A Loew(s) Blow

Two high-profile Houston movie theaters have closed, victims of the desperate battle between overspending movie-megaplex owners.

The Loews River Oaks 12, which was hailed at its opening ten years ago as the first inside-the-Loop cinema in a decade, permanently shut its doors February 28. Two weeks earlier, Loews' Cineplex Odeon theater near Augusta and Westheimer had closed after a dozen years.

Also shuttered are Loews theaters near the Memorial City and West Oak malls.

"We've closed these because they are underperforming due to competition in the marketplace and declining attendance," says Loews spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.

All the closed theaters are old-fashioned sloped-floor setups, a form that chain owners are phasing out in favor of the more popular stadium-seating cinemas springing up all over Houston and the country. (See "Battle of the Megaplex Monsters," by Richard Connelly, March 2, 2000.)

Theater-chain owners have been spending themselves into bankruptcy building the newer theaters, and Loews is no exception. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection in February, partly to get out of leases and other obligations. A half-dozen other chains have filed for bankruptcy in the past year.

Loews is closing about two dozen theaters in the United States, leaving it with about 340 across the country. Four Loews theaters in Houston will remain open for now, including the Magic Johnson Theater at Northline Mall. However, Loews officials haven't ruled out further closings later this year. Industry analysts say there are about 37,000 screens in the country, and the common wisdom is that there shouldn't be more than 27,000.

Moviegoers at the River Oaks theater have been complaining for months about shoddy conditions as it became obvious Loews was unwilling to pour further money into the theater. Retrofitting the sloped-floor theaters into stadium seating is cost-prohibitive because it requires raising ceilings and adding risers.

"A 12-screen theater is one of the larger ones we are closing, but that location had come under some competition, and with the lower attendance levels, it frankly became too expensive to operate," Tucker says.

Edwards Cinemas opened a 24-screen theater a few miles from the River Oaks location in late 1999, adding to the overscreening both in Houston and inside the Loop. Two years earlier, the Angelika Film Center had opened downtown in Bayou Place.

The demise of the mall theaters and the Cineplex Odeon was not completely unexpected; the Cineplex Odeon now sits about halfway between the new Edwards Cinema and the 30-screen AMC theater on Dunvale. But the River Oaks location was exceedingly convenient for Montrose residents who, one would think, might prefer some old-fashioned seating instead of a shiny, gimmicky megaplex.

Apparently, though, the siren call of stadium seating is too much even for alleged bohemians.

"It's been pretty obvious for years that Loews wasn't putting money into" the River Oaks location, says Steve Buck, manager of the Angelika. "I think if they had kept it up, it could have worked. But it really was obsolete -- you've got to have stadium seating these days. The audience has seen the light and won't accept anything otherwise."

There's no official word on what will become of the Cineplex Odeon or the two mall locations, but the rumor is that the River Oaks theater will be converted into a Bed, Bath & Beyond.

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