About three years ago, Eric Casaburi noticed that a few of his Retrofitness members chose to work out in a dimly lit section of the club. Most of the members were not in the best of shape, and they preferred not to be seen with the club's more fit members. If someone entered the dark cardio room and turned on the lights, more than one member working out there would playfully throw a towel or a water bottle at them.

“Turn the lights out!” they would say.

It soon dawned on Casaburi that one way to keep these members motivated — while keeping the lights off — was to put a big screen on the wall and show movies. And, keeping with the 1980s-themed club, what better movies to show than such classics as “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” or “Sixteen Candles”? The idea was a hit, and now Retrofitness, based in Colts Neck, NJ, has a RetroTheater section in each one of its 39 clubs across the United States, most of which are in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Casaburi is not the first club owner to come up with the movie theater idea. Gold's Gym International, Irving, TX, and Urban Active, Lexington, KY (which broke away from the Gold's chain two years ago), also play movies for their members. Crunch, New York, shows movies in a club that sits in an historic San Francisco building that was converted from a movie theater.

From a bank of TV screens in front of cardio machines to screens right on the machines themselves, the trend of entertaining members as they work out now appears headed for the big screen, at least for some clubs.

“It's adding a new experience to the workout and making the workout more enjoyable,” says Dave Reiseman, director of communications for Gold's Gym International. “Imagine a real movie theater experience with treadmills, ellipticals and stairclimbers instead of seats. The intent is to really create the feeling that you are inside a movie theater. Entertainment has become such a big part of the workout experience, and this is an extension of that.”

Showtime

About 50 of the Gold's Gyms have what Gold's calls Cardio Cinema. Gold's has a library of movies that club owners can show. Sometimes members request the movies, says Reiseman, who adds that most clubs show about two or three movies a day. Some of the movies star Gold's Gym's celebrity members, such as Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), Hilary Swank and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“What we've heard from our members is that it makes their workouts fly by,” Reiseman says. “They get really into the movie, and all of a sudden, they've got a 45-minute cardio workout in. Some will come in and just watch part of the movie. Some will do kind of like a little indoor triathlon, where they'll do treadmill, then elliptical, then stairclimber.”

Most of the movies shown in Gold's clubs are either action movies, comedies or have an upbeat tone, keeping with the theme of the activity in the cardio room.

“We probably would not be playing ‘Beaches’ or ‘Terms of Endearment,’” Reiseman says.

All but one of the 29 Urban Active clubs has a movie theater setting, says Bill Robinson, senior vice president of sales, northern division, for Urban Active. The movie screens are projection-based and range between 15 and 20 feet diagonally. The rooms, which range between 1,500 and 3,000 square feet, have 5.1 surround sound and between 40 and 60 pieces of cardio equipment.

“It's almost like you kind of go into your own little world in there,” Robinson says. “This area is dimly lit, so you can have that piece of privacy. Once you get lost in that movie, you lose track of time.”

Urban Active tries to be conscientious of content, Robinson says, and it does not show R-rated movies. Only one movie is shown per day, he adds, and the movie is advertised at the club's front desk.

“A lot of times, our members say, ‘I don't rent movies with the frequency that I used to because I can go to Urban Active and catch up on some of the new stuff,’” Robinson says.

Urban Active already is expanding its offerings in some of its clubs, Robinson says, and has concert nights in which live concerts are shown on the big screen.

Retrofitness has movie theater-style signs in the clubs promoting the movies being shown, Casaburi says. In the future, Casaburi plans to download movies and send them to all of his clubs so that the selection and showing of the movies can be controlled from the corporate office. Members also can watch the movies outside of the RetroTheater room by selecting the movie's channel on the TV in front of them.

“We always place our theaters right as close to the walking path of a locker room, so members can come in and come out and not be in the general public,” Casaburi says. “These people want to be [in the RetroTheater] because they want to be left alone.”

Crunch may have the most unique setting of any club company. One of its clubs in San Francisco is inside the Alhambra Theater that was built in the 1920s.

“Because it's this landmark historical building, we had to leave a lot of things intact,” Crunch Chief Operating Officer Keith Worts says. “The woodworking and the original lighting is all still there. The movie theater is above the original stage. It's a full-size movie screen.”

Only one movie plays during the day, says Worts, who adds that once a week, the club holds a drawing to see which requested movie gets chosen. The lucky member whose movie choice is selected gets a free personal training session. Periodically, the club shuts down for a night so that members and their friends and families can sit on the group fitness floor and watch a movie, complete with a popcorn machine.

The 19,000-square-foot Crunch club shows more than just movies, though. Leading up to the release of the “Sex and the City” movie last spring, the club showed all previous episodes of the TV show. The club also shows special live events on the big screen, such as the Olympics.

License to Show

Club companies that play movies in their clubs must secure a license with the Motion Picture Licensing Corp.(MPLC) to avoid breaking the federal Copyright Act. Sal Laudicina, president of the licensing division for the MPLC, says his company has agreements with many of the top companies in the club industry.

Currently, more than 250,000 locations are covered under the MPLC umbrella license, including multi-national corporations, federal, state and local government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. The MPLC, which works with about 100 movie producers and studios, allows the viewing of all types of motion pictures, regardless of whether they were purchased by the health club or rented from a place like Blockbuster or Netflix.

“We have licensed a majority of the major operators out there, and those that aren't, terrific,” Laudicina says. “We want to encourage this use, we embrace it, and we just want to make sure that people are doing the right thing. Everybody needs to play from a level playing field.”

A Netflix representative says that the company does not have the legal rights to sell movies to people who will be sharing them with a larger audience, such as people in health clubs, universities and assisted-living centers. When asked if Netflix was OK with the idea of health clubs showing movies rented from Netflix to their members, Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications for Netflix, said that the company's terms of agreement clearly state that Netflix members are renting movies for personal enjoyment and not for commercial purposes. Swasey declined to comment further.

At one time, an agreement was in place between the MPLC and the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, but that agreement no longer exists, Laudicina says. Years ago, when VCRs were the norm, clubs had agreements with the MPLC specifically to show videos in their child care areas, adds Laudicina. Now the MPLC has agreements for child care areas, for general club use and for a room with a large screen, such as the Cardio Cinema in Gold's Gyms.

The annual MPLC fee for clubs is $235 for the child care area, $520 for general club use and $780 for the large screen premium. If clubs want to include the child care area in their general club use, the fee is $700 a year. A fee of $900 a year covers every area of the club (child care, general area and the room with a large screen). Fees can be reduced for clubs that have multiple locations, Laudicina says.

The penalties for breaking the law vary, from $750 for incidental exhibitions to anywhere from $30,000 to $150,000 for egregious violations, according to the Copyright Act.

“All we're doing is we're collecting the performance rights, and then paying the copyright holders,” Laudicina says. “We can carry a big stick, but we don't like to. We're not here to send cease-and-desist letters to people. We could, and we have, but that's the last thing we want to do.”

All of the clubs interviewed for this story say they have an agreement or a system in place that allows them to show movies in their clubs.

In addition to its 39 clubs, Retrofitness has 80 more in development, Casaburi says, and every one of them will have a RetroTheater in them.

“That amenity has garnered some membership interest,” Casaburi says. “Members are always intrigued by it. They're excited about it. There is a definitive correlation to some members saying, ‘This is a cool thing. I like this. This is one of the reasons I joined the club.’”

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