14 screens at megaplex steal show 3,000-seat complex at Snowden Square opens in Columbia

'Into the 21st century'

Momentum to build similar facilities growing in state

December 21, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

This weekend's opening of a 14-screen, all-stadium seating movie theater at Columbia's Snowden Square Shopping Center marked a major step in the megaplexing of the area's film experience.

"This is going to be the theater in the area," said William Hunt, a manager at the United Artists Theatre.

"It's huge, bright and there's not a bad seat anywhere. It's going to get people hooked. This theater brings you into the 21st century of theaters," Hunt said.

The response to Friday night's grand opening seemed to confirm Hunt's view.

United Artist officials said some people got in line an hour before the first show started. By 7 p.m., an estimated 200 moviegoers stood outside the box office to get into the 3,000-seat movie complex.

"People just keep coming and coming," said Debra Pearson, a manager at the theater. "This is going to be one of our biggest-grossing theaters on the East Coast."

Huge spotlights flashed across the swarm of vehicles that circled the parking lot for a spot. Once they parked, many moviegoers waited 10 to 20 minutes just to get to the box office. Once inside the 58,000-square-foot complex, many stood in awe.

In the complex's bright purple, yellow and green lobby with a glass ceiling and green neon lights, previews of movies flashed across four 50-inch screens to those waiting in line to get pizza, pretzel bits and ice cream from the 14-station concession stands.

Eventually, they made their way to one of the theaters, which seat 169 to 444.

"I'd seen this style of theater in California, and I was excited to see it come here to Columbia," said Roger Lowry, 34, of Annapolis as he watched previews in the lobby. "I wanted to come check it out."

The rage to build megaplex theaters with the latest sound systems, high-backed rocking chairs with built-in cup holders and tiered seats, or stadium-styled seating, that allow moviegoers to sit 14 to 18 inches higher than those in front of them, has quickly spread across Maryland.

Almost every theater built in the future, industry experts say, will feature stadium-styled seating.

"The old theaters are outdated and tired," said Nicholas Lazorcheck, a United Artists manager. "This [stadium-style seating] is the new rage."

Loew's Theatres opens a 16-screen stadium-seating complex Christmas Day in White Marsh in Baltimore County that is expected to draw more than 1 million people a year to the 86,000-square-foot center.

Three years ago, R/C Theatres Management Corp. built a 600-seat stadium-style auditorium for one of its screens at Eastpoint Movies 10. Since then, Regal Cinemas' Bel Air 14 theater opened eight theaters with the raised seating.

Though Snowden Square is the area's first all-stadium-seating megaplex, with the White Marsh facility hot on its heels, there are at least four other such megaplexes on the drawing boards -- coming over the next three years to Owings Mills, Hunt Valley and near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Movie industry experts predict that the surround sound, big screen and clear views of the megaplexes will hook moviegoers tired of the shoe-box-size theaters that hit malls and retail hubs in the 1980s, before video rentals offered movies on small screens at home.

"Customers see it as the hot ticket for entertainment," said Scott R. Cohen, president of the Maryland office of the National Association of Theater Owners. "It's like Camden Yards, where people flock to it."

The 14-screen United Artist complex more than doubles the number of movie screens in Columbia, which is considered underserved with theaters.

Some say the 85,000 residents who live in the planned city could support another theater, but the opening of the new megaplex makes its two local competitors -- General Cinemas in Columbia's Town Center and Columbia Palace 9 off Route 108 -- a bit fearful.

"We've been the only place in town for so long. This is going to be uncharted territory," said manager Mike Kahn at Columbia Palace 9.

"There's no doubt a theater of that size is going to affect us," said Joe Linville, manager of the General Cinema theater in Town Center, which has three screens. "We're dinosaurs" compared with United Artists' theater, he said.

One movie industry expert calls it "the Gucci line" of movie theaters.

At the new megaplex, the bright lights, bright colors and four big screens showing coming attractions make the complex as much a part of the movie experience as the film itself.

Friday, Darrell Wicker, 40, of Columbia said he and his two children had waited for years for a large, stadium-style theater to come to Columbia.

"We'd drive to the Hechinger's and just watched it go up [nearby]," Wicker said, as he balanced a tub of popcorn and three sodas.

"We couldn't wait for it to open. It's got 14 films going, great sound. It's huge."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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