The Megaplex!

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In a world known as the 1990s, Chancler Haynes was a skinny kid in Dallas, the new kid at school, and he loved going to the movies.

Chancler Haynes:
Yeah, I grew up in Dallas. Favorite pastime was to go to the movies. That’s literally all I ever did. I mean, if I had a ‘nothing to do Saturday,’ which was often, I would see at least three or four movies a day, for sure. I think I was nine or 10 when I knew I wanted to work at a movie theater, but I couldn’t actually do it until I was, I don’t know, 14 or 15 is when they start letting people have jobs.

Roman Mars:
Chancler became a projectionist, which if you love movies, is a dream job. When new prints came in, Chancler would watch them all the way through for hiccups and errors, staying late, alone in the auditorium, but what he really loved was to see movies with other people. So he would go back to work on his days off and watch the same movies over again with a crowd – the more packed, the better.

Chancler Haynes:
Man, Fridays and Saturday nights were my favorite.

Clip from “First Strike”:
[JACKIE CHAN: LOOK, PLEASE TELL ME WHERE YOUR BROTHER’S HIDING?]

[WOMAN: WHY DO YOU WANT HIM?]

[JACKIE CHAN: BECAUSE ONLY YOUR BROTHER CAN PROVE I’M NOT A KILLER.]

Chancler Haynes:
You don’t know any of the people in that room, but you’re all on a common ground of how hilarious a scene is, or how scary the scene is, or how awesome it is to see Jackie Chan jump through a ladder. You know what I mean?

Roman Mars:
Oh my god. I miss going to the movies.

Chancler Haynes:
It was like everybody is on one accord. You don’t know that person, but you’re sitting there laughing with them and having a good time.

Roman Mars:
Theaters in the early ’90s, they weren’t usually all that nice, and Chancler’s was no exception. The auditoriums were cramped and narrow, the screen was dim.

Chancler Haynes:
It was a very tiny, semi-raggedy theater, but in the raggedy way that’s endearing, where it’s like the sound’s coming from one speaker…

Ryan Kailath:
But one day Chancler heard about a new kind of theater, on the other side of town.

Roman Mars:
This is reporter Ryan Kailath with the story of this intriguing new theater.

Ryan Kailath:
Chancler jumped in the car and drove downtown, and then past downtown — past the business district, past the hospitals, past the strip malls with the car dealerships, and finally down one of those long, empty roads that seems to anticipate suburbs that don’t exist yet.

Chancler Haynes:
You could see it from the highway. You know how a Walmart or a Sam’s Club looks from the freeway? No one ever says they can’t find it. So yeah, first time pulling up to that, it’s just like, “Wow.” Especially growing up in Dallas when you’re not around Hollywood stuff or anything like that. That’s like the closest you get to Hollywood. It’s like a cinema theme park. They made it feel like that all throughout.

Ryan Kailath:
Chancler could not believe how much better this theater was than the one where he worked. In fact, he would get off of work at his job where he saw movies for free, and drive 40 minutes across town to pay for movies at this new place.

Chancler Haynes:
It was like, oh, this is what’s going on. Why are we not doing this at the other place?

Ryan Kailath:
What Chancler had discovered there, in the suburban sprawl of Dallas, was the AMC Grand 24. Built in 1995, it was the first of its kind, the first movie megaplex in the U.S.

Roman Mars:
You know the kind – the gigantic, neon, big-box stores of moviegoing. They’re easy to dismiss as a tacky ’90s invention, but megaplexes, and specifically this one in Dallas, upended the entire theater business, and even changed the kinds of movies that got made in ways you might not imagine.

[MUSIC]

Ryan Kailath:
The rise of the megaplex is pretty recent, but it’s part of a pattern. The kinds of movies we watch has always been tied up with how we watch them and where.

Roman Mars:
The peak of moviegoing in this country was the 1940s, when there really wasn’t another game in town, besides… I don’t know, newspapers?

Ryan Kailath:
Comic books.

Roman Mars:
The old ballgame.

