THEATERS BUILT FOR THE MOVIES
WIRING FOR SOUND
BEYOND THE PICTURE PALACE
DRIVE-INS AND ART CINEMAS
FROM MULTIPLEX TO MEGAPLEX
Throughout the twentieth century, motion pictures were screened in a host of different places, including schools, churches, parks, and retail stores. But until the use of the home VCR became widespread in the 1980s, the primary site for film exhibition was the movie theater, which offered on a regular basis—and always for the price of a ticket—a moving picture program, a social experience, and sometimes much more. "Despite the glamour of Hollywood," wrote economist Mae Huettig in 1944, "the crux of the motion picture industry is the theater" (p. 54). To a great extent, this remained true well into the late twentieth century.
From their introduction, movie theaters have varied considerably in size, architecture, technology, location, clientele, ownership, and symbolic significance. They have varied over time as well, with the first generation of nickelodeons giving way to buildings, grand or modest, that were actually constructed as film theaters, even veritable picture palaces, as they were quickly dubbed. The classical Hollywood system relied on glamorous, often huge, first-run metropolitan venues as well as more modest urban neighborhood theaters and small-town picture houses. When motion-picture attendance fell dramatically from the late 1940s through the 1970s, drive-ins provided a novel alternative to the traditional "hardtop" theater, as did art house cinemas specializing in non-Hollywood fare. The multiplex, often housed in a shopping center, became a principal exhibition site in the late 1960s and 1970s, only to be replaced by the free-standing megaplex, the latest evolution of the movie theater. Each of these theatrical screening sites offered not only a differently designed space for the public exhibition of film but also promoted a particular type of film program and provided a distinctive moviegoing experience. The various incarnations of the movie theater reflect the shifting place of cinema in the everyday life of the twentieth century.
By 1907 cities and towns across the United States and Canada were home to a new site for commercial amusement, the nickelodeon—an inexpensive, unadorned moving picture theater charging a mere five cents per ticket. It is difficult to ascertain when the first nickelodeon appeared. One frequently cited origin is the Nickelodeon theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened in June 1905 by Harry Davis, a local commercial entertainment entrepreneur. Before this date, moving pictures had often been screened in standard entertainment venues: outdoor tent shows; small-town opera houses; and, most notably, vaudeville theaters. Such sites were soon overshadowed by the nickelodeon. New theaters with names like the Bijou Dream and the Gem opened in every region, devoted primarily (though not exclusively) to screening film programs. Even if many of these theaters were short-lived enterprises, the nickelodeon boom unquestionably went a long way toward establishing moving pictures as a key form of commercial entertainment.
One reason for the remarkable jump in the number of moving picture theaters in the years from 1906 to 1909 was the increased availability of narrative film, which could be rented from film exchanges rather than purchased outright. Theaters owners thus had access to a steady stream of new product, which they presented in a continuously run loop throughout the day. Along with a film program that was changed at least three times a week, nickelodeons frequently offered musical accompaniment, as well as "illustrated songs," which were vocal performances of popular tunes illustrated by colorful projected slides.
While certain nickelodeons tried to cater to a "better" clientele, the majority of the new theaters that suddenly appeared in urban downtowns, residential neighborhoods, and the main streets of rural communities made no attempt to compete in size and decor with concert halls or even local opera houses. An empty former retail store, a projector, two hundred or even fewer wooden chairs, a piano, and some sort of ticket booth would suffice to create a nickelodeon. To announce its presence and attract passersby, this new type of commercial showplace often quite literally spilled out onto the sidewalk. A decorated facade, complete with poster displays, drew attention to the venue, as did music that might be directed out toward the street. Typically open during the day and well into the evening, in certain places even on Sundays, the low-overhead nickel theater proved to be more than another faddish get-rich-quick scheme.
Early estimates from the motion picture trade press suggest that by 1910, as many as ten thousand nickelodeons were operating in the United States. As the nickelodeon boom continued, the movies increasingly became woven into the fabric of daily life, especially for workingclass audiences that could take advantage of this accessible and cheap form of public amusement. Heavily dependent on a regular clientele that lived within walking or streetcar distance, the nickelodeon both presented a nationally available product (the movies) and offered a public, social entertainment experience that reflected the tastes of a particular community, neighborhood, or ethnic group.
