The movies, 14 screens of them, coming soon to Mall in Columbia

Added attraction expected to boost restaurant business

January 09, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A 14-screen state-of-the-art movie theater will open at The Mall in Columbia later this year, Rouse Co. officials announced yesterday.

The AMC theater complex is to be built at the mall's entertainment plaza - an area at the rear of the mall with free-standing restaurants, an L.L. Bean store and a temporary ice rink that opened just before Christmas. The 63,000-square-foot theater, which could open as early as November, would become only the second movie theater in the county.

The announcement comes years later than Rouse officials would have liked. Rouse, which owns the mall, had planned for a theater several years ago when it developed the concept for the entertainment plaza, and the mall negotiated in 1999 and 2000 with General Cinema Theaters Inc. and Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. to bring theaters to the retail hub.

But negotiations fell through as theater chains nationwide were suffering from a glut of movie houses on the market, both of underperforming older theaters and new stadium-seating megaplexes with up to 30 screens.

By 2000, several of the major theater companies had declared bankruptcy, including both the companies with which mall officials had been dealing.

Now that the companies have gone through restructuring, the movie theater industry nationwide is stronger than it was two years ago, but yesterday's announcement does not signal a return to the aggressive growth strategies that theater companies once employed, industry experts said.

Kevin M. Kuzio, a media and entertainment analyst with KDP Investment Advisors Inc., said the move was likely a calculated one on the part of AMC - one of the theater companies not to declare bankruptcy.

Kuzio said the market nationally will be marked by more consolidation and closures of underperforming screens this year, but development will be rare.

"In places where it makes sense, there will be smart new development, and that sounds like maybe what Columbia is," Kuzio said. Theater companies "need to be careful not to get back into this excess capacity."

But AMC came through the industry's crisis as a strong player in the market, Kuzio said, and likely sees the location as one where it can easily compete. United Artists' Snowden Square 14 has been the county's only theater since 2001 after the closings of Loews Palace 9 off Route 108 and the General Cinema III, Columbia's original theater on the lakefront.

Muvico Egyptian 24 Theater at Arundel Mills in neighboring Anne Arundel County is competition, but the Columbia mall is a shorter drive for most of Howard's residents.

"They have a lot of opportunities, and they have capital. If they're building, my guess is they think it'll be a good opportunity for them financially," Kuzio said.

A new theater could also be a boost for the plaza, where restaurateurs have been struggling.

Stanley Eichelbaum, president of Ohio-based Marketing Developments Inc., a retail and entertainment research and development advisory firm, said a theater is a key component in an entertainment complex because it attracts more people.

"It will make it more of a daytime and late-into-the-evening destination now," he said. "The theaters are highly beneficial to fortifying the restaurants. They are one contributor. Mall traffic alone will not support better restaurants, but theaters in malls have many times been sufficient support."

Jamie Welsh, general manager of Champps Americana, said the theater most likely will help a lot.

"We would expect it's going to bring more people into the back side, and more people in the evening," he said.

"In this restaurant, it's all about lunch and dinner. We don't have a lot of business after 10 p.m."

Rouse was in negotiations with AMC Entertainment Inc. for about six months, said Karen Geary, manager of the mall, who added that the theater will be a good fit for the plaza.

"It certainly is going to provide another venue of entertainment and keep people in the downtown area," she said. "It's been on the community want list as well as the Rouse Co. want list for quite a long time. Everyone agreed right out of the gate that it was a perfect fit in terms of bringing a quality product and addressing the need for this type of entertainment environment for the consumer and the market."

AMC spokesman Richard J. King said the company will open approximately 100 screens nationwide this year, and the Columbia theater is part of the company's slow expansion plans. AMC has 3,532 screens at 240 theaters worldwide, including 2,000 screens built since 1995.

"AMC's expansion strategy is to pursue premiere locations in major markets. Certainly The Mall in Columbia is a premiere property, so it's a great fit," King said. "We have continued selectively building new theater locations, not withstanding the bankruptcy problems that have plagued other companies. We're confident it will be an audience favorite."

The new theater will have stadium seating, larger chairs with armrests that lift, digital sound and an automated box office for advance ticket pickup.

Mall officials have already graded the site along the mall ring road just north of Champps Americana restaurant. King said he expects the company will submit building plans for the theater "very shortly."

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