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Nashville Scene Attack of the Megaplexes

It's the future, and 30-screen theaters rule the Earth!

By Jim Ridley

MAY 11, 1998:  If you've been to the movies in the past three months, you've seen--or rather, you've survived--the trailer for Godzilla, the summer's most hotly anticipated release, scheduled to flatten New York on more than 6,000 screens come Memorial Day week. But the mighty lizard would be little more than a skink without the power of an even bigger monster, the 30-screen theater, a beast capable of gulping thousands of viewers--and hundreds of thousands of dollars--in a single weekend's chomp.

Nashville got its first glimpse of the megaplex 10 years ago, when the AMC chain opened a 14-screen complex next to the Fountain Square shopping area on MetroCenter Boulevard. Too many screens, skeptics said. Now Fountain Square has been dwarfed, both in size and box-office take, by Regal Cinemas' gigantic Hollywood 27, a cineplex acquired from the Birmingham-based Cobb Theatres chain. In 27 auditoriums, ranging in size from fewer than 150 seats to more than 400, the Hollywood 27 blares five, sometimes six shows a day. Shops and restaurants in the 100 Oaks area are delighted with the influx of customers, lured by the Hollywood 27's garish faŤade, a riot of pink neon and pastel curlicues that's visible miles away. Nearby competitors are quaking.

They should be. The megaplex theater is being heralded as the future of movie-going. Its huge number of screens gives theater chains immediate clout with distributors, enabling them to secure multiple prints of the hottest releases. At the same time, innovations in technology mean that megaplexes can be run with surprisingly few staffers. The result may be a problem for moviegoers--especially if your film's out of focus, and you have to walk the length of an airport terminal to find a projectionist. But it's a boon to cost-conscious chains.

As chains across the country move toward fewer theaters with more screens, cities like Denver, Chicago, and Kansas City are touting the megaplex as a powerful downtown revitalization tool. Next spring, when the new Thoroughbred Square retail development is completed near Cool Springs, its anchor will be a 24-screen plex built by North Carolina-based Consolidated Theatres.

In many ways, the megaplex is a vast improvement over its grubby ancestor, the multiplex or mall cinema. (At a cost of as much as $1 million per screen, it damn well better be.) The multiplexes were often dingy and undistinguished, but the new megaplexes are flooded with neon, gleaming light, and rococo flourishes. Dim projection and wretched sound have been scrapped, replaced by brilliant images and pristine sound. Those cramped, uncomfortable seats, wedged row after knee-crushing row onto barely sloped floors--are now lining landfills. In their place are plush loveseats with retractable armrests and cupholders, staggered in tiered "stadium seating" arrangements that insure that no head of big hair will ever again obstruct your view. What's not to love?

It depends on why you go to the movies. Every weekend night at the Hollywood 27, screening time means an endless snarl of traffic--a sign that thousands of moviegoers, some from as far away as Shelbyville and Columbia, have embraced the megaplex concept. But other patrons say they're turned off by the crowds, the noise, the head-'em-up-move-'em-out bustle, and the gleaming sterility. They miss the relaxed atmosphere and cozy personality of the neighborhood theater of yore.

Like it or not, they soon won't have a choice. The megaplexes, like Godzilla, are consuming everything in their path. Estimates say the megaplex is making as much as a third more money per patron than the outdated multiplex. For example, the weekend the Matt Dillon-Kevin Bacon thriller, Wild Things, opened, it grossed almost six times as much on the Hollywood 27's two screens as it did on one screen at Harding Mall's Carmike 6. When Regal's new Green Hills complex opens late this summer, it is likely to gobble another large share of Nashville's $20 million-plus movie market.

As for the locally owned independent theater, as Donnie Brasco would say, "Fuhgeddaboudit." As the megaplex chains flex their muscle with studios and arthouse distributors, the indie theater owner, once the backbone of American film exhibition, is fighting to stay in the picture.

And if the megaplexes win out? A handful of people, in control of a handful of chains, will control everything you see at your local theater--and everything you won't see.