Ryan Kailath:
And then television came along, the TV dinner ’50s.

Roman Mars:
As television kept viewers at home, movies competed by becoming more spectacular. The 1960s was the era of huge studio epics.

Movie Clips:
[I’M SPARTACUS!]

[I’M SPARTACUS!]

[I’M SPARTACUS!]

Roman Mars:
And the theaters got bigger and more luxurious, as well.

Ryan Kailath:
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.

Ted Mundorff:
Well, yeah, I started out as an usher, and you never left the auditorium, so whatever movie was playing, you knew every line, every inflection that the director intended. You got to know movies pretty well.

Ryan Kailath:
Ted Mundorff’s first job was at a single-screen movie palace in the San Francisco suburbs in 1969.

Ted Mundorff:
Yeah, we had, I want to say, somewhere between 1200 and 1700 seats. So it was huge. It was like you wouldn’t even find anything like that today.

Roman Mars:
Every movie was a spectacle that couldn’t be recreated anywhere else.

Ryan Kailath:
Back then, studios and theaters had a business arrangement where 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.

Ted Mundorff:
If you lived in the suburbs, you had to get in the car or get on the train, and you had to go up to San Francisco to see the first-run movie. And then afterwards, the movies would play later in the suburbs.

Ryan Kailath:
In the early 70s, this began to change. Studios realized there was enough demand to release movies in the suburbs and the city, simultaneously.

Roman Mars:
But with just a single screen in most theaters, playing two movies meant half as many showtimes times for each one, which led to the next logical step, creating more screens.

Ted Mundorff:
You had the single screens, and then you had the cutting up of the single screens, so you had these terrible configurations, these bowling alley-type auditoriums that resulted from the slicing up of existing movie theaters.

Ryan Kailath:
Ted Mundorff’s enormous single screen was carved into two, and then four long narrow auditoriums.

Roman Mars:
And here and there some little four and six-plexes were built, now that there were enough films to sustain them.

Ryan Kailath:
But as moviegoing became a less exclusive experience, it became a less exclusive experience.

Roman Mars:
No more tuxedos.

Ryan Kailath:
As the ’70s rolled into the ’80s, theaters went from swanky to sticky.

Ted Mundorff:
Any Coke that ever spilled there, is still there today.

Ryan Kailath:
And this cramped, grungy sort of top floor of the mall movie experience was keeping people away. Ticket sales dropped 15% in the mid-80s.

Roman Mars:
Meanwhile, home video was taking off. So people were staying home with their televisions again.

Ryan Kailath:
And the industry took notice. Theater owners knew the whole experience needed an upgrade. If people were going to go to the movies less, we need to make it a knockout experience every time.

Roman Mars:
Enter Stan Durwood.

Ryan Kailath:
Back in the ’60s, Stan had taken over the family business, a little Kansas City chain called Durwood Theaters, and carved up their big screens to show more films. By the ’80s, he’d built a few dinky, little four-plexes, and eventually he changed the name of his company to American Multi-Cinema, AMC.

Roman Mars:
Stan was known in the industry as a rule-breaker and provocateur.

Nora Dashwood:
He was, um… larger than life.

Ryan Kailath:
That was a long pause.

Nora Dashwood:
He was a complex man.

Ryan Kailath:
Nora Dashwood worked for Sam at AMC for 22 years, and she says he identified the problems in the industry before anyone else. He realized upgrading theaters and offering people more choices was the only way forward. He’d been to Belgium and seen a huge cinema with 25 screens.

Nora Dashwood:
So he comes back from this trip. He says, “This is the future. This is what we have to do.”

Roman Mars:
The finance team ran the numbers and said, “No, this is a terrible idea. You will never sell enough tickets and popcorn to afford this thing.”

Nora Dashwood:
Increase rents, increase construction costs, and it just didn’t work. The math didn’t work.

Ryan Kailath:
Stan Durwood did not care. He bet the company on megaplexes. The AMC Grand would be first, but before it even opened, 30 other megaplex deals were locked, contract signed, ground being broken.

