Ongoing multiplexing of the U.S., mostly by large competition-driven circuits, gave the country 23,689 screens in 1990 – the highest count in the nation’s history, according to figures obtained by the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

The number of screens has increased incrementally year after year, and has vaulted from 17,590 in 1980 to the current record.

It’s the first annual increase since 1987, when the total was 23,555. The number then registered dips for two years running; in 1988, total screens dipped to 23,234, and in 1989, they slipped to 23,132.

Although circuit expansion has been tapering off lately, new builds and add-ons to existing multiplexes continue nationally.

The newest tally underlines concerns about the overscreening of America, a condition expected to be worked over at NATO/Showest, the exhibitors convention being held in Las Vegas Feb. 4 to 7.

NATO boss concerned

One of those who admits to being troubled is H. Donald Busch, recently elected chairman of the National Assn. of Theater Owners. Busch also is president of AMC Philadelphia – a key market which, although competitive, Busch insists has not yet been affected overscreening.

He has listed “backlash from the overscreening of certain areas” as among NATO’s most formidable challenges.

“People who are there [in overscreened markets] may disagree with me,” he said, “but it seems to me that during the ’80s we had in certain markets an overbuilding of multiplex screens in the same area, which probably means you’re going to find it very difficult to exist profitably.”

Not just key markets

Busch said such overconcentration is not necessarily limited to key markets.

“Some may or may not be what I would call key markets,” he said, “but there are obviously marketplaces that the exhibitors in question thought were very important. I feel that we’ve just come through a period of time where there really was more of that going on than we’ll see in the future. But it still has to shake out.”

The measured increase in screens would appear to give substance to Busch’s contention that the increasing numbers are not cause for concern.

Another 557 screens were added to the national total in 1990. Also, the fact that neither the MPAA nor NATO tracks the total number of theater seats annually makes it difficult to pin-point, at least statistically, the full impact of overscreening.

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