Multiplex Illustration by Chip Wass
April 25, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

From the outside, the Muvico Egyptian 24 looks exactly as an Egyptian tomb would look, if the Egyptians had worshiped Ben Affleck and felt the need for valet parking. But (Avril Lavigne aside) Entertainment Weekly is not one to be seduced by flashy facades. We were certain that deep within the Egyptian 24 lurked all the secrets of the megamultiplex, answers to questions we’d always wondered about. For instance: What’s the quickest way to irritate an usher? Why are concession workers always urging us to buy a larger size? And why is this theater so warm all of a sudden? We chose the Egyptian 24, located just outside Baltimore, because it’s one of the most heavily trafficked theaters in America: It sold 2.7 million tickets last year, and its managers hope to crack the 3 million mark in 2003.

Surely, if anyone knows how to operate a megamultiplex, it is the staff of the Egyptian 24. And so, in the tradition of Upton Sinclair and Lewis Hine, with complete disregard for our own personal well-being, we set out to expose its deepest, darkest secrets. Risking life and limb, we embedded ourselves for an entire weekend there, following the managers around like a puppy, asking them endless questions. It was difficult work — alleviated only by breaks to see ”Daredevil” and approximately 20 minutes of ”Shanghai Knights” — but we did it for you, the reader. We await your thanks. And our Pulitzer.

Marquee de Sade

To you, the marquee of show times looks like a quick reference point to find out when the next show of ”Kangaroo Jack” starts. To Bill Garza, who manages the Egyptian 24, it represents the worst ninth-grade algebra word problem ever: Start with around two dozen movies, each with a different running time, and 24 theaters of five different sizes. You want to schedule as many shows of every movie as possible. Furthermore, you want to make sure that every movie is in just the right size theater, ideally to have every show sell out and no patrons turned away. Remember to schedule children’s movies in the larger theaters during the daytime and the smaller ones at night. Also, take care that you don’t schedule all your popular movies to start at once, because then your lobby will be filled with people and your concession stand will be overwhelmed. Oh, and be especially careful that you don’t have two popular movies starting around the same time in adjacent theaters, or the let-in lines will get tangled up and things will just get ugly. Got all that? Good.

Now, try to devise the 15 perfect show times for the opening weekend of ”Daredevil.” Be sure to show all work. (For what it’s worth, it takes a manager at the Egyptian 24 around eight hours every Monday to devise a schedule — and even then, the show times often need to be adjusted on the fly, with movies switching from larger to smaller auditoriums. Garza still cringes recalling certain mistakes, such as the weekend when he overestimated the appeal of ”Death to Smoochy” and watched the Edward Norton comedy unspool in large, mostly empty theaters.)

Would you like fries with your ‘Malibu’s Most Wanted’?

Movie theaters are only incidentally in the movie business. From a profit standpoint, the Muvico’s major business is food. The theater has to split its box office receipts with the studios. But the money theaters make at the concession stand, they keep. The Egyptian 24 currently takes in, on average, around $2.85 net per customer at the stand; Garza’s goal for the year is to boost that figure to $2.95 net, through aggressive salesmanship and the introduction of new food items.

Dan Hogan, the theater’s senior operations manager, monitors concession sales using the theater’s real-time data system, Radiant; if small and medium sodas and popcorns are outselling the large sizes, he knows it’s time to have a talk with the staff about the importance of ”upselling” — which is why the epicurean moviegoer is harangued with ”Would you like a large with free refills for just 50 cents more?” Hogan maintains that this is a public service: ”If you come up to the counter and you order a small soda, and then the guy after you orders a large one for not much more, and you hear the counter guy say, ‘You get free refills with that,’ you’re going to be upset that you weren’t even presented with that option.” As we all know, the average human head weighs approximately eight pounds, but what Hogan may not know (or chooses to ignore) is that the average human bladder cannot comfortably contain 44 fluid ounces for the running time of ”The Pianist.”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it is getting hot in herrrrrre

Now that we’ve reviewed the average weight of the human head and touched on the capacity of the average human bladder, here’s another fun anatomy fact: The average human puts out as much heat as a 100-watt bulb. For most people, this is a tidbit with which to impress friends (well, the easily impressed ones); for theater managers, it is a key fact of their business. It means that if they have 500 people in a theater, they will need to keep a close eye on the thermostat, or the patrons will slowly cook one another. And that’s probably not a good idea — even if it might fuel sales of 44-ounce drinks.

The inexplicable habits of the American moviegoer

The theater has two identical box offices, side by side, with separate lines. For no discernible reason, customers vastly prefer the right-hand line to the left-hand one, which makes about as much sense as vastly preferring Mary-Kate to Ashley. The same thing happens at the concession stand: Even if a manager announces, ”There are shorter lines at the other end of the concession stand,” people will continue to stand on the very long lines, like stunned cattle. And then there are the customers who simply don’t understand how movies work, like the woman who once asked Hogan whether there might be a shorter version of ”The English Patient” for her to see. Or the baffled folk who show up every weekend five minutes before the start of a major new release and complain that they can’t find a good seat, or four good seats together, even though they purchased their tickets in advance, online. (One suspects these are the same people who rush to the post office to buy stamps in bulk the day before a new postal increase takes effect.)

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