The movie theater business has become a competitive sport -- and the smaller theaters are losing.
Driving this change is the newest trend in the industry -- the "megaplex," a plush theater with 14 to 30 auditoriums featuring wide screens; rocking, stadium-style seats; and state-of-the-art sound and projection systems.
At the newly opened Regal Cinemas' Bel Air 14 theater -- Maryland's only version of the phenomenon -- there's more. A cafe in a neon-splashed lobby sells espresso, cappuccino and freshly baked cookies. There's a video arcade and one screen that shows nothing but previews.
You can even use a credit card to buy tickets.
Since Regal opened two weeks ago, it has already suffocated two nearby older and smaller multiplex theaters and has quickened the death of another.
The Sony-operated Harford Mall 2 will not renew its lease in February, officials said. User.Attendance at the Beards Hill 7 and Tollgate Movies 7 has dropped 50 percent, said their owner, Bob Wienholt, president of Silver Screen Cinema.
"These big companies from out of state come in and build the Taj Mahal of theaters and it's squeezing the little guy," said Wienholt, who owns two theaters in Baltimore County.
"My business is in the dumpers now," he said.
Phil Zacheretti, spokesman for the Tennessee-based Regal Cinemas, said: "No theater goes into a community trying to put another out of business or hurt them in any way.
"The older, more tired theaters tend to close down when a megaplex moves in. People want nicer facilities."
And there are more to come.
About a half-dozen theaters are planned or under construction in the Baltimore metropolitan area that would have 14 to 20 screens. Two of the area's largest theaters -- with 20 screens -- are planned for Owings Mills and Elkridge.
But there is another downside, such as a potential rise in ticket prices, said Bishop Cheen, an analyst who follows the movie theater industry for First Union Capital Markets in Charlotte, N.C.
"We expect audiences to respond favorably to megaplexes, but conventional wisdom says theater owners will eventually pass along the cost of building them to the consumer," Cheen said, adding that it costs between $10 million and $30 million to build the structure.
To reclaim patrons, Silver Screen Cinema has lowered admission prices at its theaters in Harford County, Wienholt said.
He's expecting his Beltway Movies 6, which opened in March in Fullerton, to take a hit when a 16-screen, 3,800-seat Loews theater opens in White Marsh in November.
"I guess building a six-plex is a little outdated," Wienholt said. "I'll look into turning it into a discount theater."
Paul Wegner, vice president of Premier Cinemas in Baltimore, said he won't roll over and die.
In addition to its five-screen, first-run theater on Reisterstown Road and a discount house on Liberty Road, Premier plans to build a 12-screen theater in Baltimore County dedicated to second-run films.
Filling a void
It's not a megaplex, but quite large for a discount theater, he said.
"We're a smaller company and we look at filling the void," Wegner said. "There's always a threat of the bigger boys coming in and crushing us. So we'll try something different."
The company is also in discussion with Reisterstown Road Plaza to expand its five screens to 12, with four additional screens dedicated to second-run films, he said. A recent fire at the strip mall did not stall those discussions, he said.
"Small theaters all over will become victims of circumstance," he said. "They will have to shut down."
And it may be unavoidable, said Scott R. Cohen, president of R/C Theaters in Reisterstown, which owns Eastpoint Movies 10, and president of the Maryland office of the National Association of Theater Owners.
"There has been an explosion of megaplexes around the world, and the Baltimore area hasn't kept pace," said Cohen, who is developing a 20-screen theater with stadium seating in Owings Mills. The $15 million project is scheduled to open in 1999, he said.
There's so much growth because Maryland is cluttered with obsolete theaters, said Cohen, who adds that they generally have a 30-year life expectancy -- a theory supported by the closing of the Westview Cinemas on U.S. 40 in May after 32 years.
"The theaters that were designed in the '70s and built in the '80s are old-fashioned and not very nice," Cohen said. "People now want newer, bigger and better."
But there is the threat that operators will try to crowd too many screens into too small an area, said Cheen, the movie theater analyst. "There are but so many eyeballs to go around."
It's a fear the Sony/Loews Corp. has already confronted.
"It's no secret that megaplexes are the wave of the future. You might see a shaking down and a weeding out of older theaters," said Marc Pascucci, a company spokesman. "It's more efficient to run more screens under one roof."