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When Dan Tocchini proposed placing fewer seats in his movie theaters in order to make more money, the idea got panned like a dud film skewered on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Everybody told me I was nuts,” said Tocchini, standing last week outside the Airport Stadium 12 north of Santa Rosa, where he recently began a $2.5 million theater renovation.

However, Tocchini, a longtime Santa Rosa businessman, wasn’t thinking of using just any seat. More than two years ago, his company pulled out the old chairs at a theater in Camarillo and installed plush, electric-powered recliners — cutting the overall seating roughly in half. Patrons not only enjoyed the extra room, he said, but they found they could go online to reserve a specific seat for their movie experience.

“You’re making it much more comfortable than home,” said Tocchini, 83, whose Santa Rosa Entertainment Group operates 11 theater complexes in California, including five in Sonoma County. The result, he said, is ticket sales in Camarillo went up, just as they did in Clovis and Lodi after completing recliner upgrades at the company’s theaters there.

For the county, this summer may well be remembered as the season of the blockbuster, as in mammoth cinema seat.

Two local complexes are rolling out renovated theaters filled with beefy, faux leather recliners. Patrons there will be able to reserve specific seats and partake of enhanced food offerings paired with craft beer and wine.

First up is the Boulevard 14 Cinemas in Petaluma, which has finished installing “luxury electric recliners” in all 14 theaters, cutting seating capacity in half. The theater plans to start selling upscale beer, wine and food within 30 days, said Dave Corkill, owner of parent company Cinema West.

The Boulevard is Cinema West’s fifth complex to get the big seats, Corkill said. He plans to add them to all 13 theater locations in California and Idaho, including the Sonoma 9 Cinemas in Sonoma.

“I haven’t seen anything that a movie theater could do to improve itself that has been as well received and revolutionary as reclining seats,” Corkill said. With reserved seating, “you can arrive five minutes before the show starts and know where you’re going to sit.”

Next up, by the end of September, Tocchini plans to install recliners in all 12 theaters at the Airport cinemas, as well as adding a bar and grill there so patrons can buy prepared food, craft beer and wine. He next wants to put the big chairs in another local property, the Roxy Stadium 14 in downtown Santa Rosa.

To top it off, both local theater companies insist they are keeping prices at their current levels, even as they add more cush for your tush.

In 2014, the movie recliner craze took off when AMC, the world’s largest cinema chain, announced it would spend $600 million to add the big chairs at 1,800 auditoriums.

Last year the company said it had completed the work at about 1,550 of those theaters and planned to add recliners to a total of 3,350 screens by late 2018, according to the online entertainment news site Deadline Hollywood. Among two other large players, Regal is planning to boost the number of recliner venues this year to 1,200 from 900, and Cinemark’s 1,000 auditoriums with recliners represent more than a fifth of its domestic locations.

All three companies said the new chairs were helping boost revenue.

The recliners have set a new standard for patron comfort and enjoyment, said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with comScore, a national research group that tracks box office data.

“It’s such a cut above,” Dergarabedian said, especially when moviegoers can reserve the seats they want and enjoy food, wine and beer during the show.

“I think at some point it may be the rare theater that doesn’t have these kind of amenities,” he said.

Movie theater companies in the U.S. and Canada took in a record $11.4 billion in box office revenue last year, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. While some suggest the industry’s growth is sluggish, Dergarabedian maintained the real story is how the cinemas are holding their own “against an onslaught the likes of which we have never seen before,” a vast array of devices and services that allow people to constantly watch movies at home and on the go.

In their efforts to attract customers, theater owners two decades ago installed stadium seating that gives patrons a less obstructed view of the screen. More recently, for a few dollars extra, they are offering 3D screenings or seats in theaters with more advanced audio surround systems, such as Dolby Atmos.

The cinemas also have expanded what patrons can consume while enjoying a movie. In Healdsburg, the Raven Film Center, another Santa Rosa Entertainment Group theater, first began selling beer and wine in the summer of 2009 and now offers various foods with it.

Theaters with craft beer and wine now include the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol, where proprietor Ky Boyd says patrons have responded well to the alcoholic beverages and such food offerings as flatbread pizzas and bruschetta.

Even so, Boyd called himself “the odd man out” when it comes to cinema recliners.

He’s willing to consider offering more comfortable seats, he said, and Rialto does offer reserved seating for special showings of opera or national theater performances. But he said the combination of recliners and reserved seating for every show means the last-minute moviegoer “gets the short end of the stick.”

Also, the large reduction in seating likely will mean that theater owners show fewer movie titles, ending up in a less diverse offering of films.

“As an exhibitor I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drummer,” Boyd said. “And this is one of those cases.”

Other theater owners said the recliners won’t significantly cut the number of films shown in the county. But they do agree that having fewer seats requires scheduling a lot more showings for popular films.

For example, Tocchini said, the opening of a big summer hit like “Wonder Woman” might call for 10 screenings a day under the current seating. But with recliners, a theater might boost that to nearly 25 screenings. A moviegoer who finds the 7 p.m. showing filled then might book a seat for 7:15 p.m.

Such frequent showings are made possible today because the theater industry switched from film to digital projection about a decade ago, Corkill said. It’s a far cry from the days a half- century back when the county’s theaters shared a single copy of a movie, taking the reels of film as Tocchini did between competing cinemas on the same night — a practice referred to as “bicycle the print.”

In the debate about reservations versus spontaneity, some theater officials said many patrons much prefer the ability to nail down beforehand where they will sit in the auditorium — so much so that they will travel from out of town to enjoy a reserved recliner.

“You’re going to drive to get these seats,” said Catherine DePrima, Santa Rosa Entertainment Group’s director of marketing.

Reserving online does require paying a convenience fee of 50 cents to $1.50 per ticket, with no such charge for advance tickets bought directly at the box office. Also, Dergarabedian, the media analyst, said some theaters did increase prices after the arrival of the recliners.

But Corkill said he is keeping prices steady. And while Santa Rosa Entertainment Group officials acknowledged ticket costs might some day rise as a result of other increased expenses, Tocchini said he still hasn’t raised prices in Camarillo, more than two years after putting in the recliners.

Posted prices to see a Friday night showing of “The Mummy” were $9.50 at the Boulevard Cinemas, $10.75 at the Roxy Stadium 14 in Camarillo and $11 at the Airport complex.

As to the big chairs themselves, these aren’t your typical home recliner. Those going into the Airport complex have steel frames, special spring coils and the ability for a theater worker to automatically raise or lower at once the ottoman of every recliner in the auditorium, a time-saving feature to assist regular cleaning.

Fred Jacobs, managing director for Telescopic Seating Systems of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the maker of the Airport recliners, said the chairs cost upward of $750 each. Theater owners must spend substantially more to remodel their auditoriums to provide the proper floor configuration and to extend electrical systems needed to power each seat.

The seat cushion alone is 27 inches wide, about 6 inches more than the typical movie seat. Also, the theater must allocate more room for safe passage of patrons along the rows when the recliners are fully extended, he said. Moviegoers end up with 2½ times more space.

“Santa Rosa’s creating a premium experience where people are not rubbing elbows,” Jacobs said.

Tocchini, who became a believer after examining the books of a recliner-converted complex in Henderson, Nevada, estimated his company is spending more than $10 million to add recliners in the Airport and the three other completed complexes. The Roxy likely will cost an additional $3.5 million.

But theater owners who install the recliners “will do better,” he said. “I guarantee it.”

Dergarabedian compared the upgraded seats, food and reservations to flying first class.

“Once you have that experience,” he said, “it’s hard to go back to a theater that doesn’t have it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.