Movie House Madness

Houston's Megaplex Theaters are building up for the ultimate battle-Overbuilding, in fact

The cinematic epic Scream 3 is not going to make anyone's Top 10 films list, unless you include the computer one-handers who express their undying devotion on the newsgroup.

So what does it mean that on February 18, 2000, a Houstonian who wanted to catch the flick had the choice of seeing it at any one of an astounding 53 different screens around town?

Does it mean that Houston is easily entertained? Maybe.

The Edwards Cinema on a Saturday night: A sign of more movie screens and more options for Houston film fans.
The Edwards Cinema on a Saturday night: A sign of more movie screens and more options for Houston film fans.
Edwards Cinemas entered the Houston market in a big way last year.
Deron Neblett
Edwards Cinemas entered the Houston market in a big way last year.

Does it mean that Houston has too many movie screens, all showing the same uninspired lineup of Hollywood major releases? Probably.

Does it mean that the companies that build and operate movie theaters -- companies that are bleeding money and whose stocks are nose-diving -- might just wake up and realize they have engaged in an overbuilding frenzy that can get only uglier?

No way. In the world of movie-theater chains, it's always the other guy that's overbuilding. Your brand-new megaplex, on the other hand, is an example of strategically filling a little-noticed gap in the market.

Houston, in many ways, is ground zero for the reckless battle of attrition that is intensifying among the nation's theater chains. Moviegoers in few other places have the choice of so many new facilities -- all inevitably described as "state of the art," all equipped with stadium seating and improved concessions -- with more on the way.

In the front lines of this battle, a ten-year-old facility like the 12-screen River Oaks Plaza is a doomed dinosaur. It may be convenient, but come on: It's a "sloped-floor" theater, not a stadium setup, and the lobby is decidedly uninspired, if you're one of those people who seeks inspiration from movie-theater lobbies.

Who's gonna bother to see a movie there when a couple of miles away there's the 24-screen Edwards Cinema, which, according to its Web site, is "A Modern Marvel of Cinematic Splendor," featuring imported marble and a huge mural of Hollywood's greatest stars?

"Houston probably has more state-of-the-art screens than any city in the country," says Mark Pascucci, senior vice president of marketing for Loews Cineplex. "Houston is ahead of the curve, and those kind of screens are the only ones doing business."

In a few years it may be impossible to go to a mainstream movie in Houston without going to a huge "entertainment complex" that will offer countless ways for you to spend your money beyond popcorn and Robin Williams. The ante will be upped repeatedly: Already theaters in some cities offer "VIP rooms," with ever-more-comfortable chairs and personal food and beverage service.

Not every theater chain is going to survive. But right now the only strategy each can think of is to build its way out of its problems. And few cities symbolize the trend more than Houston.

At times it's difficult to remember, but the Age of Theater Megaplexes is no more than five years old. AMC Theatres startled the movie world in 1995 when it opened a 24-screen complex in Dallas (each chain has a different definition for what constitutes a "megaplex" as opposed to a "multiplex," but generally more than 20 screens means megaplex).

The AMC Grand 24 was an instant hit. Moviegoers loved the concept: If a movie was sold out, it probably was starting on a different screen in a half hour. Stadium seating largely eliminated the problem of being blocked by the tall guy in the row ahead of you, and the chairs became models of ergonomic comfort.

Theater chain executives, of course, loved the idea of attracting larger and larger crowds to a single property. Before long, a theater-building frenzy was in full swing.

Nationwide there were 26,700 movie screens in 1994; now there are 37,200, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. In Texas the numbers leaped from 2,000 in 1994 to 2,900 now. NATO doesn't keep figures for individual cities, but the number of screens showing first-run, mainstream movies in the Houston area is now about 430, almost double the count of five years ago.

Why the boom in Houston? Land is relatively cheap and available here, of course; it's easier to find a Houston shopping mall that could use a multiplex than it is finding enough space for one in Manhattan or San Francisco. The population is spread out here, too; there are lots of individual markets like The Woodlands or Katy or Fort Bend County that can support a megaplex.

And Houstonians, of course, have always been lovers of the new. Slap a "state of the art" sign on a new theater, and they'll happily drive by two older facilities to get to it.

"Amenities make a big difference, and people like theaters that are clean, easy to use and have a variety of choices of movies and times," says AMC spokesperson Brenda Nolte.

Bigger-is-better became the watchword. AMC's Studio 30, on Dunvale near Westheimer, and the Gulf Pointe 30 south of town are as large as any theaters in the country.

An industry rule of thumb says it costs about $1 million per screen to build the new facilities that are going up. That can vary widely depending on location, of course, but being new doesn't come cheap -- if it's not the elaborate lobbies, it's the elevators and extra exits that stadium seating, as opposed to sloped-floor seating, needs to meet fire codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The cost of building one of these new palaces can be four times what it would cost to put up a traditional theater.

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