NYC plays catchup with more 'plexes

Fade in on a city. Not just any city, but New York — the ultimate city and one with the largest population in the United States, a sophisticated bunch that loves going to the movies and is willing to pay ever-escalating prices to do so.

Now pan around the city, the camera sees perhaps a single screen theater here, a small multiplex there. But there is nowhere near the number of screens necessary to satisfy the demanding denizens of this town.

Suddenly, in rides a new brand of heroes — movie-chain executives who are determined to make sure that Gotham finally shakes its deserved reputation as the most underscreened city in the country.

Many of these projects have already received tremendous public attention, particularly the plans for two Times Square multiplexes — one each from AMC (25 screens, 5,059 seats opening in late 1999) and Loews Cineplex (13 screens, 3,500 seats, opening next June) — and the United Artists multiplex in Union Square (14 screens, 3,400 seats, opening next month). But it is only when looking at the aggregate of all these additions, not just the dozens of new screens but the belated introduction of stadium seating and improved sound, that it becomes apparent that New York is finally catching up to the rest of the country. “New Yorkers have not been given as high quality an entertainment experience as the rest of the country,” says Kurt Hall, president of United Artists.

The fact that it’s one of the last great underserved markets has brought out all the big guns as has the fact that, as Pascucci says, while it’s still extraordinarily expensive to do business here, “the tenor of New York has changed — it is definitely more people friendly.”

Additionally, many city neighborhoods are undergoing an economic revitalization, from Times Square to Union Square. Harlem’s 125th Street will soon be home to a joint venture between Loews Cineplex and Magic Johnson (nine screens, 2,700 seats, opening in 2000) and Hall says, perhaps even a United Artists theater as part of a redevelopment project in East Harlem.

Loews Cineplex, of course, has a long track record in New York, but in these gold rush days, even outsiders can’t resist taking the plunge. In addition to AMC, Regal Theaters, working with one of the city’s leading real estate developers, Forest City Ratner, will soon have a major presence. Regal has also shown it’s not afraid to venture off the beaten path. The company’s projects include a Battery Park City theater at Vesey Street (15-18 screens totaling 4,500 seats, slated to open in the fall of 1999); a Brooklyn theater at Court and Schermerhorn streets (12 screens totaling 2,300-2,400 seats, breaking ground in November and slated to open in spring 2000); and a Queens theater adjacent to Kaufman-Astoria Studios at Steinway Street (14 screens, 3,500 seats, it broke ground in August and is slated to open next fall).

But the big players aren’t the only ones getting in on the action. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is spreading its wings too, filling the art house niche with a new four-screen theater next to its Opera House. There will be an arena-style 275-seater, as well as a 230-seater, a 175-seater and a 110-seater. “They will all be beautifully designed, not the usual black boxes,” says BAM maestro Harvey Lichtenstein. And, unlike most theaters showing indie movies, this will have comfortable seating and top-flight, new equipment.

BAM will not have trouble finding an audience, says Lichtenstein, who has been instrumental in revitalizing the immediate neighborhood, which now has everything from new restaurants to a glassblowing workshop. (He says BAM tried to find someone else to build the movie theater, but took it up itself when no one else was interested.) The institution is sur-rounded by such neighborhoods as Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene and Park Slope, all of which are filling up with young professionals priced out of Manhattan and have fewer than two dozen screens combined, only a few of which show indie movies.

But BAM is going to provide more than an Angelika for Brooklynites who don’t want to travel. Lichtenstein is considering expanding BAM’s successful Next Wave festival from music to movies and is “particularly on the look out for movies that reflect (BAM’s) constituency.” Brooklyn is, of course, so diverse that this can mean movies from Russian, Arab, Caribbean or African-American filmmakers; Lichtenstein is already lining up an Iranian film for later this year.

Lichtenstein doesn’t expect many Manhattanites to journey to BAM expect for special festivals, which makes sense considering that there are even more arthouse screens coming to lower Manhattan. The Screening Room is having twins, splitting its one screen into two to allow it to host more premieres as an exhibitor, more special screenings and parties and to run more special schedules, juggling different movies.

And Cinema Village closed in August to redesign its space going from one 230-seat theater to three screens, one with 175 seats (with stadium seating and a balcony) and two with 70.

“We’re looking all over, in Brooklyn, in Queens, for new sites,” Pascucci says. “I don’t think the market is anywhere near topping out.”

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