Nora Dashwood:
When he got an idea, that idea got materialized.

Ryan Kailath:
What would’ve happened if the bet had not paid off?

Nora Dashwood:
AMC would’ve gone bankrupt.

Roman Mars:
Nora was there in Dallas for the grand opening VIP party, and she says the energy at the event was nervous.

Nora Dashwood:
It was like, okay, you built it. Now is anyone going to come?

Roman Mars:
Oh, they came. In fact, they clocked out of their jobs at other movie theaters and came.

Chancler Haynes:
Walking in always put a smile on my face, because they go all out posters, and banners, and standees.

Ryan Kailath:
That’s Chancler Haynes again, who used to drive to the Grand from his job across town. This place was everything his theater wasn’t. It was brand new. The seats had new car smell. There were arcade games, neon everything, multiple concession stands, enormous displays and props. And then there were the auditoriums themselves, 24 of them.

Chancler Haynes:
The screens were massive. Even the smaller theaters had bigger screens than the theaters that I was used to.

Roman Mars:
Chancler wasn’t the only person going out of their way to get to this theater.

Kevin Morris:
I know there were six of us that went, six guys. We all piled into like an ’84 Thunderbird. I can remember that.

Ryan Kailath:
More than 20 years later, Kevin Morris still remembers the first time he went to the AMC Grand 24.

Kevin Morris:
It was well over an hour drive.

Ryan Kailath:
Was it worth it?

Kevin Morris:
Oh yeah. Well, for me it was, because I actually got to seat. It was packed. I mean, there was a lot of people there, and at two o’clock in the morning, if you can believe that for a movie.

Roman Mars:
AMC expected the Grand to attract 800,000 visitors in its first year. They got 3 million.

Ryan Kailath:
By this point, Ted Mundorff, the guy who used to work as an usher back in the ’60s, was a film buyer at a theater company in LA. Naturally, he kept an eye on the competition. He says the theater industry is unusual in this way because …

Ted Mundorff:
We share our numbers. So if you’re running a movie theater in Los Angeles, you can see the numbers, the box office results of an individual theater in Dallas, Texas.

Ryan Kailath:
Out of curiosity, how were you getting those reports? Were those emails? Was it too early? Were you getting faxes?

Ted Mundorff:
Oh… No, these were delivered. Hand-delivered to you. Big chunks of paper, like a newspaper except thicker, and they were delivered on a daily basis to the offices.

Roman Mars:
Ted would glance through these box office reports with his morning coffee, and he noticed that this one theater in Dallas was just going gangbusters.

Ryan Kailath:
So you’re seeing these numbers about the AMC Grand that are just insane. Then what?

Ted Mundorff:
Then we put a bunch of people on the plane and flew down and looked at the theater.

Movie Theater Announcement:
[REFRESHMENTS ARE AVAILABLE IN THE LOBBY, AND PLEASE KEEP OUR THEATER CLEAN BY DISPOSING OF TRASH IN SPECIFIED CONTAINERS. ENJOY THE SHOW.]

Ryan Kailath:
What Ted’s team saw in Dallas, it wasn’t just the big screens and big sound or the awe-inspiring lobby. There was something else bringing people to the AMC Grand.

Roman Mars:
Stadium seating.

Ryan Kailath:
Staggered seating on risers – steep risers – all the way up to the rafters, like a Roman Coliseum.

Roman Mars:
We’re used to this now, but at the time it was revolutionary. 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.

Ryan Kailath:
With stadium seating, every seat had an unobstructed view.

Ted Mundorff:
Someone was wearing a hat in front of you, didn’t matter. Someone was 6′ 10 in front of you, didn’t matter. You were high enough above them that you could see the screen.

Ryan Kailath:
Ted knew exactly what he had to do. Back in Los Angeles, his company was about to start construction on a new theater.

Ted Mundorff:
I mean, plans were done on this particular project and been approved by the city of Los Angeles. We were about to start breaking ground, and we immediately halted it. We knew at that point that stadium seating was the direction you had to go in if you were going to build new theaters.