Binx Bolling, the hero of Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer, makes a point of speaking to the owner or the ticket seller every time he visits a movie theater. If he didn't, he tells us, he'd have no sense of where he was. He might be viewing "one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time," Binx explains. "There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville." That sort of disorientation would've been less possible in the Depression years, when the look and personality of small-town theaters varied with the character of the town (and the owner). Even after the discovery of King Tut's tomb in the 1920s sparked a craze in Egyptian architecture, an Egyptian Theater in De Kalb, Ill., still looked different from an Egyptian in Boise, Idaho.

But by 1960, when The Moviegoer was published, theaters, like shopping districts, had begun to follow suburban dwellers in their postwar flight from the nation's urban centers. The downtown movie palaces of the first half of the century were being supplanted by outlying theaters. The new theaters were much like the one Binx visits--"a pink stucco cube, sitting out in a field all by itself," marking the spot where a suburb stopped growing.

Even so, the suburban theaters and the movie palaces faced a common enemy--the many new entertainment choices facing the fickle American public. The most ferocious of the demons was television, which offered the visual stimulation radio couldn't provide. Worse, it flooded homes with free programming. In the past, even a dud movie could count on a core audience of bored small-town patrons. But the neighborhood movie house was no longer the only entertainment option. A theater that devoted its only screen to a bomb couldn't fall back on novelty anymore.

In 1959, the year before The Moviegoer, an enterprising Kansas City theater owner devised a means of reducing the risk that he would get basted by one turkey. When Stanley Durwood's family-owned chain purchased a monstrous cavern of an old movie house, he knew he'd lose his shirt trying to fill its 2,000 seats every week. The solution: Build a floor between the balcony and the orchestra level, thus creating two smaller theaters.

The idea worked so well that Durwood soon split the balcony area into two even smaller screening rooms. In 1963 he built the first multiplex theater, a modest two-screener near a Kansas City shopping center. Six years later, he built a six-plex with automated projection booths. Skeptics wondered how any one community could support that many screens. But by 1987 the multiplex was the industry standard, and the grand old movie palace was all but extinct. Durwood had moved on to building 14-screen behemoths.

The rise of multiplex cinemas coincided with the end of what is considered Hollywood's last golden age, the early 1970s. And the reasons are obvious. The success of Jaws and Star Wars promised unprecedented grosses, leading studios to produce ever-larger event movies. At the same time, theaters with multiple screens needed big-budgeted, well-promoted movies to stand out on the marquee.

God knows the multiplex needed something to help it stand out. The multiplex, as often as not, was either embedded in a mall or tucked away in ancillary shopping space. Unlike the old movie palaces, it wasn't a destination in itself. It was another spending option, the movie equivalent of a food court or an arcade.

Gone were the ornate architecture, the neon lights, the balconies. In their place, the plexes offered cinderblock faŤades, shoebox theaters, tiny screens--as if a generation used to watching movies mangled on TV would know the difference. In a mall cinema, even good movies seemed diminished by the options around them. When a friend of mine got tired of watching Mona Lisa, many years ago at Hickory Hollow Mall, she stepped outside for an hour and tried on shoes.

The megaplex is the logical extension of Stanley Durwood's initial concept--more screens, more space, more movies, more money. And yet it has an added element of flamboyance, a garish touch more in keeping with the bygone movie palaces. Durwood's company, American Multi-Cinema, Inc. (AMC), is the acknowledged king of the 20-plus megaplex. Two years ago, AMC opened the world's largest theater, the 30-screen, 6,000-seat AMC Ontario Mills, in an Ontario, Calif., mall. The AMC Ontario Mills is the shape of things to come--a model of entertainment-industry synergy that uses every fraction of available space to rake in bucks.

