Screening For Success

April 04, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

R/C Theatres Management Corp., a Reisterstown-based movie house chain that has been better known in small Virginia and Pennsylvania towns than in its hometown, is moving back to its roots with the construction of a $3 million 10-screen theater in Eastpoint.

"Where the money is, is in the big markets," said Scott R. Cohen, president of film for the family-owned business. "We were not a company that wanted to come into a major metropolitan market," he said. "Now we are."

The 52,000-square-foot Eastpoint theater complex is being built in two vacant stores in a shopping center on Eastern Boulevard across from the Eastpoint Mall. Dubbed the Eastpoint Movies 10, it will be more than a run-of-the mill suburban multiscreen complex.

"This will be the largest theater in the state," Mr. Cohen said.

One theater in the complex will have a 50-foot-wide screen and several others will have 42-foot-wide screens, he said. Seating, which will total 3,200, will range from 626 seats in one theater to 174 seats in the smallest.

The company decided to build in Eastpoint because of the lack of theaters in the area, Mr. Cohen said. The closest theater is 3 miles away at Golden Ring Mall.

Mr. Cohen said the new theater, which is scheduled to be completed by Thanksgiving, is part of a trend away from the older "shoe box" multiscreen theaters.

"Everybody wants bigger and better," he said. "People don't want to go to small theaters."

At the same time the company is building the Eastpoint theater, it is pursuing a more ambitious $8 million project in Virginia Beach, Va., which will include a 12-screen theater complex, a restaurant, a bookstore and other entertainment-related stores.

"It will be a simulated downtown area," Mr. Cohen said. That project is due to open by Christmas.

The company's expansion is a long way from the theater Mr. Cohen's grandfather, Maurice A. Cohen, opened in 1932 at 248 S. Broadway in Baltimore. The company remained a small operation with eight or nine theaters through the mid-1960s, according to Irwin R. Cohen, chief executive officer of the company and Scott Cohen's father.

In 1966, the company began expanding by acquiring theaters in such small Virginia cities as Clifton Forge, Waynesboro and Staunton.

"They were steppingstones," Irwin Cohen recalled.

Then R/C Theatres bought the Pitts theater chain in 1970, which had 17 movie houses throughout Virginia.

Content with working in the smaller markets, where it was often the only theater in town, the company did not start moving into the metropolitan areas until 1987, when it built an eight-screen complex outside Roanoke, Va. Since then, R/C Theatres has added multiscreen complexes in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

The R/C Theatres -- the R/C used to stand for Regal Cinemas -- is the country's 25th-largest theater chain with 23 complexes and 123 screens in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. It has $15 million in annual revenues and 100 full-time employees and 600 to 800 part-time workers, Scott Cohen said.

Despite the company's size and where it is based, R/C Theaters had only three local units, in Reisterstown, Arbutus and Eldersburg.

The chain is known as a well-managed company that does its homework before building a theater, according to Jerome Gordon, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic division of the National Association of Theater Owners. "They're one of the steadiest of the theater chains," he said.

R/C Theatre's Eastpoint and Virginia Beach projects come on top of record theater attendance last year. "There is optimism, and the bankers are going along with it," Mr. Gordon said.

There were 25,214 screens in the country at the end of 1992. Mr. Gordon said that number increased by about 5 percent or 6 percent last year. At the same time, audiences increased about 8 percent last year from the 964 million that went to the movies the previous year.

This bullishness would seem to fly in the face of increasing videotape rentals and cable television -- which are seen as cutting into theater attendance and causing some theaters to shut down.

But Mr. Gordon said the closed theaters -- mostly with only one screen -- reflect the trend toward multiscreen complexes which offer more choices to consumers and are more economical to operate. "It is very difficult to operate a single-screen theater anymore," he said.

Far from supplanting the theater market, video and cable revenues have pumped more money into the film industry to make more movies, he said. And those films that are blockbusters in the theaters do well in the secondary markets, he said.

Then there is nothing like having the big-screen experience with an audience to share in it, Mr. Gordon said. "There are always going to be those who are going to go out of their houses," he said.

While R/C Theatres is following the trend toward the larger complexes, it remains a family-owned business in an industry dominated by national chains like United Artists, American Multi-Cinema, Cineplex Odeon, Loews and General Cinema. "That's extremely unusual in today's market," Mr. Gordon said.

Despite offers to buy the business, Scott Cohen, 35, said the company is determined to remain independent and to maintain its expansion of about two to three theaters a year.

"This is our livelihood. If we sold off, what would we do?" he said. "This is my future, and there is a lot of money in the movie business."

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