GIBSONTON — People stepped into the Goodrich Quality Theaters' GDX auditorium Thursday and immediately looked up in awe at the floor-to-ceiling screens.
The aisles between rows in the 250-seat room are wide enough for rollerblading, the recliners feel like a mattress and the 60 speakers can make those recliners rumble with every intense moment from a movie soundtrack.
Ever since Xscape Theaters and Goodrich Quality Theaters announced plans to open 14-screen multiplexes within miles of each other in this growing corner of the county, it shaped up as a battle for moviegoers in the SouthShore and Brandon area.
But when Goodrich opened its Riverview 14 GDX Thursday just west of Interstate 75 on Gibsonton Road, it appeared poised to compete for customers from South Tampa, New Tampa and even from outside of Hillsborough.
Call it a destination theater.
Through simple social media announcements and television reports, the theater drew a stream of people through the doors, and in the first two hours after receiving its certificate of occupancy, it sold nearly 1,300 tickets for shows scheduled through Sunday.
In its first weekend, the theater screened movies including "Beauty and the Beast," "Kong: Skull Island," and "Before I Fall."
Management said at least two attendees made the drive from Fort Myers on Thursday to take in a movie in one of the theater's two GDX (Giant Digital Experience) auditoriums. They feature 40-by 70-foot screens, reclining seats and a Dolby ATMOS sound system.
"We definitely think people will travel to see movies in those auditoriums," Goodrich Regional Manager Jeremy Curtis said, noting the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway makes the theater an easy drive for Tampa residents.
The new multiplex also hopes to draw folks with Features, a freestanding gastro pub inside the theater with a separate entrance. Goodrich said Features is the first freestanding restaurant ever located in an American theater.
"Our philosophy is about doing things the best we can," Curtis said. "We think the restaurant reflects that philosophy.
"It's no secret that a lot of theaters are adding food offerings and hot items. We thought, 'What if we took it a little further?'"
Features offers a menu designed by television chef Brian Duffy and drink specials crafted by mixologist Mike Tipps. Duffy and Tipps, known for appearances on the show Bar Rescue, have spent several days in town training Goodrich employees.
An introductory menu on Thursday included a build-your-own burger, breaded sliders made with shrimp and mahi-mahi, and wings that are baked, fried and grilled with a red wine and cajun glaze. No offering costs more than $12.
"We consider this a next-level bar and grill," Features General Manager Jeremy Ginsberg said. "It's very simple food with explosive flavors."
The Riverview 14 GDX opening came after Goodrich missed several previous targets. After breaking ground in 2015, it had hoped to open in the October 2016 before shifting to an expected date around Christmas. But it again pushed the date back to February before finally green-lighting the new theater on Thursday.
Curtis said the delays all came from an exacting "attention to detail" he hopes will make the theater a "gamechanger" for moviegoers.
While Xscape, five miles north, beat Goodrich to the punch by opening in November, Goodrich aims to make its case that the wait was worth it. Other amenities at the $20 million theater include a concession stand decorated with Italian marble that offers craft beer, wine and free refills on soft drinks.
The theater also has a rewards program, and free popcorn for people who bring a ticket stub from another theater during the first month. Curtis even boasted about the popcorn, cooked in a proprietary blend of oil exclusive to Goodrich Theaters.
It all seemed to impress its first customers.
"We've gone to Xscape," said Riverview resident Sam Macko, "but this is clearly more upscale."
Contact Ernest Hooper at [email protected] Follow him @hoop4you.