A Jumbotron screen above the door blares previews. In the corners of the lobby, video monitors blaze with movie trailers; signs promote merchants in the nearby mall. The popcorn sacks advertise upcoming movies. A special area sells movie-related merchandise, and the 30 screens serve as advertising space before the movies. Some of these gimmicks are already standard features in local theaters. Carmike has sold ad space on its screens for decades, and Regal's more recent theaters have built-in lobby screens that run trailers all day.

What hasn't arrived in Nashville yet--though it's on its way--is the location-based entertainment complex, or LBE. The LBE turns the megaplex into the anchor of a mall-sized entertainment theme park. At Ontario Mills, the theater complex is flanked by GameWorks, a multimillion-dollar arcade from Universal, Dreamworks, and Sega that's targeted at adults, as well as a giant-screen theater patterned on IMAX's installations and an indoor attraction that combines a zoo and rides. There's also Dave & Buster's, an enormous restaurant that houses a veritable midway of rides and games of skill. The combination of all these factors has made Ontario Mills a test case for the industry--especially since AMC's rival, Edwards Theatres, built its own 22-screen dreadnought across the street. That's 52 movie screens in a single block.

Nashville gets a taste of LBE madness late this summer, when Regal opens its 16-screen entertainment complex next to the Mall at Green Hills. Regal is betting millions that its FunScape, a massive amusement center the chain has tested in five markets, will stir up the same sort of excitement and revenue generated by the Hollywood 27. The FunScape's attractions include a motion-simulated rollercoaster, high-tech bumper cars, a scaled-down bowling alley, laser tag, a playground, and 18 holes of indoor miniature golf, rain or shine. Word has it the theater even shows movies.

The LBE is intended to be a cash cow. But it has another purpose as well. It's the movie industry's latest weapon to wrest the lucrative 18-35 demographic away from their TVs.

In the 1950s and '60s, when the novelty of the tube was emptying the nation's theaters, moviemakers tried all kinds of gimmicks to give viewers an experience they couldn't get at home. Three-D glasses were a short-lived fad. The "wonder" of Smell-O-Vision piped noxious clouds of perfume into the theater during The Scent of Mystery. (It was basically a one-shot deal.) Producer William Castle devised any number of loony-tune brainstorms: He goosed patrons with electric shocks and floated inflatable skeletons over the crowd. The '70s brought the dubious magic of Sensurround, a technological marvel that basically cranked up a bank of speakers to denture-loosening decibels.

Maybe it all sounds pretty silly, but it also bears a curious resemblance to the latest innovations in film exhibition. Three-D is back with a vengeance--only it's now being revived by IMAX, whose trend-setting giant-screen theaters have, in an ironic twist, made large-scale, single-screen movie houses commercially viable. And William Castle and the designers of Sensurround would no doubt approve of Iwerks' Star Theatre, an IMAX competitor that offers a motion-simulation ride, bouncing the audience around on hydraulic-powered seats to simulate the action onscreen. When it opens this fall, Regal's Green Hills plex will likely have an Iwerks Star Theatre.

The downside of the trend is that programming now is relatively scarce, and the venues are costly. An Iwerks theater costs between $800,000 and $2.5 million, while an IMAX 3-D auditorium runs as high as $8 million. Nevertheless, the returns can be phenomenal: Since most of the films are about an hour long, an IMAX or Iwerks screen can book as many as 12 shows a day. That means one theater could possibly gross $3.5 million in a single year. But how many times will people line up to experience the same sensation?

Just ask the people who flocked to America's megaplexes to see Titanic for the fourth or fifth time since it opened last December. Pundits have picked apart the movie's surprise success, but no one has stated the obvious: Titanic is the closest thing you can get to an IMAX movie at your neighborhood theater.

Every IMAX movie has a money shot in which the camera tilts over a precipice or hurls something into the viewer's face, and Titanic is rich in similar sensations--the graceful sweeping arc that takes in the entire ship from stem to stern; the exhilarating scene of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet balancing above the ship's prow; the vertiginous multiplane shot of the crippled liner's full length jutting from the water. On the 60-foot screen at the Hollywood 27, with every creak of the sinking ship amplified in digital clarity, Titanic is a stunning experience--the kind that reminds us how unsatisfying it is to watch a widescreen movie on TV, and the kind that converts a dilettante into a lifelong moviegoer.

