Film Reviews

Attack of the killer megaplexes

AMC's The Grand--the Gotham City of film-exhibition venues--officially opened its doors in May 1995 with its inaugural movie, Die Hard with a Vengeance. One year later, The Grand can lay claim to unofficially opening the doors to something else as well--an unstoppable movie-house feeding frenzy that has seen three additional theaters open in Dallas, with more on the way.

The Grand, with 24 screens, is currently the largest single theater in the world, although that record will be broken twice before the end of the year. It already faces competition from three other newly christened venues, including the 17 screens of Cinemark 17 on Webb Chapel Road, the 14 screens of Sony's Cityplace near Lemmon off Central Expressway, and the new United Artists Galaxy 9 at LBJ Freeway and Jupiter Road, which opened this week.

The age of the megaplex has arrived.
"Our industry is entering a period where we are reinventing ourselves with all these megaplexes," says Joe Brock, AMC's Southern Division marketing manager. "The Grand was the first to hit the marketplace. We have opened several of these across the country since then," including one set to debut in Houston this week.

The trend is unmistakable. According to Brock, "Megaplexes are rapidly becoming the major force" in film distribution.

You'd think that such unprecedented growth would be a godsend to the film-going public. But despite their technological proficiency and ostensible convenience, there's a depressing dearth of exhibitor creativity among the megaplexes. No new art houses. No repertory houses.

"The commercial product is in [greater] demand" than the art films, Brock concedes. And the megaplexes clearly plan to go where the money is.

Four years ago, there were about 16 centrally located first-run theaters in Dallas, accounting for some 75 screens. None of those theaters had double-digit screens under one roof; the most for any one venue was eight. By the end of this summer, seven new theaters will have opened--including five of them within 13 months--for a total of 100 additional screens.

"The other theaters have all been doing well--moviegoing in Dallas increased last year while overall the industry stayed flat nationwide," Brock says. "Dallas has overwhelmingly latched onto this concept."

Still in the wings: another 24-screen AMC cinema at Prestonwood, slated for a fall 1997 debut, and the Mesquite Cinemas 10 in July of this year.

The technology and innovations at prototype facilities like The Grand are state-of-the-art, offering refinements like stadium seating, digital sound, and high-backed "love seats" with removable arms for better snuggling.

But the theater leaves much to be desired in terms of user-friendliness. The Grand can seat 5,000 moviegoers at a time, not to mention the people milling around its video-game arcade and concessions stands intended to make the theater a "total entertainment destination point."

But all 24 screens are served by, at most, six cashiers working at a single-entrance box office. By contrast, the UA Plaza at Central Expressway and Park Lane is more than twice as efficient: It has four booths for eight screens--a ratio of 1-to-2 instead of 1-to-4--and less traffic and congestion for the films.

Getting into The Grand is no picnic, either; in fact, it would be hard to contrive a more awkward bottleneck. There is only a one-lane road winding its way to the megaplex, located off Northwest Highway and Interstate 35. The majority of patrons must enter the parking lot by way of a short, left-arrow-only traffic signal. The parking lot's mostly one-sided design--fanning away from, rather than around, the building--can force customers to park a quarter-mile from the theater.

You can't help but wonder if the theater was able to achieve its success mainly by bullying the market. (The Grand is one of the five busiest theaters in the nation, according to Brock.)

The Cinemark 17 is easier to get to, but lacks the appeal of traditional movie palaces. The lobby is devoted to television, video games, and a diner to keep bored soon-to-be movie-watchers occupied; you have to look carefully to find the entrance to the screens. The decor in the theaters themselves is a decorator's nightmare. With its deep purples and sickly greens, the upholstery looks like debris from an exploded vomitorium.

The Cityplace 17 is probably the best of the new breed. It's the only megaplex in the area with two public entrances--including two parking lots--so you're never too far from the door. It's also the most aesthetically pleasing, if for no other reason than that its minimalism neither inspires nor offends.

But even as the number of screens mushrooms, the breadth of movie offerings in Dallas is waning. The Major Theatre--the last truly alternative film venue in Dallas--has closed its doors to moviegoers, even as megaplexes sprout across the landscape.

The megaplexes tend to be lap dogs of popular taste. Hollywood studios produce basically the same number of movies each year, so the exponential growth in screens signals one thing: The multiplexes aren't designed to offer a wide selection of films, but to inundate us with the least common denominator of mainstream movie-making.

Twister debuted on five of The Grand's screens, while The Journals of Jean Seberg has yet to be seen in Dallas outside of the USA Film Festival. Last summer, Batman Forever showed simultaneously on nine screens at The Grand. Although The Grand devoted four screens to foreign films when it first opened, that trend lasted less than a month.

That seems to contradict Brock's assertions that "the appeal of the megaplex is the movie choice," and that its goal is to "offer multiple showtimes and a much-larger array of movies to pick from."

"The trend in the industry is to combine movies with dining and retail so when you're planning your Friday night, you can go to The Grand and take care of all your entertainment needs," Brock adds.

"For the big blockbusters, I love to go to The Grand," confesses David Kimball, manager of Landmark's Inwood Theatre on Lovers Lane and Inwood Road. But he knows that the Inwood, and the UA Cine at Yale and Central, have effectively cornered the market on art films in Dallas. "Customers look for art films to play here first, and that's why we have a lot of exclusive runs," he says.

The multiplexes just can't seem to stomach the modest but devoted following of art films. "If they play these little films and expect blockbusters," they are going to be disappointed, Kimball says. Consequently, the megaplexes pose no threat to art houses. "People call [the Inwood] from Oklahoma City and Tulsa all the time because, unfortunately, a lot of these films aren't available in their market," he says.

That's good for Landmark, but does it serve the Dallas moviegoing audience? Maybe so. Dallas may be, after all, the ultimate consumerism center.

"I've been told that some of the film [-distribution] companies use the Inwood as a barometer to see how art movies will work nationwide," says Kimball. "Dallas is just full of moviegoing fools."

"Dallas is undeniably a major market," says Alonso Duralde, artistic director of the USA Film Festival. The proof of its appeal is clear: "On Tuesdays, Daily Variety runs a breakdown of weekend box-office receipts for three markets: one is Los Angeles, one is New York, and one is Dallas. I think Dallas is considered [representative] for what the studios refer to as 'flyover country.'"

Dallas is also one of the few cities between the coasts that has offices for major film distributors, Duralde adds.

The megaplexes may not even be to blame for the absence of creative film distribution--"We've seen a decline in repertory theaters because of the home-video revolution," Duralde notes--so as long as there's a need, the megaplexes can be expected to continue their onslaught.

"We keep thinking they're overbuilding and oversaturating the Dallas market," says John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, a company that studies the statistical breakdown of box-office grosses. "But it hasn't happened. Yet.

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Arnold Wayne Jones

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