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Theater Firms Think Big to Bring Back 'Lost' Movie Patrons

June 29, 1986|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Box office receipts are down, and the home video market is thriving. So movie theaters are doomed.

Right?

Wrong, if the amount of building, buying and renovating is any measure.

"There are no less than 1,000 new screens this year in the country (which has a total of about 20,000 screens), and some 1,500 are planned for next year in new and expanded locations," said Robert Selig, president of the Theatre Assn. of California--a trade group representing the 2,000 motion-picture theaters in the state.

An estimated 10% to 12% of these are planned in California, which last year had the highest number of movie screens for any state in the nation. Texas was second, and New York was third.

Frills Are Back

More screens mean more competition, which theater owners are already getting in bushels from the home-entertainment industries.

To compete with each other and lure people away from their videocassette recorders and cable programs, theater owners are offering bigger, cleaner, more technologically advanced, comfortable and architecturally interesting facilities than have been built during the past couple decades.

The frills are back. Selig explained:

"Multiplex theaters that replaced movie palaces abandoned the glamour and illusion of going to a movie. There was no lowering of the lights and parting of the curtains, but now this is returning.

'All Over America'

"Theater owners are still plexing (building more than one auditorium in a complex), but there is improved seating and the latest in sound and projection--all aimed at making moviegoing an event in competition with home entertainment."

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, just returned from Austin, Tex., where he visited a complex that has, he said, "sound that embraces you, brand new seats that have lumbar support, a rocking effect and a head rest; floors that are canted so you can see over the tops of other heads, and large screens."

"This is happening all over America," he noted. "These theaters are especially good for viewing epics. You can't duplicate that experience in your den."

But theater owners didn't design these theaters just for showing epics. "It is a reaction to a changing society where more alternative entertainment possibilities exist than a decade ago," Valenti agreed. "Now we have satellite earth stations that enable up to a thousand TV stations to be picked up.

Building Larger Theaters

"We have cable with 40 or 50 channels. And, of course, we have the VCR. All are part of a new environment, and the theater owners, who are smart, are gearing up to meet this new competition."

No theaters are being built the size of the movie palaces of the '20s and '30s, which had several thousand seats in a single auditorium. But neither are there any theaters being built like the multiplex, pillbox type that have catered to 100 or so patrons at a time in shopping centers for the past several years.

Bernard Myerson, president and chairman of board of the New York-based Loews Corp. movie theater chain, said, "We're building some 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot complexes in metropolitan New York and Texas with auditoriums from 400 to 900 seats."

Loews is known as the senior citizen of movie theater operators. "I think we opened our first (movie house) in 1908," Myerson said. But even a relative upstart such as Mann's, which has built many shopping center movie complexes, just opened a sixplex in Denver with auditoriums ranging in size from 200 to 400 seats.

Increasing Its Holdings

American Multi Cinema, which purports to have introduced multi-screens in 1962, is also building several complexes and plans to increase its holdings from 1,100 to 1,500 screens at this time next year to 2,000 in 1989, according to Robert L. Friedman, president of AMC International.

The building housing the 14 theaters expected to be under construction in July for AMC in the Century City Shopping Center will be "bigger than a football field," Friedman added, and auditoriums there will seat from 200 to 550 people.

Selig said even many of the existing multiplex theaters with 100 to 175 seats are being expanded to seat 500, 600 and even 700 people, and the screens themselves are "changing to a ratio that fits the larger auditoriums.

"The ratio is being substantially increased from the early days of plexing, when there were postage-sized screens in cracker-box auditoriums," said.

'No Bad Seats'

Sometimes, he added, theater operators are experimenting with curved screens and something called "stereo surround-sound" to give viewers a sense of greater involvement.

The AMC theaters planned in Century City will have surround-sound, which Michael Strle, shopping center general manager, described as "computerized so there is optimum sound from each seat." And the theaters will also have computer-designed, state-of-the-art floors--"so there are no bad seats (for viewing)," he added.

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