Even on an early mid-week evening, the expansive parking lot of the Tinseltown USA Westchase is half full. Cinemark's 24-screen complex beckons viewers with splashy neon and Mardi Gras colors. Wildly successful by any standard, Westchase has outgrossed the rest of Cinemark's 280 theaters nationally since its marquee lights first came on two years ago.
On the best of days, such as the opening weekend for Varsity Blues, the cinema can expect 11,000 people to pass through the doors. In a year, Tinseltown Westchase draws as many visitors as the Johnson Space Center.
And this Tinseltown is hardly the theater titan. Eight other megaplexes, with anywhere from 18 to 30 screens, have arrived in the Houston area. Five more are under construction or are planned.
Like Godzilla, these bigfoot megamovie houses are consuming nearly all things cinematic in their path. More than a decade ago, multiplex theaters (those with only six or eight screens) had arrived as the new force in Houston. With a popularity rivaling jumbo popcorn's, they drove out the lowly community cinemas, those neighborhood theaters with only one or two screens.
Now, it is the megaplexes' turn to triumph. They are devouring the smaller multiplexes, again reshaping the horizon for Houston moviegoers. The industry is already feeling the impact of the giant chains' new feeding frenzy.
Late last year, American MultiCinema, Cinemark's biggest competition in the megaplex market, quietly purchased all but two of the local General Cinema theaters.
Three General Cinema locations -- Copperfield, Baybrook Mall and West Oaks Center -- were closed. Another two, at Deerbrook Commons and Willowbrook Mall, are threatened by their locations in markets where AMC has or is building 24-screen megaplex cinemas.
AMC plans to close even more of the multiplexes as leases expire, confirms Brenda Nolte, AMC's spokeswoman. Major theater chains are focusing almost exclusively on the megacinemas, for obvious economic reasons.
A single screen in a mega theater draws an average of 200 people daily, compared to 123 daily per screen in the traditional multiplex. Over the course of a year, that adds up to 73,000 viewers instead of 45,000 at the smaller multiplex. With the larger number of screens, the financial difference is even more dramatic.
"What you are looking at presently is an industry in transition," says Nolte, who expects multiplexes to become filmdom fatalities. "The neighborhood cinema is not one that we will promote, obviously because of the numbers."
Film industry analyst Marc Weinstein, associate professor for finance and business economics at the University of Southern California, explains how megaplexes make the most economic sense.
Crowds hankering to see the latest hot films are not turned away because of a sold-out theater, Weinstein says. They just wait half an hour for the next show to start on another of the megaplex screens. Tinseltown Westchase, for example, will have six of its screens devoted exclusively to the expected blockbuster Star Wars: Episode I when it opens in May.
When the demand for a film begins cooling, the megaplex can transfer it to a smaller screening room of perhaps 140 seats, opening up the 600-seat auditoriums for the next big draw from Hollywood, Weinstein says.
And as those close to movies admit, the megaplex brings its own kind of Darwinian law to the industry.
Big chains typically get the most sought-after releases, which generally end up in the chains' larger houses because film companies demand high grosses. That means fewer big attractions for the smaller multiplexes.
Dollar cinemas, those low-priced final stops before films turn into videos, are also in dire straits from the explosion of the megamonster theaters. The larger complexes now have the option to keep the films in-house and to discount tickets, thereby short-circuiting the dollar cinemas.
Megaplexes also mount their takeover wars with the newest in amenities: improved audio systems, seating comfort and surroundings.
"Older theaters are simply not up to the technological levels of our new theaters, and it's becoming more difficult to retrofit them to bring them up to those standards," says Marc Pascucci, senior vice president of marketing for Loews Cineplex Entertainment in New York City. "You certainly don't want to build [multiplexes] against those kinds of theaters."
The cinema building boom is heard most loudly in Texas. Industry insiders say Dallas and Houston are on the forefront of the megaplex invasion, in part because of their sprawling suburbs and relatively cheap land. Cinemark has built three of the multimillion-dollar Tinseltown complexes. AMC has built four. Loews built one at the Fountains. Another five are under construction, including two dueling megaplexes in Katy.
Al Guggenheim, whose family operated Houston neighborhood theaters in their heyday, appreciates the historical context of the megaplexes now feasting on the fading multiplex cinemas.
His office is lined with autographed publicity shots of dozens of screen stars who in earlier decades passed through his family's theaters, which included the Yale and the Broadway in the early days and the Majestic, Brazos Twin and Long Point in later years.