But there are still movies out there that aren't Titanic, and the megaplex trend was supposed to make room for them too. Specifically, the idea was that the additional screens would mean a flood of additional movies, some of them the hard-to-market foreign films and American indies that rarely found their way into mall cinemas. In its early 14-plexes, including Nashville's Fountain Square, AMC devoted a "Bijou" screen to art movies, bringing in popular foreign-language titles like Wings of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. At Ontario Mills, AMC not only created a "Cinema Avant Garde" section for art films, it hired a greeter to chat up arthouse patrons and offered incentives like free snacks and tickets to anyone who paid to see the movies. Such imagination and commitment to audience-building is rare. More often, when plexes play the obligatory arthouse film, economic necessity demands that it be wedged onto the smallest screen in the very back of the theater.

And yet the megaplex chains are able to command the movies that would normally be the bread and butter of the nation's independently owned arthouses. Whom would distributors rather deal with, a longtime booking agent lamented recently--the guy who can play their movie on a single screen or the chain that can book their movie on 50?

It doesn't matter that many of those single theaters were booking the distributors' movies long before "indie" was a buzzword. Across the country, locally owned independent arthouses like Washington, D.C.'s The Key (which recently closed) and Seattle's Sanctuary Theatre are disappearing because the product pipeline is tightening. Filmmaker magazine estimates the number of surviving indie arthouses at less than 50.

When Carmike still operated the Belcourt Theatre in Hillsboro Village, the city's last remaining historic theater had an almost exclusive lock on top-drawer arthouse fare from Miramax, Fine Line, October, and Sony Classics. Since the theater was purchased last fall by a consortium representing the Watkins Institute College of Art & Design, however, its new owners have had to struggle to get the same caliber films. Sony Classics hasn't tossed a movie the Belcourt's way since the Hollywood 27 opened--a crushing blow, since films like Ma Vie En Rose and Afterglow would've been perfect fits for the Belcourt's upscale clientele.

The Belcourt has actually done better in recent weeks with the likes of Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh and Michael Moore's The Big One, two titles the Hollywood 27 dropped at the last minute. And the Belcourt has finally installed its long-awaited new digital sound system. But business has been so grim that, later this month, the Belcourt will try showing "non-mainstream commercial films" on one screen and booking a calendar of art movies on the other. If the Belcourt is struggling to compete on the arthouse front, competing with mainstream fare seems like sheer folly. When the Belcourt booked Species 2 for a week, not a single ticket was sold for one Saturday matinee.

"Where [the Hollywood 27] has really hurt us is on movies we've had to share," says Watkins' dean of academic affairs, David Hinton, who has been actively involved with the theater's operations since the school took it over from Carmike last October. Hinton says that sharing movies like the Ralph Fiennes vehicle Oscar & Lucinda actually hurt both theaters. "The market's too thin," he explains. "Having the movie in two theaters didn't add more viewers; it just carved up the audience that already existed."

The danger, Hinton says, is that the megaplexes will force the independent arthouses out of business by siphoning off the more mainstream-oriented titles--and then abandon them altogether when more lucrative blockbuster releases come along.

"Megaplexes are all about mass marketing," he explains. "During the holiday season and summertime, they have to do a heavy volume. This summer, they'll be showing Godzilla on four screens. They'll show specialized films in the off season, when there are fewer films. And the specialized films will be of a more homogenized variety." In other words, don't expect the likes of Underground, the dazzling three-hour Serbo-Croatian film the Belcourt recently showed, only to lose its shirt in the process.