Roman Mars:
Ted’s intuition was right. As megaplexes went up all over the country, the theaters around them collapsed.

Nora Dashwood:
So it was like a nuclear bomb in that when that thing opened, you could draw this circular ring around it and all the slope-floor, regular movie theaters around it lost anywhere from 40 to 80% of their business overnight. Overnight.

Roman Mars:
One by one theater companies rushed to get in on the megaplex trend, and took on a ton of debt trying to build these things.

Ryan Kailath:
Were there people who said, “Eh, it seems like a fad. I’m not going to bother”?

Ted Mundorff:
One of the largest companies in the country, that was their attitude. The president actually told me as he was building a theater said, “We don’t believe in stadium seating theaters.”

Ryan Kailath:
And what happened to them?

Ted Mundorff:
They went bankrupt.

Kelly O’Donnell:
The business has grown to 26,000 screens across the country. Even at a time when video rentals and cable channels keep some fans at home, megaplexes seem to pull moviegoers back to the big screen. Kelly O’Donnell, NBC News, Los Angeles.

Ryan Kailath:
That report was from early 1996, just a few months after the Grand opened. Within six years, the number of movie screens in the U.S. increased by 50%. In six years!

Roman Mars:
And this is where you really begin to see the architecture influencing the art.

Ryan Kailath:
Because these new movie palaces didn’t just pull moviegoers to the screen. They pulled movies to the screen.

Ben Fritz:
When there’s more screens to play, then you essentially need more content to play on them.

Ryan Kailath:
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 crank their production up to 11, and films got more varied, as well. A larger share of them started coming from original ideas instead of sequels, or remakes, or adaptations.

Ben Fritz:
All the movie studios will always start with the safest bets. They’ll always start with “Home Alone 3,” but eventually they run out of those, right? And then if they still need to make more, then they’re forced just take bets on that weird, original spec script that’s been sitting around that everybody thought was kind of cool, but nobody really wanted to take a risk on making.

Roman Mars:
For the first time in a long time, the major studios were throwing money at new ideas and new directors — indie-flavored movies — the type of which used to live only in small art-house theaters started getting wider release.

Jack Foley:
When it comes to the big box theaters, I always embrace them.

Ryan Kailath:
Jack Foley was a distributor at Miramax. That’s the person who sells movies from the studios to the theater owners. He distributed films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Trainspotting.”

Jack Foley:
I’m not running a museum. I want this to be a business, and you want this to play out to the masses. You want to corrupt the youth of America.

Ryan Kailath:
Foley 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 …

“Being John Malkovich” Movie Clip:
Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich.

Jack Foley:
“Being John Malkovich,” for your information, got into 630 theaters at the widest, and that was a pretty good break, because “Being John Malkovich” was on the border of incomprehensible. I used to say to Charlie Kaufman, “Hey, next time make your film linear.”

Ryan Kailath:
Yeah, I mean, I remember walking out of “Being John Malkovich” in theaters going, “what the hell was that?”

Jack Foley:
The New Jersey turnpike. (laughs) What about me seeing you seeing me seeing you in court?

[LAUGHTER]

Roman Mars:
“Being John Malkovich” came out in 1999 a year, that lots of people call one of the best movie years ever.

Ryan Kailath:
Can you just rattle off for me as many movies from 1999 as you can name from memory?

Brian Raftery:
Absolutely. Okay. So “Fight Club,” “The Matrix,” “Office Space,” “Three Kings,” “Election,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Notting Hill”…

Ryan Kailath:
Brian Raftery actually wrote a book about 1999, called “Best. Movie. Year. Ever.”

Brian Raftery:
You have “Being John Malkovich,” you have “Eyes Wide Shut,” you have “The Iron Giant,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Virgin Suicides,” “The Best Man.” That’s like the first wave.

Roman Mars:
“Drop Dead Gorgeous,” “But I’m A Cheerleader,” “American Movie,” “American Pie.”

Ryan Kailath:
“Run Lola Run,” “Go,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Girl, Interrupted.”

Roman Mars:
There are so many more.