This was the Golden Age of cinema, when the announcement that a young Peter Fonda, Annette O'Toole or Clint Eastwood was in town to promote the latest release would draw thousands to the movie theater. Every showing was a double feature, the ushers didn't mind putting on a costume to promote Planet of the Apes, and lesser-known stars still made personal appearances in packed movie houses to meet and greet fans.
With each new release, façades of the Yale and the Broadway were repainted and recreated with papier-máche sculptures and hand-painted artwork. Once, the Yale became a fort. Ben-Hur brought chariots. Buzzers planted under the seats during Vincent Price's The Tingler gave moviegoers a shock at appropriate points during the movie.
Guggenheim's father, the late Alvin Guggenheim Sr., operated neighborhood cinemas in Houston and across the state. They included the Brazos Twin Drive-Inn and the first black cinema in town, the Lincoln, which became the Majestic.
It is hard for Al Guggenheim, who plans promotional events for film distributors, to imagine how a movie theater with one or two screens could compete against the major theater chains today. The Yale was demolished for Heights Bank. The Broadway was pulled down for a freeway. And the Long Point is a shabby, struggling dollar cinema a few blocks from Guggenheim's office.
"There's no place for independent operators in this market. The megachains control just about everything," Guggenheim says. "You might make a living as a mom-and-pop operator, but only if you were the only one in a small town."
Guggenheim blames the tremendous growth of video rentals and cable television for the industry's shift to the bigger-is-better concept. It has also translated into younger theater audiences; older patrons are just as likely to sit at home with the remote control.
"There aren't any second-run movies anymore," Guggenheim says. "Once, the movies went to first-run houses and then second-run houses. Now it goes from first-run houses straight to video. And the runs are shorter, too. We had a time when movies would run 13 or 14 weeks; now, if it doesn't make it, it runs for a week or two and goes straight to video."
One film industry critic has dubbed megaplexes "the Wal-Mart of the movie industry."
Al Zarzana owned a chain of Spanish-language theaters in Houston and opened the first dollar cinema in the city back in the '70s. He said movie distributors drive hard contracts: big cuts of the early box office and guaranteed multiweek runs. That was especially tough on the single-screen owner and one of the main reasons multiplexes evolved.
"If you had one screen and you booked a film and it was a bomb, you were stuck with it for three or four weeks," says Zarzana, who retired in 1995. "If you pulled it, you had to pay off the contract. It was hard to make a profit, even on a moderate hit."
Neighborhood theaters at least established a sense of loyalty among patrons that the megaplexes can only dream about.
A decade ago, the Garden Oaks Civic Club rallied hard to try to save Zarzana's Garden Oaks Cinema. But the theater owner sat down with the civic group and explained the losing financial projections.
They were left with only memories of Saturday mornings spent in the neighborhood theater. "Economics aside, I think the neighborhood theater really identified neighborhood areas," says Susan McMillian, who led the fight for Garden Oaks. "The neighborhood theaters were comfortable. They had some personality. They didn't look like every other theater."
However, the comfort and convenience of the huge film complexes are enough to entice most suburban moviegoers. Copperfield resident Kathy Pollock says she will miss the smaller General Cinema, where she could be in her seat only five minutes after leaving her house. But neighbors Phil and Cindy Swift bypassed that option for the 20-minute drive to the Tinseltown 290 megaplex. They like everything about the megaplex: the seats, the sound and the selection.
"I just wish they'd build one out here," Phil Swift says.
While most megaplexes are on the outer reaches of the suburbs, their impact could ripple back into the central core of Houston, where the art-house cinemas have survived on smaller venues.
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Sarah Gish, manager of Landmark Theatres in Houston, says art houses can no longer rely on the extended runs for films which could be sustained by word-of-mouth interest. Now the megachains are grabbing off independent films, which robs the art cinemas of longer runs for those films.
Another art lost to megaplexes is that of film selections, says vice president Doug Freed, the film buyer for Landmark Theatres. Bigger chains with more screens can take a shotgun approach to selections because the many available screens in a megaplex allow winners to offset the losers.
Still, Freed is doubtful the market is there for so many megaplex theaters.
"I think there's a lot of overbuilding," Freed says. "I don't know what the movie screens per capita is, but there are a lot of big movie theaters. I think Houston is becoming an overscreened city, and there's not enough movie product to go around."
However, industry analyst Weinstein says that the curtain is coming down on the era of neighborhood cinema, whether multiplex or single screen. "These megaplexes are going to win out because the economics make more sense in the long run.