L.A. feature sits well

Stacked seating popular at theaters

L.A. is stacking the decks — in its movie theaters.

“Stadium” seating, offering unimpeded sight lines by stacking seat rows progressively higher from front to back, for years was nowhere to be found in the world’s movie capital even as stadium multiplexes sprouted from Peoria to Prague.

But after missing out on the trend for most of a decade, L.A. finally got its first stadium-seat venue last summer when the Bridge — an 18-screen megaplex run by Cinebridge Ventures — opened in southwest Los Angeles. Now, Pacific Theaters is set to open a pair of stadium venues in L.A. and soon will break ground on a third.

Even more could follow, with circuits eyeing construction opportunities in L.A.’s Westwood and Century City sections. For as exhibs head to Las Vegas for their annual ShoWest trade show, it’s now considered de rigeur in theater construction that any new projects boast a stadium design.

‘An industry requirement’

“It has become an industry requirement,” Pacific chief operating officer Nora Dashwood said. “I don’t know any theater chain building old-fashioned, slope-floor theaters anymore. It would be like someone making a black-and-white television set.”

Stadium configurations do require more square footage than traditional theater designs. So, real estate costs are higher, and stadium projects bear greater construction costs as well.

That made for daunting economics in the biggest U.S. cities like L.A. and Gotham, though suburban theaters in those markets long have boasted such venues. Manhattan finally sprouted several stadium-seat multiplexes over the past few years.

Complex opens March 15

L.A.-based Pacific, which will operate a total 450 screens including its newest venues, opens a 14-screen multiplex in midtown-L.A.’s Grove at Farmers Market retail complex on March 15. A week later, exhib cuts the ribbon on ArcLight, a glitzy retail project that features a 14-screen expansion to the historic Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

And in June, Pacific breaks ground on a Westside project featuring stadium seating — a 12-screen theater set for the incorporated burg of Culver City. Pacific replaced AMC Entertainment in the Culver project, after AMC bowed out amid an industrywide retrenchment in new-theater construction due to rampant overbuilding.

AMC, which still plans to mount selective new construction projects nationwide, was an early adopter of stadium seating in its multiplexes. Brussels-based Kinepolis is generally credited as the earliest exhib to introduce stadium seating, first employing the concept to its European multiplexes in the early 1990s.

“Stadium seating seems to be the theater amenity that’s most popular with today’s audiences,” AMC spokesman Rick King said.

“The big risk in movie theaters has always been having somebody over 6-feet-tall sit in front of you,” Pacific’s Dashwood quipped. “Now, you can see over that person, and you also get more leg room.”

Most new theater seats also feature retractable arm rests, letting couples cuddle and kids clamber nearer parents.

Retrofitting older sites

Meanwhile, the innovation has become so popular that many circuits are retrofitting older, slope-floor theaters into stadium venues. Stinson Theaters is retrofitting a six-screen convention theater near Toronto as an eight-screener featuring stadium seating.

“It’s almost a necessity now,” prexy Bob Stinson said. “The public has picked up on this so much that I’m personally surprised at how much it means to them.

“Lots of elements are important in making for a successful theater operation — concessions, the sound system and so on,” analyst Kevin Skislock of Irvine-based Laguna Research Partners said. “Stadium seating is one of the most important — if not the most important — part in that mix.”

But if most patrons are bullish on stadium seating, there’s also been naysayers among advocates of the disabled. Exhibs offer wheelchair access in stadium designs, but U.S. Justice officials have sued for unspecified additional accommodations — so far without much success.

“Exhibition has won every important court case on the issue,” National Assn. of Theatre Owners prexy John Fithian noted. “The courts have ruled our theaters comply with relevant laws on disabled access.”

NATO and its members are open to making further improvements to stadium configurations, but exhibs object to Justice’s refusal so far to deliver any detailed specifications on the matter, Fithian said.

“There are two components of good business in our industry — good movies and good theaters — and last year we had both,” he added. “The innovation of stadium seating been very important to the revitalization of our industry.”

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