Now playing: megaplex theaters Movie trends: Improved film experience pleases moviegoers, challenges competition.

December 26, 1997

BALTIMORE AREA film buffs will have to get used to the word "megaplex." The Christmas Day opening of the 16-screen Loew's Theatres in White Marsh gave the region its third film-entertainment venue that fits that category.

Some theater operators rigidly define megaplexes as places with at least 16 screens. Of course, that's semantic nonsense. When you get beyond eight or nine screens in a movie house -- in some U.S. communities there are as many as 30 screens at one location -- you're talking mega.

The Regal Cinemas' Bel Air 14 in Harford County and 14-screen United Artist Theatre that opened last week in Columbia are changing the way we watch feature films. Just when movie-viewing seemed ideal on the small screen, thanks to VCRs (and now DVDs -- digital versatile disks), the big screen has come roaring back -- literally, with beefed-up sound.

In some ways, the megaplexes are a throwback to the grand movie houses with arching "now playing" marquees. The new generation is not quite the five-story tall IMAX, but the screens feature larger-than-life images.

The 58,000-square-foot United Artist Theatre in east Columbia's Snowden Square Shopping Center seats 3,000 moviegoers. Its largest auditorium seats 444. In addition, the lobby has four 50-inch screens showing previews, and the concession stand has 14 stations.

These new theaters also have "stadium seating," which is good news for every small child and many other people who hope that some tall person or someone with big hair doesn't occupy the seat in front of them. These theaters try to make fantasy seem real with "surround sound" systems. The goal is to make viewers feel like they are on the Titanic as it sinks.

While megaplexes may be Christmas presents to moviegoers, competitors are not so merry. Smaller theaters still may prosper because of convenience. But some may have to resort to free popcorn days or reposition themselves as second-run movie houses. Eastpoint Movies 10 in Baltimore County, which introduced stadium seating to the area, may install a second such auditorium to compete.

This step up in theater innovation gives viewers a better look, but it brings the somewhat dated multiplexes a bigger challenge.

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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