Ryan Kailath:
Not only did all these great movies get made. They found an audience.

Brian Raftery:
You could go into a megaplex and say, “Okay, there’s not just 14 movies playing. There’s 14 different kinds of movies playing. And which one am I in the mood for right now?”

Roman Mars:
But this mini golden age of interesting, unusual, original films, it didn’t last that long.

Ryan Kailath:
Did it feel like, in the late ’90s, did it feel like a bursting of a bubble was coming?

Ted Mundorff:
Well, we knew structurally. We were in trouble.

Roman Mars:
The megaplex building craze had been so fast and furious that now there were just too many theaters, and nobody wanted the old dingy ones anymore, but there was still rent to pay on those buildings.

Ted Mundorff:
So you had all these old theaters and that’s what caused the bankruptcy, or bankruptcies. I think there were 12 of them.

CBS News:
[DAN RATHER: HOLLYWOOD IS COMING OFF A RECORD HOLIDAY WEEKEND AND APPEARS TO BE HEADED FOR A RECORD YEAR. BUT IRONICALLY, MORE MOVIE SCREENS WILL CLOSE THIS YEAR THAN OPEN…]

Ryan Kailath:
As the theater bubble began to pop, the creative one did, too. With fewer screens, there were fewer reasons to take chances on, you know, a weird story about a portal into the brain of John Malkovich.

Roman Mars:
Instead of showing all different kinds of movies on lots of different screens, exhibitors realized that they could just play one blockbuster, like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” on half the screens with a new show starting every 20 minutes.

Ted Mundorff:
What it did is it created this huge attention to opening weekend.

Ryan Kailath:
Studios love to break blockbusters wide, opening on as many screens as possible. That way they could rake in the cash and brag about the best opening weekend in box office history, which would generate more headlines, and buzz, and business.

Ted Mundorff:
So if you’re a film buyer, you get a call from the distributor and say, “Hey, you’re opening Batman, or you’re opening Pearl Harbor, or you’re opening whatever it is. I want two screens. I want three screens. I want four screens.” And sometimes those were conditional. In other words, you weren’t going to get the movie unless you could guarantee four screens on Pearl Harbor.

Roman Mars:
As blockbusters took up more and more screens, smaller indie movies got squeezed out. For a while, booming DVD sales provided another platform for oddball movies with a niche audience, but as DVDs disappeared later in the aughts, the major studios leaned more and more on their big franchise blockbusters, which is why every new movie these days is another “Spider-Man” sequel or “Fast and the Furious 25.”

Ben Fritz:
What’s hard to imagine that’s coming back from now is that I think movie theaters have become a place very much almost exclusively for these big-budget franchise films.

Ryan Kailath:
To what extent do you feel like really it’s the business model that is the valve that turns the creativity on or off?

Ben Fritz:
I think sometimes people look back and say, “Oh, there must be some kind of cultural movement that made Americans more interested in indie films in the ’90s, for example, or something was happening in the culture that we wanted to see these kind of Marvel franchise films starting in 2010.” 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.

Ryan Kailath:
Now, the economics of the movie business are changing even more radically. Theater companies were in trouble even before COVID. Attendance was dropping as people turn to Netflix with more and more binge-able content.

Roman Mars:
During the pandemic, the industry has been living out a real-life experiment people have wondered about for years, but never tested. What happens when new movies go straight to streaming or release simultaneously in theaters and at home?

Ryan Kailath:
If we can get them just as easily at home, which movies will get us to go out to theaters?

Ted Mundorff:
The smaller the film, the more in danger it is.

Ryan Kailath:
Ted Mundorff thinks the big action blockbusters will still get people out, but the dramas, and comedies, and weird little art films might be relegated to your TV.

Roman Mars:
Maybe by this summer, we can safely go back to theaters, and studios can start to gather data on what kinds of movies still have the power to pull us out. In the meantime, if you need just a little fix, if you just want to remember what it’s even like to see a movie with a bunch of people, let me recommend these audience reaction videos on YouTube recorded in the before times. There’s one that someone filmed in a movie theater as a very passionate audience was watching “Avengers: Endgame.”

