The Megaplex!

Back in the early 1990s, movie theaters weren’t that great. The auditoriums were cramped and narrow, and the screen was dim. But in 1995, the AMC Grand 24 in Dallas changed everything. It was the very first movie megaplex in the United States. This is the gigantic, neon, big-box store of moviegoing that we’re all used to  today, and it’s easy to dismiss as a tacky ‘90s invention. But the megaplex—specifically this first megaplex in Dallas—upended the entire theater business and changed the kinds of movies that got made in ways you might not imagine.

The Big Picture

The rise of the megaplex is pretty recent, but it’s actually part of a long pattern of movie-viewing. The kinds of movies that we watch have always been tied up with how and where we watch them. The peak of moviegoing in this country was the 1940s when the average American went to the movies at least once a week. And then, television came along.

As television kept viewers at home, movies competed by becoming more spectacular. The 1960s was the era of huge studio epics, and theaters got bigger and more luxurious as well. To see a movie at the time was to have an usher in a tuxedo hand you a printed program before guiding you to your seat.

Back then, studios and theaters had a business arrangement: if a theater had a certain movie, nobody else in the area could play it. Seeing a film was kind of like seeing a painting or a Broadway show. It lived at one particular location, and you had to go there. But in the early 1970s, this began to change. Studios realized there was enough demand to release movies in the suburbs and the city simultaneously. Meanwhile, theaters divided their one big auditorium into two, three, or four auditoriums to make room for more screens.

As the seventies rolled into the eighties, movie-going had become a significantly less swanky experience. Auditoriums were cramped, floors were sticky, and attendance was dropping. Meanwhile, home-video was taking off. People were staying home with their televisions again and theater owners knew the whole experience needed an upgrade. Enter: Stan Durwood.

American Multi-Cinema

Back in the 60s, Stan Durwood had taken over the family business. It was a small Kansas City movie theater chain called Durwood Theaters. By the 1980s, he’d built a few dinky four and six-plexes and eventually he changed the name of his company to American Multi-Cinema (AMC). Stan was known in the industry as a rule-breaker and provocateur and he realized that upgrading theaters and offering people more choices were the only way forward. He’d gone to Belgium and seen a huge cinema with 25 screens and wanted to spread this model across the United States. Despite told by his finance team that this was a terrible idea, Durwood persisted. In fact, he bet the company on megaplexes. The AMC Grand in Dallas would be the first megaplex in the U.S., but before it opened, AMC had locked 30 other deals to build these massive, costly structures.

Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres at Geneva in Provo, Utah, USA. Photo by Buglord (CC BY SA 4.0)

This new megaplex was a huge departure from the cramped and tiny theaters of the past. The seats had that new car smell. There were arcade games, neon everything, and multiple concession stands. Plus, it had twenty-four auditoriums. But the truly revolutionary thing about megaplexes was something else: stadium seating.

Stadium seating meant the seats were on tiered risers, all the way up to the ceiling. Before the AMC Grand, theaters had floors that were just ever so slightly sloped. If you got the wrong person in front of you, the movie was ruined. With stadium seating, every seat had an unobstructed view. People loved it. AMC expected the theater to attract 800 thousand visitors in its first year. They got 3 million.

One by one, theater companies rushed to get in on the megaplex trend and took on a ton of debt to build these huge new structures. Over the next six years, the number of movie screens in the United States increased by fifty percent. But these new movie palaces didn’t just pull moviegoers to the screen; they pulled movies to the screen.

If  You Build It… They Will Watch

Ben Fritz is an editor at the Wall Street Journal and wrote a book about the 21st-century movie business. He says between the rise of DVDs, and all this new screen real estate, film studios cranked up their production. Films became more varied and a larger share of them started coming from original ideas, rather than from sequels, remakes, or adaptations. Suddenly the major studios were throwing money at new ideas and new directors. Creative new indie movies—the type of which used to live only in small arthouse theaters— started getting a wider release.

Jack Foley was a distributor at Columbia and he says the megaplex was a Trojan horse for slipping strange, subversive movies into unsuspecting suburbs across America. If the latest teen movie was sold out, kids might end up seeing something like Being John Malkovich.  And Being John Malkovich was not an outlier. The year it was released— 1999 —was a year that many people believe was one of the best movie years ever. Not only did all these great movies get made, but they were able to find an audience in Megaplexes across the country.

But this mini golden age of interesting, unusual, original films didn’t last all that long. The megaplex building craze had been so fast and furious that by the early 2000s there were way too many theaters. No one wanted to go to the old theaters anymore, but there was still rent to pay on those buildings, and several theater companies declared bankruptcy. As the theater bubble began to pop, the creative one did too. For a while, booming DVD sales provided another revenue stream for oddball movies with a niche audience, but as DVDs disappeared later in the 2000s, the major studios leaned more and more on their big, franchise blockbusters.

It Was Fun While it Lasted…

By the mid-2000s, the movies were becoming a “first weekend” business. Studios tried to break blockbusters wide, opening on as many screens as possible, and theater owners realized instead of putting a different movie on every screen, they could give the blockbusters multiple screens with a new showtime every 20 minutes. As blockbusters took up more and more screens, smaller movies got squeezed out.

