Fading to black

Closing: Another discount theater bows to competition from the megaplexes.

January 07, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

As the lights dim for the evening movie at Jumpers Cinema in Pasadena, five moviegoers spread out across a sea of empty purple seats to wait for what could be their last movie in the gaudy orange and green theater before it closes for good.

The Jan. 21 closing of Jumpers Cinema will mark more than the loss of one theater in an unremarkable strip mall. Jumpers Cinema is one of the last discount theaters in the Baltimore region, and when it shuts its doors, a piece of Americana will disappear with it.

Second-run discount theaters, beloved by budget-conscious families and teen-agers, are being squeezed nationwide by the new Hollywood practice of releasing movies with a bang in first-run theaters, then ushering them only weeks later to video and pay-per-view channels. Some movie rentals recently have even overlapped showings at discount theaters.

At new megaplexes in White Marsh, Columbia and Linthicum, owners are finding that to bring in a crowd they don't have to entice people with cheap $1 movies -- they can enthrall them with technology and charge eight times as much.

Hollywood has come full circle: from grand theaters with gigantic screens at the turn of the century, to neighborhood corners, to chain suburban strip malls, to discount theaters, and back again to high-tech megaplexes.

"What's happening, in general, is that so much of movie marketing is front-loaded to the first couple of weeks. Everything is geared toward the opening in the big theaters," said Marc Pascucci, vice president of marketing for Loews Cineplex Entertainment. One of the nation's largest movie chains, it is closing its last 10 discount theaters across the country -- including the one in Pasadena -- as their building leases run out.

"In order to operate in a discount situation, you have to charge two or three dollars," he said. "Well, videos cost two or three dollars."

To distance itself from those videos and TV channels, the high-end theater industry has had to come up with a new product -- bigger screens, colored lighting, flashy billboards and loud, digital, fully equipped surround sound.

Discount theaters can't afford such luxuries, and with the economy strong, even cheap seats aren't bringing them in like they used to.

Some discount theater owners complain that with Hollywood advertising only for the opening, people forget what the movies are by the time they reach the discount cinemas.

"People used to not be able to tell the difference between regular theaters and discount theaters," said Steve Holmes, chief executive officer of Silver Cinemas Inc., one of the nation's largest discount theater chains. "But now they have these stadium theaters with incredible sound, and people are going for it. It's the reinventing of movie theaters nationwide."

For some people, though, the usuals, who drive up on weeknights to visit Jumpers Cinema, park 10 feet from the door andbring homemade popcorn, the 1970s decor and seats that lost their cushioning long ago are what real movie watching is all about.

`Regular people'

"At the newer theaters, the colors are brighter," said Gene Slocum, one of the five patrons, as he sought out the perfect seat from among 200 to watch "The Siege," which is about to be released on video.

"Here the billboards on the walls look like the ones in your bedroom, but the people that come here, they're the regular people. People that get tired of cable or videos, and of the huge crowds at the big theaters. And at $1.75 a movie, this is the best deal in town."

Jumpers Cinema opened in 1973, when residents began leaving drive-ins in favor of suburban theaters that turned into teen-agers' hangouts. But by the mid-1980s, as the orange walls began to fade and patrons began heading to newer theaters with neon lighting inside malls, Jumpers, like dozens of other theaters, turned discount. The Northpoint Plaza 4 in Dundalk, which followed suit, closed last summer.

By the early 1990s, even with the heavy ticket discount, the crowds had disappeared. Two theaters in Bel Air and one in Reisterstown Road Plaza are the area's only remaining discount theaters.

Charles Hill, manager of Premier Cinemas in the Reisterstown Road Plaza, said they're following the same pattern as other theaters, just a little behind schedule. Six months ago they became a discount theater, but they are hoping that with all the competition dropping out they can make it work.

"Once they built the megaplex at White Marsh, that theater set the tone for theaters all over Baltimore," Hill said. "Theaters that charge $7 or more have to have digital sound, stadium seating, like a premier. When we charged $6.25, people said, `I can pay 75 cents more and get all that.' "

News of the closing made some patrons on a recent night at Jumpers Mall nostalgic for the years they spent there on dates or laughing with their children. For all the flash of the new theaters, they said, the one thing the discount theaters always offered was the promise that all could afford a show.

"I would like to see someone take a drive-in theater and make it a historical landmark," Steve Schottroff said on his way into the theater. "And maybe we should save a few of these theaters, too, just so others can see how the regular people lived."

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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