Night at the Movies Gets Cushier

Plush seats, roomy aisles, and gourmet snacks transform filmgoing at 1,000 US theaters

You can feel the floor rumbling before you even enter the movie theater. Once inside, where "Volcano" is just starting, thunderous sounds engulf the big, wide auditorium, and brilliant images fill the giant screen. You step up a sharply raked, stadium-style embankment and plop down into a softly upholstered seat. Leaning back against a headrest, you place your cafe latte in the cup receptacle at the end of your armrest.

A filmgoer's fantasy? Guess again. It's a real-life example of the luxurious, high-tech new theaters - many call them movie houses of the future - that have begun to open across the United States and the world.

Of the roughly 30,000 movie screens in the US today, only about 1,000 are state-of-the-art stadium-style, many on the West Coast. But they are the cutting edge of movie-house design, say most experts - distinctly wider and roomier than the long, narrow theaters most moviegoers are used to. And they are clustered in fancy "megaplexes" offering more and larger theaters, along with everything from automated and phone-ahead ticketing to hotel-like interiors.

"They're now putting 10, 12, 14, and sometimes many more screens in, as opposed to a number of years ago in which the standard multiplex might be six or eight," says Chapin Cutler, a principal of Boston Light and Sound, which designs professional film projectors. Houston's AMC Studio 30, for instance, opening today, boasts 30 theaters, including one seating 600 people.

"Volcano" is playing in the new 15-screen Hoyt Cinemas megaplex at the Solomon Pond Mall in Berlin, Mass. With its 51-foot-by-22-foot screen, the 410-seat "Volcano" theater recaptures some of the atmosphere of classic, cavernous movie palaces of the past. But the new look is almost aggressively state-of-the-art, and also carefully consumer-oriented, with yuppie touches. Forget popcorn and soda, although they are still available. Think croissant and Perrier, lots of legroom, and an unobstructed view of the screen from anywhere in the house.

Also think high-priced tickets? Not really. The flat rate for any theater at the Solomon Pond Hoyt Cinemas is $7.50 - within close range of first-run film theaters in most American cities.

All this is aimed at luring customers away from increasingly impressive home-video products on the market.

"I think there's a much more dramatic recognition by movie exhibitors of the need to better that," Mr. Cutler says. "They do this with powerful digital sound, big bright images, and a large open feeling instead of the small cramped feeling, which seemed to be the direction the industry was going. There's a much bigger push on improving the quality of screen images toward high definition. The larger the images get, the harder it gets to produce them."

In the 1950s, many theaters put in wide screens to compete with that new home-oriented phenomenon, television. But by the 1970s, exhibitors like American Multicinema and Cineplex Odeon recognized that it's more profitable to have several theaters in one location than one big theater.

"We were going through the period of chopping up big theaters into little pieces and trying to figure out ways of cramming screens into existing spaces," Cutler says, "as opposed to today, where they're actually designing the spaces around a screen. If someone came in but couldn't get a seat for the blockbuster he came to see, he would buy a ticket to see something else." Hence the small theaters so prevalent today.

Partly in reaction to these hall-like little auditoriums, the new look was developed. It is the result of much consumer research, says Roger Eaton, president of United States operations for the worldwide Hoyt Cinemas. Line of sight proved a key factor.

"There's nothing more irritating," he says, "than having someone in front preventing you from seeing."

Seating also figured prominently in consumer feedback. Mr. Eaton says the new theaters are aiming for "the equivalent of a first-class or business seat on an airline" offering enough room "so you don't have to do yoga-like gyrations every time someone moves in front of you." Dazzling screen images - and impressive sound - were other major consumer desires.

Overseas, "There's a huge push," Eaton says. "A number of American companies are doing installations in Europe and the Pacific Rim. They're basically using the same kind of techniques and architectural considerations as they are here."

In the US, it all became reality in 1995 when AMC Entertainment Inc. opened its AMC Grand24 in Dallas. The resulting success owes partly to the fact that "there are more amenities, more theaters, and more times for showing," says AMC spokeswoman Caye Crosswhite.

"Sometimes customers just show up and then decide what to see. When you're talking about a theater with 20 or 30 screens," she says, about the new megaplexes, "they're bound to find something."

The new facilities are drawing a wide audience, she says. "People are going to those theaters who haven't been to the movies for years."

Not all the new houses are big - but at places like Solomon Pond and AMC24, they all have state-of-the-art sound, stadium seating, and a wider, roomier feeling. These features enhance the experience of viewing either an art film or a blockbuster. At Solomon Pond, the big theater is the main attraction at the moment, concedes Stephen Operach, assistant manager of the Hoyt Cinemas there.

"People come in and just want to see it," he says. Yet even in the smaller houses there, "The screen is really big for the size of the house," he points out.

One of the next big technological steps will be digital video to to go along with digital sound, which is already available. Companies like Digital Projection in Atlanta, which have just started shipping the Power 4dv, say they expect digital video - offering even sharper, distortion-free images - is not far off, perhaps no more than a year.

The increasing worldwide demand, says Eaton, "is pushing the technology to the edge of what it has been in the past."

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