Movie theater fit for a king

Debut: With the help of a famous hobbit, a new 14-screen "megaplex" opens in Columbia.

December 18, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Jesse Wieman and Chris Masciocchi became part of Columbia's movie history yesterday.

The friends took in the first showing of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at the grand opening of the town's newest movie theater, AMC Theatres Columbia 14 at The Mall in Columbia.

Wieman, 19, and Masciocchi, 20, both of Columbia had planned for more than a year to watch hobbit Frodo on his journey through Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring in the final movie of the film trilogy. After picking up their tickets about 11 a.m. -- they had ordered them online -- they awaited the first showing at 12:25 p.m.

"Yeah, [we're] big nerds," Wieman said. "Sorry."

The 65,000-square-foot theater in the Plaza at the mall opened to coincide with the debut of The Return of the King, the conclusion to the J.R.R. Tolkien story, which draws hordes of dedicated fans.

"We normally don't open on a Wednesday," said William Melendy, AMC's national adverting manager. "We specifically opened today because of The Lord of the Rings."

AMC spokesman Rick King called the 14-screen theater AMC's "newest generation of megaplex theaters" with amenities including digital surround sound, loveseat-style seating and stadium seating with 18-inch risers.

"We found a way to re-engineer the theater so every row in the theater can be on a riser, because we found out that's what people like," he said.

Wieman and Masciocchi, who were on winter break from college, were excited to try the new theater "before all the gum on the floor or the sticky seats," Wieman said.

Years ago, the Rouse Co., which owns the mall, had planned for a theater as part of the entertainment plaza's concept. In 1999 and 2000, Rouse negotiated with General Cinema Theaters Inc. and Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. about opening a theater at the mall. Those plans fell through as a weak economy hurt the theater business.

Karen Geary, manager of the mall, said the AMC theater will be "a fabulous addition," completing a long-desired plan to add more entertainment to the Plaza, which consists of three free-standing restaurants and an L.L. Bean store at the rear of the mall.

King said the theater is an example of the new kinds of locations that AMC is pursuing -- regional malls that have traffic patterns and offer customers an opportunity to patronize other businesses. AMC operates 230 theaters with 3,485 screens worldwide, including Canada, Hong Kong and France.

"We know from our experience that moviegoers like to make movies a social experience," King said. "They like to find something to do before or after a movie."

Geary expects the theater to bring more business to the Plaza's restaurants, Champps Americana, Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill and P.F. Chang's China Bistro.

"You have the opportunity to get a bite to eat, take in a movie and do some shopping," she said. "I think it's a great mutual benefit to everyone."

Other projects in Columbia's downtown include three residential complexes built recently and the Governor's Grant townhouse project, which is being constructed near the mall. It will contain 127 homes with prices starting at about $300,000.

A four- to five-story condominium complex near Lake Kittamaqundi is to be completed by Ryland Homes by late next year. Also near the lakefront, a high-rise has been proposed that could contain 18 to 22 stories with condominiums and 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

Rouse is attempting to bring more residents to Town Center. It petitioned the county to add 1,600 residential units to the 60-acre, crescent-shaped property behind Symphony Woods. Rouse hopes the additional residents would create an active nightlife in Columbia's downtown, which would be aided by the new theater.

After the holidays, King said, the theater will show independent films of the kind usually featured in art cinemas to determine whether an audience exists for them.

"We will make the effort," he said. "Hopefully, we'll program what people will want to see, and we hope people will want to see that."

The AMC opening doubles the number of theaters in the county.

For two years, the county had one movie complex, United Artists' Snowden Square 14, after the closing of Loews Palace 9 off Route 108. Columbia's original theater, General Cinema III, closed in 2000.

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