[AVENGERS: ENDGAME CLIP BEGINS]

Roman Mars:
In this scene towards the end of the movie, there’s this one big battle where it looks like all hope is lost, but slowly all the heroes of the entire Marvel Universe come to the rescue, one by one.

Audience:
[NO WAY!]

Roman Mars:
And the audience just goes wild.

Audience:
[WHOA!]

[YES, BABY!]

[WHOA-HOO HOO!]

[YEAH!]

[WHOA-HO-HO!]

[YEAH, BABY!]

Ryan Kailath:
This clip reminds me of a feeling that I’ve almost forgotten, about watching movies in a packed theater. It truly is something you just can’t replace. Megaplex, art house, full lie-down recliners with the waiter service, fold-out chairs in the back of some art gallery. It doesn’t matter. I just want to sit in a dark room with a bright wall and cheer at the same stuff with a bunch of strangers.

Audience:
[OH MY GOD!]

[WOO-HOO!]

Roman Mars:
Spike Jones and Quentin Tarantino weren’t the only filmmakers trying to make it big back in the ’90s. There was also a motley gang of dentists. After the break.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m back with Ryan Kailath who reported that story. And there was a character that you interviewed for this story that we couldn’t quite fit into the tale that we were telling, but really fascinated you. So let’s hear some of that.

Ryan Kailath:
Yeah. It’s a little sub piece of this whole Megaplex rise and fall saga. One of my favorite people that I talked to throughout this thing. So the story of the Megaplex that we just went through, right? It’s this new technological invention that opened up room for all these new movies to be shown and new kinds of movies spreading across America.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Ryan Kailath:
Interesting, unusual ones. But they weren’t all “Being John Malkovich” and “Fight Club” and “The Matrix.” This boom in movie making also created some other kinds of movies, shall we say?

Roman Mars:
Not-so-indie classics.

Ryan Kailath:
Exactly. Exactly. And ’cause this was a gold rush of movie making, so lots of people got into the movie-making business, including somewhat famously a group of dentists, led by this guy-

Jim Chrysler:
My name is Jim Chrysler. I live in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So what’s his story?

Ryan Kailath:
At some point in the mid-nineties, he is living in the Midwest, in his words, “fighting the war on tooth decay.” And one night he and his friend decided to drive into Chicago for this charity auction that they’d heard about.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Ryan Kailath:
So they go and it just so happens that that night, the Bulls have a playoff game and the charity auction is empty. It’s like, Jim and his friend, and three other guys in this giant hotel ballroom and Jim gets one of the grand prizes for a steal. It is a walk-on part for his wife in a certain TV show that’s filmed in front of a live studio audience.

“Cheers” Theme Song:
[WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO GET AWAY]
[SOME TIMES YOU WANT TO GO]
[WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME]

Roman Mars:
Oh my goodness. That would be a dream come true. I guess we should say for people who are quite young or maybe don’t have Netflix, that is the theme song to “Cheers.”

Ryan Kailath:
That is the theme song to “Cheers.” So this happens. A few months later, Jim and his wife fly out to LA to the Paramount lot where “Cheers” is filmed. Jim gets to sit in the bleachers in the live studio audience.

Jim Chrysler:
And my wife got to sit at the bar and she got to meet the stars. And it turned out that Ted Danson had just had a root canal. And she says, “Well, my husband’s in endodontist. Are you having a problem? He says, “I am actually.” So she waves to me down to the bar area. And I’m standing there sticking my finger in Ted Danson’s mouth.

Ryan Kailath:
So incredible, right? Like, Jim is having the best night. He is then very primed after the break for when this guy he’d met in the audience sidles up to him later and says like, “Hey man, you’re a successful endodontist. You ever think about producing movies?”

Jim Chrysler:
I thought this was the coolest thing ever — I’m very naive. And it truly was just like lambs being led to a slaughter.