The megaplex makes its money by targeting the broadest audience possible, which means skirting films or subject matter that certain factions might find objectionable. Acclaimed movies such as Priest and Crash might not have played at all in the Nashville area, had it not been for independent theater owner Rusty Gordon, whose Franklin Cinema booked both films--and did big business--after Carmike and Regal vetoed them to avoid controversy. Although Harmony Korine's disturbing Gummo was filmed in Nashville, last fall only one local theater would touch it: the Watkins Belcourt. "Lack of product availability will kill off the small theaters," says Gordon, whose theater has thrived for 11 years despite competition from nearby Carmike and O'Neil multiplexes. According to Gordon, the squeeze was especially strong this year at ShoWest, the annual industry confab at which studios preview their hottest tickets for an assemblage of chain and indie exhibitors.

This year at ShoWest, major studios such as MGM, Paramount, Disney, and PolyGram were no-shows. Gordon says the studios opted instead to show their wares to a select handful of megaplex majordomos on an exclusive luxury cruise. Such preferential treatment should come as no surprise. As large theater chains engulf smaller chains throughout the country, some estimates say that, in two years, five major exhibitors may control 70 percent of America's theaters.

If the Franklin Cinemas and Watkins Belcourts of the world are forced aside, don't expect their usual fare to turn up at your local megaplex. When the Hollywood 27 opened in January, moviegoers wondered in dismay how a 27-screen theater could be showing the same movies already playing at every other Nashville multiplex. But, as Hinton explains, that's part of the modus operandi.

"It's the opposite of what happened on the TV screen," Hinton observes. "Narrowcasting is happening all over the place on cable. At the megaplex, it's as if they have 150 channels, and they're all running the networks."

The similarity between TV and the megaplex may be greater than Hinton realizes. A television is expected to provide 24-hour entertainment for the entire family. It may offer kiddie fare, news, music, sports, and adult drama on its various channels, at least giving the illusion of a choice. (You can sample from each station at will, and there's always the off button.) But your choices have already been narrowed by a host of unseen factors, among them the dictates of demographics and the demands of studios and advertisers.

Above all, at no time are you expected to venture away from the box for supplemental entertainment. Like the shopping mall, the supermarket, the apartment complex, the modular newspaper, and the Internet service provider, the megaplex permits you access to an array of preselected material that appears to fulfill your every prejudged need. In return, it asks only that you not look anywhere else. Surveying the bland range of product available at his local theaters, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum compared the selection to giving a man dying of thirst his choice of shoe polish or liquid soap to drink.

On a weekend night at the Hollywood 27, you can step back from the fray at the ticket windows and watch the computerized marquee overhead. As various shows sell out, the show time is replaced with the word "SOLD," blinking in red. Watching the bank of titles is like scanning the entries in a horse race--you wait to see which one hits the finish line first. Given the industry's ever-increasing fascination with grosses as a kind of rotisserie-league game, the imagery makes sense. And yet it brings back some of the excitement and hubbub patrons must've felt trooping into the Belle Meade Theatre in the days of Saturday serials and matinee idols. Any night at the megaplex, families with armloads of popcorn and teetering trays of Cokes scatter in all directions. You look around frantically for your screen, which is usually hidden somewhere in the back 40. As you make the long trek, fiber-optic piping flickers overhead.

When you finally do find the right door, you're tunneled down a long corridor that keeps the auditorium hidden from view until the very last moment. Then, suddenly, it's there--a blank wall on one side, waiting to be filled with dreams; a sloped wall of slanted seats on the other.

You find a seat--fourth row center, the coolest in the house; you raise the armrest and settle in anticipation. The lights go down, the crisp digital sound snaps to attention, and the audience steels itself for the first plunge of Regal's rollercoaster thrill-ride trailer.

The megaplex may be as close as future generations will come to experiencing the movie palace of old. Its enlarged screens and upgraded conditions reflect the increased visual sophistication of an audience that demands letterboxed movies on cable, video, and DVD. But it's hard to trust that the experiences are the same. Throughout the darkest years of the Depression, the smallest of towns maintained grand, gilded, ornate theaters--one screen, one main attraction, that united the many different moviegoers inside into one audience sharing the same sensation. Even if we all enter the same megaplex today, we no longer share the same dream.

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