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Is a Picture Worth 1,000 Pennies?

Tickets are rising ever closer to $10, but perks such as stadium seating and state-of-the-art sound are getting strong thumbs up.

January 04, 2001|BRENDA REES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

But despite all its fanfare and technical hoopla, it's crisis time for the movie theater business. Many national chains are in various stages of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, in part because of the building frenzy of the '90s that now saddles almost all the chains with massive debts.

"There is a strange mix of conditions in the movie theater business today," said John Fithian, president of the National Theater Owner's Assn. "We are seeing some of the best theaters ever built for audiences, and we are getting positive responses. On the other hand, all that building is costly. Many chains are weeding out older properties and looking closely at operating expenses."

"I think the fundamentals of the business are strong and good," said Jim Edwards, CEO and chairman of Edwards Cinemas. "Most of our newer theaters are part of a complex where people can go have a meal and check out a bookstore. Going to the movies is more of a social experience these days."

But like many other theaters, money flow is critical at Edwards, a chain that owes $217 million to a consortium of lenders. Edwards himself recently took a pay cut of almost $1 million, and his salary will drop $85,000 more to $490,000 in February. Other staff and family members also have seen their paychecks diminished or eliminated during the reorganization phase.

Brian Callahan, spokesman for General Cinema Corp., argued that theater business reorganization efforts will make theaters better for moviegoers and movie chains in the long run. "If you have too many screens and not enough audiences, that's a problem," he said. "We're working on solving that problem."

In 1999, there were 37,185 screens nationally, up 3,000 from 1998. "That number is dropping today," said Fithian, who noted that many big chains plan to close screens in major circuits. But don't worry that your favorite theater will be gone, he said. "Modern theaters are built in close proximity to older ones so customers won't lose movie options," he said. "Customers will get more screens and multiple show times."

If moviegoers really want to bypass high ticket prices at mega-chains, second-run houses around Southern California offer cheap seats in better-than-average theaters. Sure, you might not see a first-run film on opening weekend, but at such places as the Eagle Rock Plaza theater, a ticket for a double feature matinee on a big screen runs $3. Owner Gene Harvey said that, depending on the movie, many people are content to wait a few weeks to see a movie. The size of audiences at the house, Harvey said, ranges from "where we need more seats to where we need more bodies. It can be one extreme or another."

Alternatives to Mega-Plexes

Some films make it to second-run houses as little as two or three weeks after opening, Harvey said. "Oftentimes a film 'moves over' not because it's not performing well but because the studio has more product coming down the line," he said. "The studios need the screens."

Other alternatives to the mega-monster-plexes are the independent theaters that provide moviegoers with an "old-time" (one screen) theater experience. The Vista Theatre in Los Angeles, for example, caters to an eclectic audience that enjoys the theater's "unique atmosphere that you don't find in a multiplex," said President Lance Alspaugh, referring to the Egyptian-influenced decor.

Even so, the Vista is basking in recent renovations that offer state-of-the-art sound, picture and screen. "We also took out half of the seats so we have really wide seating with lots of leg room," said Alspaugh.

The decision to renovate was easy, continued Alspaugh, because even though his audience is loyal, "there is only so much they will put up with."

Moviegoers, especially Southern California ones, are indeed spoiled when it comes to comfort. "Nowadays, audiences expect to have the best," he summed up.

Pay It Forward: The Cost of Going to the Movies

THEATER: AMC Theaters

AMC 30 at the Block, Orange (714) 769-4262

GENERAL ADMISSION: $8.50

Seniors: $6.50

Children: $4.50

Twilight show: (4-6 p.m., Mon-Fri) $4.50

Matinee: $5.50

Student discount: $6.50

Large popcorn: $4.50

Large soda: $3.50

Large candy: $3.25

*

THEATER: AMC Old Pasadena 8, Pasadena (626) 585-8900

GENERAL ADMISSION: $7.75

Senior $5.50

Children: $4.50

Twilight show (4-6 p.m. M-Fri except holidays) $4.50

Matinee $5.50

Student discount: $5.50

Large popcorn: $4.25

Large soda: $3.50

Large candy: $3.00

*

THEATER: Edwards Theaters

Irvine Spectrum 21, Irvine (949) 450-4900

GENERAL ADMISSION: $8.50

Senior: $5.50

Children: $5.50

Matinee $5.50

Student discount: none

Large popcorn: $4.75

Large soda: $3.50

Large candy: $2.75

*

THEATER: Valencia Town Center Stadium Cinemas, Valencia (661) 287-1740

GENERAL ADMISSION: $8

Senior: $5.50

Children: $5.50

Matinee: $5.50

Student discount: none

Large popcorn: $4.75

Large soda: $3.50

Large candy: $2.75

*

THEATER: General Cinema Theaters

Beverly Connection, Beverly Hills (310) 659-5911

GENERAL ADMISSION: $9

Seniors: $6

Children: $6

Matinee: $6

Student discount: none

Large Popcorn: $5.25

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