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AMC Movie Pass Just the Ticket?

June 16, 2001|MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMC Entertainment Inc. is testing a monthly movie pass to lure more people into theaters and plump up sales of popcorn, soda pop and Milk Duds.

The Kansas City, Mo.-based theater chain last week rolled out a monthly movie pass, called the MovieWatcher Premium Card, that allows fans to see one movie every day, seven days a week, for a month. They have to commit to the program for six months.

A monthly pass costs $17.50 in Omaha, where regular admission to an AMC movie costs $7. In Oklahoma City, the second of two test markets, a monthly pass goes for $14.50.

The program will come to Southern California later this year or in 2002, but the price will be a bit higher, AMC said.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, compared the AMC pass to an all-you-can-eat restaurant buffet or a health club membership. "People sign up thinking they're going to go every day, and they pay a flat rate, and [then] they don't go every day," Dergarabedian said.

"This is a great promotion to get people to go to see more movies. And as with any new marketing strategy, others in the exhibition industry will be looking very closely to see how this movie pass plays out," he said.

AMC probably won't lose any money on the deal, Dergarabedian added.

AMC spokesman Rick King said the studios will receive the same amount under this pass program as they would if the moviegoer had purchased a regular ticket.

The theater industry could use some extra business. In the last year, nearly a dozen theater chains have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, including Edwards Theatres Circuit, United Artists, General Cinema and Loews Cineplex Entertainment.

The industry has suffered by building too many big cineplexes.

AMC, which operates 179 theaters with 2,788 screens in the United States and abroad, has escaped the financial battering suffered by many of its competitors.

"This was not a program born of economic distress by any means," King said.

AMC has been collecting demographic data on 3 million moviegoers through its MovieWatcher program, launched in 1991, which rewards loyal AMC patrons with free popcorn, soft drinks and chances to win free movie passes.

Under the new program, moviegoers can enroll by authorizing a monthly debit to a credit card account.

The pass can be used at peak show times, including Friday and Saturday nights. The only restrictions are that the card allows admission to just one movie a day and it cannot be transferred, King said.

The program could help studios, Dergarabedian said, by exposing more people to trailers for coming attractions.

The theater chain is targeting people who go to five to 20 movies a year, King said.

Consumers who buy a six-month pass must decide whether they have the time, or the interest, to see enough films at one chain to make it worthwhile. For instance, at AMC's theater in Santa Monica, there are only four films playing on eight screens; its 16-screen complex in Woodland Hills offers 10 films.

A moviegoer would have to see about three movies a month to make the pass pay off.

"This seems to be a program in which everyone wins," King said. "I don't think our business can have enough frequent moviegoers."

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