& & by Sheri Boggs & & & &

For the movie-going public, there's never been a better time to see a film. With the opening of two huge megaplexes at the Spokane Valley Mall and River Park Square in recent years, local theater audiences have gotten downright spoiled with stadium-style seating, digital sound and streamlined concessions and ticket booths.

But for the nation's leading theater chains -- Regal, AMC, Cineplex Loew's and United Artists -- it hasn't been a time of titanic profits or out-of-this-world ticket sales. A recent article in Entertainment Weekly reported that in spite of huge growth in the number of new theaters built within the last five years, theater chains are facing plummeting stock prices and racking up huge debts in order to compete in the new cinema arena. It's been great for moviegoers, but it's been a kind of arms race for the exhibitors, and they can only hope to sell their way out of the hole at the concession stand (where chains make most of their money).

"The industry is experiencing some severe financial strain through rebuilding ourselves," says AMC's Senior Vice President Rick King. "Right now, it's a matter of oversupply."

King describes the new business reality of the theater chain: "There's two different ways of doing business in this industry right now. There's the megaplex, where you have big theaters, stadium-style seating, a large number of screens and better concessions," explains King. "That way is doing, by and large, very well. Then there's the older way of the multiplex, with slope-floored theaters, not as many screens and they're smaller. That way has been severely impacted by the success of the newer megaplexes."

In fact, the arrival of a new megaplex often heralds the demise of the clunky old four-screen theater where most of us remember seeing Risky Business or Poltergeist. King says it all boils down to a simple matter of ticket sales.

"We close theaters whether there's a new megaplex or not," he says. "It all has to do with whether they're selling tickets or not."

Back to the Future

It's hard to imagine the older theaters being able to compete with the state-of-the-art facilities being opened today, such as the NorthTown 12, Regal Cinema's newest megaplex at NorthTown Mall that opens this week. The ugly earthtones of the '80s are being traded in for gorgeous maroon theater-curtain styled walls, clunky old seats crammed too close together give way to stadium-style seats with high backs and rocking mechanisms. Even the light fixtures have gone from flat and utilitarian to minimalist art deco wall sconces in the auditoriums and crystal chandeliers in the halls.

"It's very retro, and that's really what movie theaters have become," says Russ Nunley, communications manager for Regal Cinemas who has overseen the opening of the NorthTown 12. "It's going back to a movie palace, grand scale sort of thing, where going to the movies is an event. There are so many things to choose from; you can sit at home and watch TV on 104 channels, so we have to make sure this is special."

The newest theater to open in the Regal chain (the world's largest movie exhibitor) is nothing if not special. Neon signs in a nouveau-Grecian font point the way to the concessions areas and restrooms, the carpet is a rich maroon and gold and tiled walls reflect the luxurious, warm lighting. The auditoriums range in size from huge, opening-night arenas to smallish, intimate places for catching an art film or the last days of a major release. In addition to the standard concessions, with its popcorn, Pepsi and hot dogs, the NorthTown 12 also has a gourmet cafe with espresso drinks, fresh-baked cookies and a mix-and-match candy area.

"Spokane is already used to the megaplex concept, due to the AMC theaters in River Park Square and the Regal Cinemas at the Spokane Valley Mall," says Nunley. "But as time goes by, it gets a little more refined."

Dog days of summer

Despite this trend of building movie palaces for a new millennium, if there's nothing out there that audiences want to see, the theaters are going to suffer. Summer is typically the biggest moneymaking season of the year for Hollywood, but the numbers are in for the summer of 2000, and they don't look good. With total movie attendance down a whopping 10 percent, this summer's gross ticket sales are lagging $200 million behind the summer of 1999, when films like Star Wars: Episode One, Austin Powers 2 and The Sixth Sense pushed ticket sales to record levels. For the nation's theater chains, the news is hardly welcome.

"It wasn't like it was a disastrous summer for us; in fact it was a good summer," says AMC's Rick King. "But it wasn't great, and it came at a time when we could have really used a great summer." King goes on to explain that even though the movie exhibitor business is turbulent at best, theater chains were counting on summer to help float ongoing construction projects.

"It doesn't offset the expense we've poured into construction," explains King. "So it's been a setback for us. But it's a boom and bust business."

While the 2000 summer movie season was by all counts an artistic and financial letdown, many industry insiders feel that the creation of a movie-going "experience" will ultimately save the day. In short, if they build it, we will come.

"There's no question that [megaplexes] increase moviegoing," says King. "The frequency of people going to the movies in areas where there's a new megaplex is 20-25 percent higher, or even more."

It's not uncommon to see the megaplexes tacked onto ambitious new mall projects, both nationally and certainly locally, as has been the case with the three most recent cinema openings at the Spokane Valley Mall, River Park Square and NorthTown.

"The malls come courting us," says Nunley. "They know that we generate foot traffic. They know that a theater will draw people to it, and they want those people to walk by their stores and be exposed to their mall."

Still, is there cause for concern in terms of glutting an already saturated market?

"We're pretty particular about where we go, because there's been a national trend of overbuilding," Nunley says. "That is true in some markets, but here we've been very responsible in that when we opened this up we've been looking at some of our older facilities and phasing them out. We did recently close Lyons Avenue and East Sprague. And when we open this facility, the North Division Six will close."

Nunley points out that the North Division Cinema is being used as a training ground for the future staff of the NorthTown 12, and that the existing staff at North Division will be absorbed by the new facility. It illustrates another aspect of the new cinematic reality, that theaters need to present themselves as a part of the community, not a huge and impersonal chain. To that end, Regal hosted a benefit for the Spokane Symphony on Wednesday night, is sponsoring a "Popcorn and Pepsi Pep Rally" for local high schools today and tonight, and pairs up with The Inlander for the first two weeks of its grand opening with a free medium popcorn and a free medium drink with every paid admission through Oct. 12. They even proudly display a large reproduction in the lobby of the check from the Spokane Symphony, effectively purchasing the Fox Theater.

"We're really excited about the Fox Theater, that it has a new mission as a venue for the Spokane Symphony," says Nunley. "It had outlasted its days of usefulness as a movie theater, but as a venue for live performing arts, it's the perfect place."

& & & lt;i & The NorthTown 12 opens on Friday, Sept. 29, and will be part of NorthTown's Grand Re-Opening Celebration on Saturday, Sept. 30. Call: 458-8800, ext. 6100. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

Spokane River Clean-Up @ Downtown Spokane

Sat., Sept. 26, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
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