Competition among theater operators was fierce, as all sought to make what might have initially been a patron's novel experience into a regular habit. From the ranks of nickelodeon operators came a number of men who would eventually shape the motion picture industry, including Marcus Loew (1870–1927) (one of the founders of MGM), William Fox (1879–1952) (founder of Fox studios), and the Warner brothers. In addition, almost immediately nickelodeons faced criticism from religious groups and civil authorities, in part because these cheap theaters attracted audiences that included women and children. Fire was also a very real danger, given the flammability of the 35mm nitrate film then in use. The danger was especially great for the large number of projectionists (or "operators") that the burgeoning industry required. Municipal building and safety codes were instituted to regulate the construction of projection booths, the seating arrangement, and the means of entry and exit. City license fees afforded another form of regulation.
The nickelodeon boom echoed throughout North America between 1906 and 1910, and in some regions, this type of low-overhead, barebones moving picture theater remained a viable business venture well into the 1910s, especially in villages and small towns. But the competition for the commercial amusement market and the desire to reach a broader—and likely more middle-class—audience meant that the simple storefront nickelodeon increasingly gave way to larger, more pretentious, and more permanent venues. Theaters originally built for stage productions and vaudeville were refitted to house moving picture shows, as were other retail spaces. Fenced-in, open-air theaters, called airdomes, made moviegoing an appealing activity on summertime evenings, especially in St. Louis, Missouri, and other larges cities, as well as small towns, across the American Midwest. Most important, buildings, like the Regent Theatre in New York City (built in 1912), began to be specifically designed for moving picture presentation. Since these buildings frequently had balconies, full-size stages, and even dressing rooms, they differed little in design from legitimate theaters of the period. Nonetheless, the construction of buildings designated as moving picture theaters signaled the growing prominence of film in the field of commercial amusement, as well as the increasing visibility of the movies in daily life.
Sometimes with considerably more than five hundred seats, these new moving picture theaters promised a blend of comfort and elegance to rival established urban theaters and the all-purpose, small-town venues, generically referred to as "opera houses." Such movie theaters typically featured electrically illuminated marquees, inviting foyers, decorative terra cotta facades, wood-paneled walls, marble or carpeted floors, and plushly upholstered chairs. They boasted of their modern air circulation and heating systems, in addition to fireproof projection booths and up-to-date safety precautions. Advertising often fore grounded these design features in an attempt to expand the social class makeup of the audience and to waylay public concern about the potential hazards of the movie theater, especially for children.
At the same time, since many of these theaters had one or two balcony sections, exhibitors could strictly segregate their patrons, sometimes by age or social class, but most often by race, with the less desirable balcony being "reserved" for African Americans. Even in the nickelodeon era, so-called "colored theaters" had begun to appear that catered specifically to African American audiences. With racial segregation a fact of everyday life well into the 1950s and 1960s, "colored" theaters—in a few cases owned as well as operated by African Americans—were a prominent feature of African American communities across the United States, especially in the sound era. More than four hundred such theaters were in operation in the early 1940s and even more in the immediate post-World War II period.
The movie theaters that began to appear in early 1910s were often equipped with well-appointed washrooms and lounges, whose attendants joined an increasingly large corps of movie theater employees: uniformed ushers and doormen, ticket-takers, projectionists, and musicians. The presence of these workers helped to link the theater to the community or neighborhood where it was located, a connection that was underscored when the theater was made available for charity events, amateur shows, and even public school outings.
In addition to their increasingly long and ambitious film programs, the new wave of movie theaters continued to feature musical entertainment, long after the illustrated song had ceased to be a regular part of the bill. Mechanical instruments like the Wurlitzer Photoplayer provided both musical accompaniment and sound effects. Even smaller theaters began to employ live "orchestras"—which, in practice, could mean anything from a drum-piano duo to an eight-piece ensemble performing in the pit in front of the stage.
