Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Invasion of the Megaplex

By John Branston

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  What the suburbs need is another movie screen.

Sure, like the inner city needs another pawn shop, you say? But that's the analysis of the people who build movie theatres around here. Suburbia is getting more multi-screen theatres, or "megaplexes," and they'll each have more screens than ever.

The latest movie monster is the theatre itself. Malco's 11-screen Majestic Cinema at Germantown Extended and Winchester, opening Friday, is the newest of the lot. Malco is already planning a five-screen addition to the Majestic next spring, in addition to opening eight screens at Wolfchase Galleria, 16-screen theatres in Collierville and Southaven, and renovating the Stage Cinema 12 near Bartlett.

With 150 screens at 16 sites in the Memphis area (all but four are outside the Interstate 240 loop), Malco has the lion's share of the movie business. But its main competietor is expanding, too, and mainly, like Malco, in the suburbs.

The Hollywood 20, the largest in the state so far, opened in October in Bartlett. It is owned by Ajay Theatres, which also plans a 20-screen theatre in Southaven and a 12-screen in Collierville. General Cinema operates smaller theatres in the Hickory Ridge Mall, Mall of Memphis, and Raleigh Springs Mall.

"Memphis still has some outdated four and five-screen theatres, but if you go to some place like Birmingham, the smallest is 10 screens," says Amberish Keshani, vice president of Ajay Theatres. "With four to six screens you can only hold a movie four or five weeks before you've got to make room for new movies. With 20 or 30 screens, you can hold movies until they come out in video and still make money."

A megaplex also provides insurance against movies that flop, as Keshani says Mad City, starring John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman, did last week. Another possibility, of course, is that megaplexes will have a lot of bad movies playing for a long time to empty houses.

If both Malco and Ajay follow through on all their plans, there will be more than 200 movie screens in suburban Memphis. Long-neglected Collierville, which has no movie screens, will suddenly have 28 of them. If there are roughly 400,000 suburbanites, the ratio of residents to movie screens will be about 2,000 to 1, whereas in Memphis, with 600,000 people, it's about 20,000 to 1--for now.

"There is no room to build it in Midtown," says Keshani. "You need parking, and a good commercial location is 10 or 12 screens."

But relief is on the way for cinematically-challenged Midtown. Malco plans a five-screen art-house theatre in Overton Square called Studio on the Square, catering to patrons who don't want to mingle with the hordes at a megaplex. Overton Square plans a separate mainstream theatre called the Memphian.

"Its scope and size will be determined by the amount of parking we can put together," says Karl Schledwitz, developer of the New Overton Square.

A megaplex is also planned for Peabody Place downtown.

The megaplex was born in Dallas in 1995 when AMC Grand Cinema opened a then-unheard-of 24 screens in an industrial area of vacant land and old buildings. AMC Entertainment says it is attracting 3 million patrons a year. AMC Entertainment and United Artists are the two big hitters in the industry, and neither one has a presence in Memphis.

Typically, the theatres feature a steeper seating configuration called stadium seating, rocking chairs or LoveSeats with flip-up armrests, and a nearby food court. The idea is that patrons will make a night of it and take in more than one movie.

"All of our new theatres are going to be stadium seating," says Malco's Steve Lightman. "The big thing is heads won't be in your way and there is more foot and leg room with higher-backed seats."

Only three of Malco's theatres in the Wolfchase Galleria have stadium seating. Ajay Theatres missed the wave and is having to convert some of its theatres at Hollywood 20.

"Hollywood 20 was on our agenda since 1994, and at that time there was no such thing as stadium seating," explains Keshani. "After seeing the interest it generated, everybody went that way, but I was a little too far into the game."

At the Wolfchase Galleria this week, Malco's hottest offering was Starship Troopers, featuring an angry planet of large, nasty bugs. Such violent fare is well-suited to the theatre's big screen, stadium seats, and deluxe sound system.

"That was, like, the most dismemberments of any movie I've ever seen," said one patron.

"Too much gross," said another.

It's not like they didn't have any choices.

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