AMC GETS MEGA LEG UP

30-plex, upcoming Edwards 24 to book day & date

Billed as the world’s largest megaplex, the 30-screen, 5,700-seat AMC Ontario Mills opens today in the California community 40 miles east of Los Angeles.

Already the subject of close industry scrutiny, AMC’s Ontario theater will be joined in late January by a 24-screen megaplex now under construction by Newport Beach-based Edwards Theatres on a site just outside the Ontario Mills mall.

In an unprecedented move, a number of distribs, including Universal, New Line and Miramax, have said they will supply both chains on a day and date basis. It will mark the first time two nearby megaplexes will be playing much of the same product.

“It remains to be seen whether the area can support almost 60 new screens,” said a distrib who will be allocating product between the two theater behemoths. “There’s no question that the two circuits will be aggressive and competitive, and if they don’t fill seats, they may have to resort to bidding to resolve the situation.”

Sign of the future

Certainly, AMC will have an initial advantage in being first in the marketplace, establishing itself during the busy holiday season. AMC senior VP West division Dick Walsh told Daily Variety that megas are, in the circuit’s view, the “way of the future.”

“Bigger, better and nicer is our goal,” Walsh said. “If all the amenities are equal, the customer is going to choose the location that’s better run, cleaner and has the best popcorn.”

Walsh noted that the Ontario area has a significant audience base of about 800,000 within a 10-mile radius of the theater. He noted that the company’s experience has been that the newer complexes serve as magnets, drawing people from ever-increasing distances.

The Ontario Mills site is viewed as a major destination and is a part of a mall that includes shops, restaurants and other entertainment facilities. Walsh views this as an asset, as more and more patrons plan activities before or after going to the movies.

The verdict is still pending on the impact of the megaplex, but there’s general agreement that having 25-30 screens playing a dozen or more popular titles allows the customer greater viewing flexibility. “The guarantee of a seat and a convenient viewing time is definitely what the public wants,” said National Assn. of Theatre Owners California chairman Steve Gilula.

Lingering questions

However, several other claims continue to be debated. Chief among them is whether the added screens expand the moviegoing base or merely redistribute where people go to see movies. Also contested are claims that the potential diversity of product expands viewing tastes. One specialized distrib insisted that megas tend to poach specialized films during lulls in the release schedule, and abandon them in peak summer and holiday play time.

But Walsh maintained that as more megas are built and the need for product expands, a broader range of films will be screened. He said the mega assists pictures that traditionally have played on fewer screens in finding new venues. He pointed to pictures such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “The English Patient” as films that have worked well at AMC sites and, because of the flexibility in seating, can hold longer in a multiple operation.

Among the circuit’s upcoming sites in California are megas in Covina and Orange County and additional screens to existing multis in Fullerton and Rolling Hills. However, he insisted that talk of expansion of its Century City location was premature. The company plans to build between 200 and 300 screens annually at least through the year 2000.

Although AMC stock is currently trading at nearly a 52-week low of $15.75, Walsh was confident that the aggressive building of megaplex locations conveys a positive message. “The numbers will speak for themselves.”

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