the new cinema, offering 12 digital projectors, two VIP theaters and 3-D movie capability, opened in May 2011. Sun Basin closed Vue Dale drive-in that same year.

Film projectors are a thing of the past for the modernized Sun Basin Theatres. It has converted all of its Wenatchee cinemas to digital projectors, including the last of its eight theaters at Liberty Cinemas in October. Digital movies have advantages over film, such as sharper picture quality, better sound and no jittery or scratched film. Also, digital movies maintain the same quality, whether it’s the first showing or the hundredth, Cook said.

Sun Basin Theatres works with a movie buyer in Montana who distributes movies to all theaters in the Northwest. He’s the liaison between Sun Basin Theatres and the major Hollywood studios such as Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures and Universal.

The Montana movie buyer works with Cook to determine which movies go to each cinema complex owned by Sun Basin Theatres, depending on the market in each location. The movie buyer also determines on which specific screens to show each movie. He then licenses the movie to Sun Basin, and sends movies either via satellite (downloaded automatically to its server) or via courier on a hard drive in a small hard plastic case. A percentage of each movie ticket sold goes back to the studio which made the movie, and the movie buyer assists Sun Basin in making that payment.

It might be surprising to hear that the James Bond movie “Skyfall” has sold more tickets than any other movie shown at Gateway Cinemas. However, Cook predicts the new “Hunger Games” movie “Catching Fire,” released Nov. 22, might eclipse it.

For big movies like the Hunger Games series, tickets go on sale on the Internet about a month ahead of the show’s debut. Customers typically use the Internet to buy tickets to popular movies as well as to the VIP theaters, especially if they expect out-of-town guests and want to catch a movie on a specific date, Cook said.

In addition to showing movies, Sun Basin Theatres also likes to host fun special events for its customers.

We’ll show events like the Daytona 500 and the Apple Cup on a big screen, and our customers appreciate things like that,” Cook said. “We’re still a small company, so we can do those kinds of things.”

And if you think the popularity of streaming videos over the Internet to your home television is going to be the death of movie theaters, think again.

People still like to get out of the house and go to the cinema to watch a good movie on a big screen,” Cook said. “We appreciate the support of the community of Wenatchee, and we look forward to continuing to serve its big-screen entertainment needs.”

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