Loews changes the big picture in building new movie centers White Marsh complex is Sony unit's first in Baltimore region


December 19, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

For anyone venturing out on Christmas to watch Hollywood's sinking of the Titanic, Michael P. Norris wants you to feel almost like you never left home.

The Loews Theatres executive vice president hopes to meet that challenge with the Christmas Day opening of a 16-screen "megaplex" theater in White Marsh, among a new breed of movie theater around the country and the first for Loews in Maryland.

Norris is counting on Loews White Marsh Theatre having enough of the comforts of home -- high-backed, rocking chairs with built-in cup holders and clear views from stadium seating -- to draw regular movie-goers as well as regular couch potatoes away from their VCRs.

But he's also counting on the spectacle of huge screens, surround-sound and a grand atrium, art-deco lobby to lure more than 1 million people a year to the 86,000-square-foot centerpiece of the Avenue at White Marsh.

"When you can sit home in the comfort of a large chair and experience movies, we've got to provide an incredible experience for people to want to go," said Norris, touring the unfinished theater as construction workers carried in screens and put the finishing touches on the concession stand.

With 4,000 seats, screens as wide as 53 feet, digital sound systems and an indoor box office, the White Marsh complex appears to be the future of movie theaters. Sixteen auditoriums seat a range of 100 to 500, allowing showings of independent films in more intimate space as well as blockbusters that draw bigger crowds. Generally "megaplex" refers to any theater with more than 14 screens.

It's the only kind Norris says his company intends to build in the next few years. The Baltimore area -- which he says is behind the megaplex curve -- can expect "another couple in this area next year," from Loews, a division of Sony Retail Entertainment that is in the midst of changing its theater names from Sony to what it believes is recognized as a more traditional movie theater label. He declined to say where Loews would put the new theaters.

As Norris sees it, the public's appetite for going out to movies has grown -- especially as the video rental business has created a second market for movies and prompted an increase in the number of films produced.

But the public also has higher expectations of theater operators, he said.

"Our theaters in the '70s were not the best in the world," Norris said. They were often in buildings that had been converted from other uses and carved into small spaces, typically without state-of-the-art sound.

"It didn't have to be 100 percent quality or service," he said. "If a movie came out, you would go to the movie theater."

That changed with the advent of the video rental business. Now, by focusing more on comfort and advanced technology, "the market is increasingly getting the average persons to go once or twice a year more often, even people who gave up going to the movies," Norris said

Loews is certainly not the first to get in on the huge-screen,

mega-auditorium act.

Three years ago, in the middle of construction for Eastpoint Movies 10, RC Theaters Management Corp. revised its design to incorporate some stadium seating as the craze began taking hold.

"When Eastpoint was designed, I knew we were slightly off the beaten path, but that people would drive farther," for amenities such as huge screens, rocking chairs, digital sound and cup holders, said Scott R. Cohen, president of the family-owned chain, which also hopes to build a 5,500-seat, 20-screen megaplex in Owings Mills this spring.

Since Eastpoint opened, Regal Cinemas' Bel Air 14 theater came on the scene last summer. And United Artists will open a 14-screen, all-stadium seating theater in Snowden Square Shopping Center in Columbia today, with seating for 3,000.

The megaplex trend got its start about three years ago, after AMC Entertainment Inc. built the first one in Dallas.

"It seems to have caught on pretty well in terms of defining how the new stock of theaters are going to be built," said Kevin M. Kuzio, an analyst who follows the movie theater industry for Vermont-based KDP Investment Advisors.

In part, theater chains are building larger and larger numbers of screens per theater in an attempt to spread fixed costs over greater numbers of ticket buyers. A megaplex theater can cost about $540,000 per screen to build, he said.

But the trend is also about satisfying demand.

With a greater number of screens at one theater, "going to the movies can all of a sudden become a spur of the moment arrangement," Kuzio said. "You meet there and then decide what you go see."

Megaplex theaters often fit well into newly designed, entertainment-oriented retail complexes, he said. Instead of being tacked onto a strip shopping center and drawing from its traffic, megaplexes often serve as anchors themselves.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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