“I think sometimes people look back and say, ‘Oh, there was there must be some kind of cultural movement that meant Americans were interested in indie films in the 90s,'” explains Ben Fritz, an editor at the Wall Street Journal. “No, (it’s really) the explanation is that the economics of the movie business changed in that time and that changed the types of movies the studios were making.”

The economics of the movie business is changing even more radically now. Theater companies were in trouble even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut them all down. Attendance was dropping as people turned to Netflix with more and more binge-able content. During the pandemic, the industry has been living out a real-life experiment it’s wondered about for years, but never tested: what happens when new movies go straight to streaming? Or release simultaneously in theaters and at home? If we can get them just as easily at home, which movies will get us to go out to theaters? Ted Mundorff is the President and COO of ArcLight Cinemas and he thinks the big action blockbusters will still get people out to theaters, but the dramas and comedies might increasingly be relegated to your TV.

Hopefully, by this summer, we’ll be able to safely return to theaters, and studios can start gathering data on what kinds of movies still have the power to pull us out. In the meantime, if you need to remember what it’s like to watch a movie in a packed theater, we suggest this audience reaction video that occasionally makes the rounds on social media:

Credits

Production

Reporter Ryan Kailath spoke with Chancler Haynes, a film editor at Cosmo Street; Ted Mundorff, President of ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres; Nora Dashwood, Chief Operating Officer of ArcLight Cinemas; Kevin Morris, film fan; Ben Fritz, editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies; Jack Foley, studio film distributor; Brian Raftery, author of Best Movie Year Ever: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen.

Special thanks to Charles Acland at Concordia University for his help and time on this story. His book Screen Traffic was a great resource. Thanks also to Bill Banowsky, Dan Jinks, Michael Shamberg, and Sharon Waxman.

This episode was edited by Katie Mingle and Joe Rosenberg.

 

    1. BIgCNuggit

      All they had to do was google “first megaplex”. I grew up at Studio 28 and will never forget Jurassic Park in theater 1 with the curtains being drawn back….

    2. chuck snow

      Heck, the Dallas megaplex wasn’t even the first one by AMC. Back when the Marque said “SONY”, they built a 13 screen theater in Manhattan, complete with the (arguably) first commercial IMAX theater, and theaters in the basement rigged up with new fangled tech that allowed you to choose how a movie unfolded, a generation before Netflix and “bandersnatch.” The success of this location started the era of IMAX theaters showing commercial/hollywood films. Several of the senior staff would go on to build the Dallas location for the company.

  1. Stacy

    That feeling you get when you’re in a crowd, all experiencing the same thing, is called “collective effervescence” – and it’s one of the things that I miss the most about the Before Covid times. I’ve felt it in crowds listening to great music, when the later summer sun is perfect. I’ve felt it in audiences watching amazing dancing, circus acts, or heart-wrenching plays. I’ve felt it the crowd around the Man at Burning Man, watching the fireworks go and then the Man’s arms raising just before the fire starts. I felt it in a nerdy Star Wars-themed bar that showed the last few episodes of Game of Thrones, live, to an enthusiastic crowd. And I really look forward to feeling it again!

    1. Frederik

      So.. Was this originally a Belgian invention? Or where did this originate from?

  2. Jay

    One of my favourite things I’ve seen in theaters in the past 5 years was a collaboration between cinaplex and museums to do an “Monet” biography/ art showing. it was fun, and interesting, and so incredible to see these pieces in intense detail on a huge screen. As much as I know that it was not a well attended showing (there were maybe 50 of us, most over the age of 50 and then myself at 18) I hope theatres put on more niche showings of things that utilize these giant screens in interesting ways.

  3. Justin

    This was great! Thank you.

    I live in Portland OR and went to so many movies here as a kid. There was Eastport Plaza, which had several 1000 seat auditoriums and huge screens in the late 80s.

    I remember seeing Batman 8 times in the theater at the local mall (Clackamas), which had many screens (maybe 8)?

    Local brewpub empire McMenamins pioneered (AFAIK) movies with beer and food for adults. They even bought up old mouldering theaters and reopened them (this is more 90s).

    Finally, stadium seats came late. We had Act III (which became Regal) and I bet they are the company referneced this didn’t believe in stadium seating. I think Cinetopia 8 (now owned by AMC) pushed Regal into stadium.

    Oh and just a note, the theater jingle you played was definitely Regal (and previously Act III). I heated and watched that cheesy roller coaster more times than I could count. They were still using it up this year!

  4. jax

    Watching movies with people in VR is a blast, sure you don’t get exact expressions but people are not afraid to react like they would in the theater.

  5. SW

    Fascinating episode.
    I’m left with the question that hopefully you can tell me:
    Did the rise of the megaplex benefit Black and Latine filmmakers as well as indie white filmmakers? I noticed that the indie movies you mentioned were all white-people-centered. I’d personally find it notable if Hollywood was willing to recruit white dentists from the Midwest to make movies but deliberately snubbed PoC, or if the rising tide of the megaplex helped lift all boats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize

Playlist