Forget about "Gladiator," "The Perfect Storm" or "Mission Impossible 2." When it comes to summing up the Y2K cinema season, try this title: "The Plight of the Megaplex." Surely you've heard about it? Part horror story and part heartfelt tear-jerker, it's about a string of spunky theater companies driven to the brink of destruction because of a simple dream: to bring reclining comfort, retractable armrests and stadium seating to every last corner of available real estate in this good old U. S. of A. Was it greed that brought them down? Mere hubris? Or were they seduced and abandoned by Hollywood? Our tale begins on Aug. 9, 2000, when the nation's No. 3 movie theater chain, Carmike Cinemas, Inc., files for Chapter 11. Less than three weeks later, Edwards Theaters Circuit, Inc. (which had planned to build a megaplex in the upscale Short Pump Crossing, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nordstrom), a family-run business for more than seven decades, follows suit. Then in dizzying succession United Artists Theatre Co. heads to bankruptcy court, followed by General Cinema Theaters Inc. Word is that Loews Cineplex is now teetering on the brink. Even IMAX Corp. has warned investors that it won't be meeting forecasted profits. Many industry analysts say they wouldn't be surprised if Regal Cinemas were the next. So what's or who's to blame? That's a tricky question with answers correlating to where one sits in the movie-industry food chain. Hollywood says theater chains got greedy, going on a megaplex building frenzy since 1995 without first closing out unprofitable, older, smaller theaters. But theater owners say they did it for us the customer. We latched onto the idea of stadium seating the way we first went crazy for cup holders in the early '80s. Some theater owners go a step further, pointing the finger at Hollywood itself, blaming the industry for turning out expensive movies without the legs to pull in crowds over eight weekends. The truth is a combination of the above. Movie chains did build megaplexes with a passion, more than doubling the number of screens since 1980. But what the chains didn't count on was the new "megaplexes" taking customers away from the same operators' older, multiplex screens. There simply aren't enough moviegoers to go around the number of moviegoers hasn't increased to match the number of screens. In fact, only 50 percent more tickets were sold last year than in 1980. But what about Hollywood? Are great movies not being made? On a personal note, I would say it certainly feels that way. I can't remember a worse year for movies than this one. (Box office receipts for the summer of 2000 were down $210 million from the previous summer.) Not to be the cinema Grinch, but I must add that what's on tap for the next biggest box-office season looks marginal at best. While the concept of quality control and artistic endeavors never make for a good fit, Hollywood may have to reconsider how it takes profits. Theaters take a smaller slice of the box-office receipts in a movie first weeks (some studios keep all of a movie's ticket sales from its opening weekend). So putting the hottest movies on three or more screens is turning out to be a boon to the moviegoer and to Hollywood but a poor business plan for the owner. Theater owners aren't the only ones feeling seduced and abandoned by Hollywood. We moviegoers feel just as cheated when a movie is hyped strictly to get a big first weekend draw. Studios, stars and producers seem happy to make the money and run. So what if word-of-mouth kills the picture by its second weekend? All involved in the movie's making have long covered their interests. The physical, financial and emotional costs of mounting an epic the likes of a "Saving Private Ryan" or a "Titanic" are so demanding that filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg or James Cameron can't churn them out routinely. The result is a scattering of special films over a veritable buffet of bombs, near misses and lowest-common-denominator pandering. So what else does all this mean to you and me? Sadly, a great deal. Look for an increase in ticket prices and a subtle rise in the cost of concession items. Stickier floors and more stopped-up restrooms seem as much an inevitability as being stuck in the ticket line well after a movie's posted starting time, as theater managers cut back on employees. Movie listings will be harder to find as theaters cut back on newspaper advertising, as United Artists has already done with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. And as theaters look for more creative ways to shore up their sagging bottom lines, expect more advertising not more coming attractions before each movie. Some chains will even be selling advertising space to local businesses on every bag, bucket and tub of popcorn purchased. This is why movies suck. This is why you feel battered and abused by the time the credits roll. This is why movies never seem to start on time. This is why last week's new flick goes from movie screen to movie channel to home video in record time. The one bright spot in this tearjerker is that the smaller independent and foreign films have been making it to Richmond a lot sooner. But that's because the theaters need 'em to fill those screen. It's not about quality or sophistication. No, it's all about the
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