Megaplex mania is sweeping the nation, and the San Fernando Valley is surfacing as a hotbed of new-theater development activity.
Thousands of new screens have been constructed in the past two years, as movie theater owners cash in on the "location-based entertainment" trend in which shopping malls are being turned into entertainment, dining and retail complexes.
At least 32 new screens were built in the Valley in 1996, and another 100 more are scheduled to debut over the next two years.
Just last month, Encino-based Cinamerica Theaters L.P., a joint venture of Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures that does business as Mann Theaters, announced it would build a 16-screen megaplex at the site of the former General Motors Corp. plant in Panorama City.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based Pacific Theaters Corp. is slated to begin construction this month on a 25-screen, 5,700-seat megaplex in Chatsworth.
The Valley is seen by theater developers as one of the most desirable areas to build in Southern California.
"On an overall demographic basis, it is a very active movie-going market," said Charles Goldwater, president and CEO of Cinamerica Theaters. He added that the Valley is considered relatively underserved in terms of the proportion of residents to movie theaters.
Beyond the theaters themselves is how they are being used for overall retail developments.
In years past, department stores held the key to getting a regional retail project off the ground. But today, L.A.-area developers are increasingly turning to movie multiplexes to anchor their centers.
So it was fitting that Mann Theaters became the first tenant and thus the one to play the greatest role in drawing other tenants to commit to the large retail complex being planned at the former General Motors plant site in Panorama City.
The multiplex is envisioned as part of a $100 million retail/industrial development proposed for the 63-acre property, which has been vacant since General Motors shut down its operations there in 1992. The land is now owned by real estate developers Selleck Properties and The Voit Cos.
The planned Mann megaplex, designed to have 4,000 seats, is being billed as the Valley's second-biggest multiplex. Only the the 18-screen, 6,000-seat Universal City Cinemas at Universal CityWalk is larger right now.
But, once Pacific Theaters finishes its 25-screen multiplex at the former Winnetka Drive-in site on Winnetka Avenue in Chatsworth this summer, the Mann project would only be the third biggest in the Valley.
Meanwhile, Pacific Theaters is planning to replace its five-screen cinema complex at the Sherman Oaks Galleria with a 20-screen megaplex that is slated to begin construction and open in 1998.
And Newport Beach-based Edwards Theaters Circuit Inc. recently announced plans to build a 13-screen multiplex on Town Center Drive in Valencia, as well as a 10-screen complex in Canyon Country.
"Most of the movie theaters in the Valley are quite old, and it's the new theaters these days that are doing all the business," said Chan Wood, executive vice president and marketing director for Pacific Theaters. "The Valley needs a little sprucing up, as far as new screens with the new technological amenities."
A movie theater building boom has been taking place nationwide for the past two years. Nearly all of the large theater owner/operators are stepping up construction, led by Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon (owner of Universal City Cinemas), which plans to add 500 screens by 1999.
In the Valley, where most of the movie theaters are at least a decade old, Kansas City, Mo.-based American Multi-Cinemas Inc. (AMC) started upgrading its local theaters in 1995. In December of that year, it opened a state-of-the-art six-screen complex on North First Street in Burbank that was one of the first examples of AMC's new design prototype. That prototype features steeper-tier, stadium-style seating with extra-wide aisles, retractable armrests, updated sound systems and other amenities.
In March 1996, AMC opened a 16-screen, 3,000-seat multiplex incorporating the company's new design elements at the Promenade mall in Woodland Hills. Prudence Baird, a spokeswoman for AMC, said the multiplex has done very well, but declined to reveal specific attendance figures.
The Promenade multiplex is noteworthy because it points up another emerging trend. It was built on the site of what was formerly a Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
Similarly, the 20-screen multiplex planned for the Sherman Oaks Galleria is to be built in space once occupied by a Robinson's-May store.
Slow sales and consolidation in the department store industry are leading to a decreasing presence of department stores in malls. Meanwhile, retail developers are concentrating on turning malls into "entertainment centers," where patrons can shop, eat, and enjoy entertainment offerings in one location. Thus, theater complexes are beginning to replace department stores in many shopping centers.
"The concept is, you can have dinner, go see a movie like 'The English Patient,' and then, if you really liked the clothes you saw in the movie, you can go to Banana Republic and buy them," said Baird.
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