At the intersection of a pair of freeways 40 minutes east of downtown Los Angeles loom two behemoths that chomp box office receipts as ferociously as any Steven Spielberg movie. One giant, lurking in the Ontario Mills megamall, is a six-month-old AMC (American Multi Cinemas) movie theater with 30 screens, the most ever under one roof. Situated a few hundred yards across the parking lot is its near twin, an imposing panoply of neon harboring 22 screens opened by Edwards Theatres in March. Last weekend, as both houses played The Lost World on eight of their largest screens, the parking lots hit capacity. ”It’s like going to Disneyland,” marvels Jarrod Long, 27, a communications specialist who has come in from Riverside, 12 miles away. ”The theaters are bigger. The sound. The lounge seats. You get three times as much.”
By Memorial Day’s end, the AMC Ontario Mills 30 and the Edwards Ontario 22 Palace had together raked in $316,000 on Lost World, making them two of the nation’s top 20 venues for the box office smash. ”More money has been taken out of the city of Ontario than anybody even thought existed,” says Mitch Goldman, New Line’s president of distribution and marketing.
As two hulking examples of a new breed of movie house called the megaplex — a huge stomp up the evolutionary chain from 12- to 14-screen shoe-box multiplexes — the Ontario theaters are part of a building boom that is changing the way America goes to the movies — and scaring the jujubes out of the owners of older, smaller facilities. In fact, the entire industry is concerned that overbuilding could lead to smaller profits for everyone. Last March at ShoWest, the annual convention of exhibitors in Las Vegas, Bill Kartozian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), admonished the attendees: ”Thou shalt not Ontario.”
Yet the promise of the megaplex, containing at least 16 theaters, is just too good to pass up. AMC plans to build 60 more this year. Edwards is betting on everything from a 21-plex in Boise, Idaho, to a 26-plex in Long Beach, Calif. Cinemark will open more than a dozen Tinseltown megas from Oregon to Florida. And the high-volume face-off in Ontario won’t be the only one: AMC and Sony/Loews Theatres are charging ahead with plans to build enormous complexes less than a block apart on Manhattan’s 42nd Street.
Like the dinosaurs in Lost World, megaplexes are one part revival, one part technological marvel. In design and size, most of the new theaters hark back to the glorious movie palaces of the 1920s and 1930s with over-the-top Art Deco motifs and auditoriums named after old venues like the Chinese and the Hollywood. The most ambitious, like Star Theatres’ 20-screen Star Southfield, due to open this month near Detroit, offer stores and restaurants as part of the mix. ”It expands the event on the screen out into the lobby,” says Star architect David Rockwell, who has designed 42 Planet Hollywoods, as well as Robert De Niro’s Nobu restaurant in Manhattan.