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Reeling With Customers

State-of-the-Art Cinemas Are Becoming the Main Attraction


CHATSWORTH — Pacific Theatres Winnetka Stadium 21 megaplex here is one of the top-grossing cinemas in the country, yet it's not in a mall or close to a freeway.

What's the attraction?

Stadium seats, state-of-the-art sound, huge curved screens and an array of snacks, ranging from Krispy Kreme doughnuts to Pink's hot dogs.

Abraham Habib, 43, brought his three young children to see "Charlie's Angels" on Friday night and didn't even bother checking for show times.

With the film playing on three screens, opening credits for the movie were rolling every 45 minutes.

"I like the variety of movies they offer," Habib said.

The Winnetka Stadium 21 is one of the factors behind the recent wave of bankruptcies in the cinema business. Moviegoers are bypassing smaller, cramped theaters in favor of more modern facilities--even if it means driving farther.

Cinemas in the Valley area with similar features include Edwards Cinema in Valencia, Loew's Cineplex Odeon in Universal City, AMC Promenade 16 in Woodland Hills and Mann's Plant 16 Theaters in Van Nuys. Along with Winnetka Stadium, they are among the top-grossing cinemas in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, said David Marks, an executive vice president at box-office tracking firm ACNielsen EDI.

"Most people would agree that stadium seating greatly enhances the performance of a theater," Marks said. "These are the highest-grossing complexes. They are the bellwether theaters."

Kirk Luethy, 41, of West Hills, said he switched to AMC Promenade 16 in Woodland Hills specifically because of the stadium-style seats.

"It's easy to see. You can get a view from any seat," he said. "Once you go here, you don't want to go back to the other theaters."

The success of the state-of-the-art theaters is mirroring a national trend, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations Co., which provides information about the movie business to the news media, exhibitors and distributors.

"Moviegoers are becoming quite spoiled," Dergarabedian said. "Once people get a taste of that type of theater, it's difficult to go back. It's difficult to downgrade. You get a strong sense that people love the stadium seating and will seek it out."

The 60-foot-wide screens in the new theaters are curved, making viewing easier from the sides of the theater. And the seats themselves are wider and deeper, said Milton Moritz, president of the California / Nevada chapter of the National Assn. of Theater Owners.

"It's a more luxurious seat," Moritz said.

Another innovation is the "love seat," where the arm rest can be lifted between seats to allow those on dates to snuggle close together.

Like other modern theaters, the Mann's Plant 16 has stadium-style seating, although the incline is not as steep as theaters elsewhere. While the new features are helpful, manager Lisa Hatch said other factors are just as important--including low prices and always screening at least one film suitable for small children. Most important, she said, is good customer service.

"We own this area," Hatch said. "We always get the same customers."

Eunice Esearez, 14, a Canoga Park High School freshman, cites another attraction to The Plant.

"A lot of cute guys hang out there," she said.

Marks said the number of smaller theaters has dwindled steadily since stadium seating was first created in Dallas in 1995.

In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where competition is intense, the number of theaters has dropped for the first time in five years, from 203 in 1999 to 192 last month.

While the bigger new theaters are drawing most of the business, they are also being blamed for saturating markets and driving smaller houses out of business, said Roger A. Dale, a principal with Yorba Linda-based Natelson Co., which performs market analysis for theater projects.

The need to build new, better facilities isn't just driven by ticket buyers.

"There's also an issue with film distributors, who are less inclined to issue first-release movies to smaller theaters," Dale said.

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