21 Theaters in a movie complex? That may be just the beginning

Anchored in Toronto's mile-long Eaton Center Mall is a complex that could be the future of motion-picture theaters. It's called Cineplex, a creature its owners like to boast of as a kind of 21-projector salute to the filmgoer.

With 21 separate movie auditoriums under one roof, Cineplex goes far beyond the trend of recent years to squeeze anywhere from two to eight screens into one site. Yet Cineplex Corporation is in the process of making Eaton Center just one of a string of multi-cinema complexes.

The company now has 20 locations in Canada -- some of them comparatively small 6-screen affairs -- but others have 9, 10, or a dozen screens. Cineplex plans to invade the US in June with a 16-screen site in Los Angeles.

Cineplex is perhaps the extreme example of what has happened to the movie houses. Since the halcyon days of the sumptuous movie palaces, business has been taken away by new forms of entertainment, particularly television and now, cable. As a result, single-screen city and neighborhood theaters increasingly have given way to the flashy multiscreen sites, where often the most dramatic part of the evening is the sight of the gleaming candy counter (the profits of which theater owners depend heavily on).

At Cineplex, president Garth Drabinsky's husky voice booms with confidence. ''Gradually,'' he said, ''there will be a conversion toward our idea.''

Mr. Drabinsky, whose busy life has included producing several major motion pictures (including ''Tribute'' and most recently ''The Amateur''), foresees no second run for larger movie theaters. ''It's unrealistic in today's environment. Those theaters made sense when there was nothing competing against movies. Now, perhaps there is room for one of these per community.''

Asked how watching Cineplex movies, on their smaller screens, differs from home television watching, Mr. Drabinsky responds, ''There's no comparison. Most people I know like to see movies with an audience.'' He adds that the experience of watching movies at Cineplex differs little from the big-screen theaters because his theaters are carefully proportioned.

And there's a big financial advantage: smaller overhead per theater. ''Take 'My Dinner With Andre' for instance. With a movie like this,'' Mr. Drabinsky said, ''word of mouth takes over. The audience can build week to week. And we don't have to have the big receipts a larger theater would require to maintain movies.''

He adds that when popular films overrun the capacity of his theaters, (which average 100 seats) there's the option at the Eaton Center of running a movie in as many as three theaters at once using the same print.

A diet of mostly mainstream films is shown there, with movies hanging on for as long as they continue to draw audiences. Monty Python's iconoclastic ''Life of Brian'' ran for over two years. ''Stripes'' lasted for 22 weeks.

Cineplex has provided a home for art films too -- 3 1/2 blocks away at the 10 -screen Carlton Cinemas. The company intends to maintain a more subdued atmosphere there and will continue to run films like ''Oblimov'' and ''Three Brothers,'' which were among the selections during a recent week.

Not everyone is enthusiastic, however, about the shrinking size of theaters. There's John Tibbetts, for instance, who has a doctorate in film and theater and teaches at the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and Avila College. Dr. Tibbetts is executive editor of the nostagia magazine American Classic Screen and on the board of governors of the National Film Society, which publishes American Classic Screen.

To him multi-cinema complexes offer no hint of romance. ''They are unadorned theaters. It's a little like watching TV in that you are very much aware of your surroundings.

''There's something that's lacking. It's a sense of style. It's like going into someone's house to look at a photograph stuck on the wall. It's a pity people don't complain more.''

During the golden age of movies from the 1920s through 1940s, he said, ''oftentimes it was the movie palace itself that was the attraction.''

Dr. Tibbetts doesn't foresee the return of the bigger theaters or even the neighborhood cinemas. ''The upkeep on the old movie houses is so prohibitive.'' But, he adds, ''multiplexes will be gone in 10 years. With the increasing accessiblity of movies on video, there will be no need for them.

''It will be a special deal then to go to the movies. We still go to plays, though we can see the same thing on film.''

According to film critic and author Jonathan Rosenbaum, the entire moviegoing experience has changed. ''We are not encouraged to linger at the theater. They are built to get people in and out. But it's always easy to say it was better the old way.

''Today it's a different concept. And people go to films for different reasons. I personally like to go to theaters with big screens and sit near the front of the theater, and there's a certain pleasure in seeing a film with a big audience.''

With complexes like Cineplex, though, ''you should be able to appeal to specialized audiences such as those who would go to art films.''

Donald Baker is skeptical. He is vice-president for advertising and promotion of Loews Theaters, which owns 160 medium to large cinemas. He also is chairman of the advertising committee of the National Association of Theater Owners.

''Our information is that the public really doesn't like small theaters. In fact, I think that you'll find the size of the theaters increasing. They're building them bigger now than they were 10 years ago.''

On the other hand, Mr. Baker sees little chance for a revival of the movie palaces. Energy costs alone drive theater owners to divide their expenses between more than one movie auditorium.

Many of the smaller theaters have been twinned or tripled. The movie palaces have gone the same route - when they haven't been closed or torn down. Those that have been saved from demolition often blossom as cultural centers.

Last December New York's Rivoli Theater on Broadway, which had been a single since it opened in 1917 with Douglas Fairbanks in ''The Americano,'' reopened as a twin. Its 1,600 seats had been too difficult to fill. Remarks Leonard Kaplan, manager of the theater, ''When you twin a theater, the added overhead is practically nil.''

There are only a few movie palaces in the grand tradition still open. Some, of course, are used for other purposes, like the Strand in Dorcester, Mass., which is now a performing arts center. But the Chicago Theater in Chicago is still a movie house. The huge theater opened 1921 with an explosion of hoopla. In recent years the Chicago has relinquished its status as a first-run movie house a to program of ''action'' movies.

''It's difficult but not impossible to maintain the Chicago,'' remarks Patrick Burns, a district manager for Plitt Theaters Inc., owners of the Chicago. ''Your general overhead is astronomical. For instance, you've got to heat the auditorium from the main floor to the top, which is seven stories high.''

During the 1970s, the Chicago was on a hit list of buildings to be knocked down by the North Loop Redevelopment Project, a slow-moving effort to revitalize part of Chicago's downtown area. Through the activities of a group called the Chicago Theater Trust and others who wanted the theater saved, plans to raze the building have been dropped.

According to theater trust president Richard Sklenar, the theater is ''the best people place that was ever built on State Street.'' The Trust was formed to ''save the theater so that it can be the premiere live showcase for the city.''

Recently, live acts have been reappearing at the theater. February's ''Loop Alive'' festival included five nights of live shows at the Chicago, with the stars like Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, and Bob Hope pulling in sellout crowds for most performances.

The trust gave tours, sold pamphlets, and generally reveled in the renewed attention the theater was receiving. Although this rare movie monument plans a program of action movies, the Chicago's prosperity has been given a boost.

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