Ryan Kailath:
So this guy that he met talks him through the basics of producing movies and how much money you need and the work involved. And Jim goes back home to the Midwest and starts passing the hat around.

Jim Chrysler:
Well, I was in practice for 15 years at that point. And I had hundreds of friends who had a lot of money and it was the golden age of dentistry. And these guys were in their forties. One was an orthopedic surgeon. One was a general dentist. Another was an orthodontist.

Ryan Kailath:
Yeah. So this motley crew puts their money together and they make a movie called “Fever Lake.”

Ryan Kailath:
Oh, I’m going to watch it.

Jim Chrysler:
Yeah, please don’t.

Ryan Kailath:
I’m so sorry, Jim.

Roman Mars:
Did you watch it?

Clip of “Fever Lake”:
[STEVE, HURRY. HURRY UP. STEVE, I DON’T THINK IT’D HELP MUCH.]

Roman Mars:
This seems like a kind of typical “Cabin in the Woods”-slasher type movie.

Ryan Kailath:
Yes.

Jim Chrysler:
We hired Mario Lopez who was at the time just coming off “Saved by the Bell.” And he was looking for something to do. Corey Haim, who was between rehab and Mario became a good friend of mine, actually. I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but I’m sure we would rekindle a lot of memories if I ran across him.

Ryan Kailath:
“Fever Lake,” not a huge hit, obviously, but it got a lot of publicity.

Jim Chrysler:
So we didn’t deserve that kind of publicity. But at the time there were very few independent production companies made out of dentists from Wisconsin. We had a big premiere downtown and it made the front page.

Ryan Kailath:
So Jim’s happy for the publicity and all. He gets it. People think it’s cute that they’re dentists, et cetera. But also he had his limits.

Jim Chrysler:
The “Wall Street Journal,” in particular, came to me once. They said we’ll interview you in your office and would you sit by your dental chair with a cigar in your hand? I said, absolutely not. I said I’m above that. I’m not… I’m sorry. I’d rather not do the article.

Roman Mars:
I like that he stood up for himself. I liked that he drew a line in the sand and said, you can have your fun, but I will not participate in it to this extent. But that’s, that’s great. Well, good for him.

Ryan Kailath:
And “Fever Lake” made money.

Jim Chrysler:
But it was so bad. It was culty. People picked up on it and it wouldn’t cost us that much money. So we got out of it pretty well. The problem was it’s a bit like going to Vegas and winning for the first time.

Ryan Kailath:
Cause these guys were like, great, let’s keep going. So they kept making movies and they became the dentist production company.

Jim Chrysler:
Flying back and forth, doing root canals one day and going out and doing, producing a movie the next day.

Ryan Kailath:
Not every film did as well, but Jim says they didn’t lose money on a single film. So yeah, Jim’s feeling pretty good about himself at this point.

Jim Chrysler:
Who do you think you’re dealing with here, baby? At that point, I had become this dental mogul in Hollywood.

Ryan Kailath:
Then though in the early 2000s, just as this Megaplex bubble is bursting – and frankly, a lot is changing in the whole industry – Jim found things harder to navigate. So he took a long break from the movie industry and just focused on the day job. Although in the past several years, Jim is back at it. Recently, one of his movies won a BAFTA for best feature in Scotland.

Roman Mars:
The funny thing is, I think before you told me the story, I would think it’s just a disaster to get involved in producing movies. But now I’m kind of like, hey, maybe I should get into producing movies. Well, thanks, Ryan. This was really fun.

Ryan Kailath:
Yeah. I’m so glad we got to tell Jim’s story.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Ryan Kailath. Edited by Katie Mingle. Mixed by Ameeta Ganatra. Music by our director of sound, Sean Real. Delaney Hall is the senior producer, Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Emmett FitzGerald, Joe Rosenberg, Christopher Johnson, Abby Madan, Chris Berube, Vivian Le, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. 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.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a part of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective with the best, most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Discover, listen, and support them all at Radiotopia.fm. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. But we have every episode of 99% Invisible playing on over 400 screens at 99pi.org.

 

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….

  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.

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