FRANKLYWNOW - Cinemas Enjoy Era of Expansion

Cinemas Enjoy Era of Expansion

Watching a movie isn't like it used to be. More and more people want digital sound, comfy seating, a huge screen and a clear view after they pay to see movies at the cinema. Stadium seating theaters provide all of that, and operators now are staking market claims across West Virginia. By the summer, someone traveling from Charleston to Kentucky would pass four stadium theaters before leaving the state. Charleston has two. Another opened in Huntington last year. All-Star Entertainment, based in North Carolina, is planning to open another in Teays Valley in March. "They saw a shot and took it," said David Shell, project manager for the Putnam County-based G&G Builders, which is constructing the 10-screen, 1,600-seat Teays Valley Cinemas. "The land was there, and the population in the 60-mile radius would support a theater. … We have a lot of opportunities." Shell said G&G and All-Star are hoping to work together on projects in other parts of the state — possibly Beckley and Princeton. Other projects are under way, and some aren't that big. Beckley-based Marquee Cinemas is building a three-screen, stadium seating theater in Welch. Others are substantial. Texas-based Cinemark recently announced plans to build a 12-screen stadium theater in Bridgeport's Meadowbrook Mall. Georgia-based Carmike will close its six-screen Meadowbrook theater when the new one opens in November. Carmike, though, is battling back in other areas. It is remodeling its St. Clairsville, Ohio, site into an 11-screen stadium theater before new competition comes from the nearby Wheeling area, where Marquee is hoping to construct a stadium center near Cabela's. Carmike also is reacting in Morgantown, which has been the state's stadium-craze epicenter. If all plans move forward, the city could have 40 screens by next year. The Morgantown Experiment Oregon-based Wallace Theaters last year announced plans to construct a 12-screen theater at University Town Centre, a developing retail district in Granville. The Suncrest Towne Center, another business development on the other side of Morgantown, also announced it was talking to different operators about building a 10-14 screen theater. To counter the new competition, Carmike announced it would add stadium seating and a new sound system to its Morgantown Mall eight-screen theater. "Morgantown is experiencing significant growth generally," said Scott Rotruck, president of the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's a desirable location for cinemas. There's a large and growing demand for that type of entertainment. Sophisticated companies are doing this, so they know what they're doing. … I believe they'll generate a lot of traffic. This is a larger university community." Marquee Cinemas entered the mix last year, revealing plans for a 14-screen stadium theater at Suncrest. This year, though, Curtis McCall, the chain's president and CEO, said he was backing out for the time being. "The other theater beat us," McCall said. "Two theaters pretty much take care of the market. Two is probably too many, really. … Most markets aren't big enough to support two theaters." Larry Palumbo, one of Suncrest's owners, said, "We will definitely have a movie theater." The group is currently discussing plans with five potential operators. And he expects it to be the city's most successful theater because it will be near attractions such as the football stadium and share Suncrest with several "lifestyles" businesses, such as specialty food stores and bookstores, as opposed to University Town Centre's "big box" retail chains. However, Palumbo said, the other theaters should thrive, too. "Initially, (the Suncrest theater) may not be profitable," he said. "But as the population grows, it's going to be profitable. … Eventually, they'll all do well because of population growth." The rule of thumb, McCall said, is having 8,000 to 10,000 people for each screen. So if a theater is serving a surrounding population of 54,000, a six-screen cinema should fit well. Monongalia County's population, according to Census data from 2003, is about 85,000. Although Morgantown theaters could draw more people from surrounding counties and Pennsylvania, McCall's rule would not allow for 40 screens. West Virginia Film Office Director Pam Haynes said she is "very surprised" Morgantown would have 40 screens. "But operators have access to so many numbers, they wouldn't open a theater unless they thought it would do well," she said. "If the population comes, it will be wonderful." People aren't necessarily visiting theaters more often, but studios are producing many