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Bringing the Movies Closer to Home : More Than 300 Screens Planned for Southland

November 23, 1987|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writer

Too often, seeing a big Christmas movie in Los Angeles boiled down to some tough choices.

You went to Hollywood with the crowds. You went to Westwood, with more crowds. Or you stayed home and waited for the videocassette--generally available by the Fourth of July.

Well, breathe easier.

Moviegoing is going to be a little simpler this holiday season. And it may get a \o7 lot\f7 simpler in the next two years, thanks to a theater-building boom that is catching up with movie-hungry Central and West Los Angeles long after sweeping the rest of the country.

In the last year, at least 33 new theater screens opened in the audience-rich territory that stretches roughly between downtown and the Pacific Ocean.

By 1989, moreover, theater owners plan to build as many as 60 additional screens in the area and more than 300 new screens in the Southland, potentially opening several new "film zones." These are districts in which closer-to-home theaters will show at least some of the movies that have traditionally been reserved for powerful houses in Hollywood and Westwood.

"(Exhibitors) are pioneering into areas where people never dreamed there would be more theaters. Who would have dared to challenge Westwood in the past?" observes Robert Selig, president of the Theater Assn. of California.

Some observers predict that Los Angeles is actually headed for a glut of movie houses, and that theater chains won't be able to operate profitably if all the building is completed.

"Most of Southern California is becoming dramatically overscreened. We're reaching or surpassing the saturation point," says Steve Gilula, president of Landmark Theatres, which has six Los Angeles-area screens.

Yet expansion has been fueled by a sharp increase in the number of available pictures. When film is plentiful--as it is at present, thanks to studio income from videocassettes and cable television--theater owners can build new screens without fear of running short of movies to put on them.

The building also reflects a new resolve on the part of some theater owners and film companies to chip away at a longstanding system that grants wide exclusive playing areas, or "clearances," to a small core of theaters in Hollywood and Westwood.

Powerful movie houses like Westwood's National and Bruin or Hollywood's Chinese--all owned by the Mann Theatres chain, which in turn is owned by Paramount Pictures' corporate parent, Gulf & Western--remain the studios' favorite showcases because they have big auditoriums, fine sound systems and proven drawing power.

But several studio executives privately applaud the recent and planned theater expansion in areas such as Santa Monica, Century City and the Beverly Center. That is partly because the executives have found it excruciatingly difficult to get enough playing time for their movies on crowded Westwood screens--and partly because they think older audiences are losing their patience with traffic problems and young crowds in the older entertainment centers.

"My wife and I will drive to Century City to see a film. But we won't go to Westwood. It's that simple," says one major studio distribution executive who declines to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his company's relationship with the Westwood theaters.

Ted Mann, chairman of Mann Theatres, declined to be interviewed for this story.

But one executive familiar with the chain's plans said Mann too is positioning itself to capture audiences that may be outgrowing Westwood. The chain expects to build more than 60 new screens in the Los Angeles area in the next two years, including as many as 15 Westside screens that will probably play movies simultaneously with some Westwood theaters.

(Increasing competition among theater owners could help stave off the sort of ticket-price increases that threaten to hit New York, where Cineplex Odeon just bumped up admissions to $7 at two of its theaters. Seven-dollar tickets haven't surfaced here yet, and spokesmen for several big theater chains said they didn't plan to raise prices in the foreseeable future.)

Outside of Los Angeles, movie screens have already increased dramatically. The total number of U.S. theater screens shot to about 23,000 in 1986, up 27% from 18,144 in 1981.

Total screens in the Southland, excluding San Diego, rose by about the same percentage, to 671 from 535 for the period. But the growth has been concentrated in newly developing areas of Orange County and in the San Fernando Valley.

By contrast, in West Los Angeles, the heart of filmland, the number of theater screens stayed dead even for the period at 109. For every new movie screen that lit up at the Westside Pavilion or the Beverly Center, another screen went dark--usually at now-defunct neighborhood theaters like the Palms in West Los Angeles or the Criterion in Santa Monica.

High land prices and tight zoning have helped to keep Los Angeles, like Manhattan, from participating in the theater boom.

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