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Coming Soon, a 24-Plex Not So Near You

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page F01

There's something special about a night at the movies -- it's all about friends, American pop culture and escape. And it's accessible to just about everyone.

So much for the warm and fuzzy. The next time you sit down in a soft, rocking movie seat with built-in cup holder and removable armrests, appreciating your clear line of sight thanks to the tiered stadium seating, consider this: You are just part of a complicated number-crunching formula.

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Movie Previews (The Washington Post, Aug 22, 2004)
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There has been much turmoil in the movie theater business in the past few years, with thousands of older screens going dark, even more screens opening up, bankruptcy filings by nearly every major theater chain, followed by consolidation and buyouts.

But what theater operators have come away with is a much better understanding of how to run a movie theater -- and it's about the math, not the magic. Forget the exotic movie palaces from the early days of cinema, when the theater was grand and ornate, elevating the stature of the film itself. Forget, even, the neighborhood place with one screen, where the weekend's excitement depended on what title the owner placed on the marquee. Today's movie theater operators have figured out, with incredible accuracy, where a theater needs to be, which amenities it needs to have, how many tickets it must sell, how many screens it requires and how long it has to hang on to the latest release.

And now that they've figured all this out, the big chains are starting to build again: A thousand new screens have opened nationwide in the past year after five years of stagnation, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade group based in Washington.

"We are kind of at the halftime of the rescreening of America," said David Brain, chief executive and president of Entertainment Properties Trust, a Kansas real estate investment company with an $1.1 billion portfolio of movie theaters.

Since 1997, about a third of the nation's movie theaters have been replaced by megaplexes, generally those with more than 14 screens per location and unobstructed stadium seating, Brain said. But he estimates another third will convert to this new format over the next seven to 10 years. That means another wave of wipeouts among smaller theaters with just a handful of screens, which, for all their comparative inadequacies, continue to anchor neighborhoods, especially in urban areas.

"There could be a town, could be an area, where there's a six-plex and you just can't build a 16-plex," Brain said. "But by and large, they will go away."

In the Washington area, a new building boom of movie theaters could ensure that they do, as there are still many older-style, sloped-floor movie theaters here that industry experts say could be vulnerable to the opening of more modern movie facilities. Among the possible casualties:

• The recent opening of the Majestic 20-screen in downtown Silver Spring is likely to hurt the old 10-screen AMC theater at City Place across the street.

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