more films. A theater that can hold more movies should be more successful, said Mike Carunchia, who owns two theaters in Fairmont. "Twenty years ago, there were two or three new movies a month," he said. "Now, there are at least two or three a week." An area's retail sales and restaurant population also signal potential. "We try to evaluate markets according to a number of factors," McCall said. Morgantown's strong economy, Carunchia added, could support the projects. "Three might be pushing it, but they may pull it off," he said. The Smaller Players Some independent theaters in West Virginia are reacting to the increase in competition. Sandwiched between Bridgeport and Morgantown, both of which will soon offer stadium theaters, Tygart Valley Cinemas in Fairmont is converting three or four of its auditoriums to stadium style. "It's a new era, I guess, with stadium seating," said Carunchia, who owns Tygart, as well as the 59-year-old, three-screen Fairmont Theatre. The stadium concept involves moving viewers farther away from a larger screen, so Tygart, which opened in 1979, could lose some seating capacity. A 280-seat screen, for example, could become a 240-seat screen. Carunchia said the renovations should help the theater keep audiences who would rather not drive 12 miles to Bridgeport or 20 miles to Morgantown. "It'll be interesting to see," he said. "I'm sure there will be a little effect. It all comes down to what's playing and the admission prices. My prices are a little lower, which is a benefit of operating an independent theater." "Most older, traditional theaters have been outmoded at this point," said Nicholas Kostakos, who, with his father, co-owns a theater with seven screens, two of which have stadium seating, at Tygart Valley Mall in Elkins. He represents the fourth Kostakos generation to operate theaters. The family began operating the one-screen Elkins theater in 1939 and also ran the Pennsylvania-based Manos Theater chain, which had three locations in West Virginia before it shut down. "It's not hard to go in, build a stadium theater and take over a market," he said. "That's what's happening now." The Elkins Theater Co. is building a six-screen, stadium seating cinema in Buckhannon, about 30 miles from Elkins. It is scheduled to open in May. "The population (around Buckhannon) is basically the same as the Randolph County (where Elkins is the county seat) area," Kostakos said. "Buckhannon is growing rather quickly in relation to development along Route 33. … It was a pretty simple decision." The stadium theater trend is similar, Kostakos said, to a trend during the 1990s, when multiplex cinemas basically began consolidating theaters. For example, the 11-screen Park Place Stadium Cinemas and 12-screen Marquee Cinemas took over the Charleston market, and smaller theaters in the area didn't survive. Overbuilding during the 1990s led to an industry-wide slump among big theaters, too, but if more audiences turn to stadium cinemas, smaller, older, traditional theaters could feel the effects of this newest movement in theater building. Alternative Competition Smaller theaters could compete, though, if they offer alternatives. "If they show certain films the other theaters don't show, they might be able to survive," Kostakos said. The 70-year-old Warner Theatre in Morgantown has such a plan. "The Warner has carved out a niche for itself," said the theater's general manager, Amy Prunty. Located on High Street in Morgantown's downtown, the three-screen Warner attracts older crowds and college crowds who live, work and go to school within walking distance. Recently renovated, it carries an art deco flavor and antique atmosphere. "An evening at the Warner is less impersonal," Prunty said. And it almost always offers at least one independent or foreign film. "You usually don't get those at multiplexes," she said. The Warner is now experiencing a surge in business. The new theaters aren't opening for a while, and Carmike has shut down four of its eight screens for renovation. When the new four open, the others will shut down as well. So the Warner has the opportunity to show big budget films such as "Hitch." Last weekend, it saw about $12,000 in ticket sales, two and a half times its normal weekend take. At the same time, it is showing critically-acclaimed, such as "The Aviator." "Right now, we're trying to dig in our heels and gain a piece of the marketplace we didn't have before," Prunty said. "When the big theaters open, we anticipate a dropoff for approximately six to eight months, but we expect it to come back. … We're concerned, but only in the short term."

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