Among the countless movie theaters built in the early and mid-1910s, a few metropolitan venues, like the 3,000-seat Strand Theatre in New York City (opened in 1914), set a new standard for opulence and size, initiating what would become the age of the picture palace. The term itself is difficult to define, though "picture palace" is generally taken to mean a multileveled venue with at least fifteen hundred seats; a fan-shaped auditorium; a complete stage and orchestra pit; a Mighty Wurlitzer or some other theater organ; state-of the-art projection and lighting equipment; luxurious décor; ornate architectural features; and a massive, brightly lit facade that gave the theater an inescapable presence when viewed from the street. (The largest picture palaces, containing more than two thousand seats and located in a metropolitan downtown area, were also referred to as "deluxe" theaters.) A virtual army of well-trained, uniformed service employees staffed the well-appointed restrooms of the picture palace and guided patrons through a grand lobby, up a sweeping staircase, down wide promenades, and into the multi-tiered auditorium. Through the initiative of theater owners like Balaban and Katz (operating in Chicago), air conditioning became another selling point of the picture palace by the late 1920s. All these elements collectively made the picture palace not only an architectural showpiece that
THOMAS W. LAMB
b. Dundee, Scotland, 1871, d. 26 February 1942
Thomas W. Lamb was the most important of several notable architects who had a significant effect on the design, prestige, and cultural role of the American movie theater during the age of the picture palace. Lamb (and his firm) designed more than three hundred theaters, primarily in the United States but also in Canada, England, Australia, and South Africa.
Born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1871, Lamb moved to the United States in 1899 and soon thereafter graduated from Cooper Union Institute with a degree in architecture. After working as a city building inspector, Lamb was hired by William Fox (future head of Fox studios) in 1909 to design his first major project, the City Theatre, in New York City. When called on three years later to design the Regent Theatre, which was promoted as the first high-class theater built expressly to screen motion pictures, Lamb devised a facade borrowing from Italian renaissance architecture and an auditorium that featured clear sightlines for all seats.
Then followed a series of major theaters designed by Lamb, primarily in midtown Manhattan, including the Strand (1914), the Rialto (1916), and the Rivoli (1917), with its facade of white-glazed terra-cotta columns resembling the Parthenon. Lamb's position as the preeminent theater architect in the United States was sealed when he designed what was to be the world's largest theater, the Capitol, which opened in October 1919. For the 5,300-seat Capitol, Lamb relied on huge fluted columns, heavy damask curtains, a grand dome, and extensive silver leaf decoration. Like the Capitol, Lamb's other theaters in this period (including venues in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati) reflected his indebtedness to eighteenth-century British architect Robert Adam, whose neoclassical buildings were influenced by ancient Roman architecture.
In the mid-1920s Lamb's theaters became much more ornate, drawing, for example, on the flamboyance of the Italian baroque. In picture palaces like Loew's Midland Theater in Kansas City and the Fox in San Francisco, Lamb offered what he called "something more gay, more flashy" that would captivate audiences with its splendor. By the late-1920s Lamb's theaters became even more exotic, borrowing freely and combining elements from so-called "Oriental" designs (Persian, Hindu, and Byzantine) as well as European motifs. Lamb even borrowed from fellow theater architect John Eberson, and created a series of "atmospheric" theaters, where the traditional domed ceiling was replaced by a facsimile of the sky and the auditorium walls were decorated to resemble the interior of a garden or elegant patio. Lamb's work continued in a much different direction in the 1930s with designs for the art-deco styled Trans-Lux newsreel theaters.
Hall, Ben M. The Best Remaining Seats: The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace. New York: Potter, 1961.
Naylor, David. American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
Gregory A. Waller
stood out in the busy shopping district but also an experience quite distinct from the mundane.
Architects like Thomas W. Lamb (1871–1942) and John Eberson (1875–1965) were key figures in developing the opulent style of the American picture palace, which could vary quite dramatically from theater to theater, while always being an exercise in extravagance and ostentatious grandeur. Such theaters might be organized around a single theme—for example, a Spanish, Persian, and Chinese motif, which would be evident in the interior wall treatment, lighting, stage design, carpeting, fixtures, and furniture. The goal was to create an environment where the movies were only one part of a larger entertainment experience.
Eberson specialized in what were known as "atmospheric" picture palaces, beginning with the Majestic in Houston, Texas, which was built in 1922. The auditorium in an Eberson theater was constructed to resemble a magnificent courtyard or exotic garden, overflowing with decorative detail and covered with a plaster ceiling built to resemble an open sky filled with moving clouds or twinkling stars. Other architectural firms also had a significant influence on the design of the American picture palace, most notably Rapp and Rapp, which designed theaters in Chicago, St. Louis, and a number of other cities for Balaban and Katz and for Paramount studio's Publix Theater chain.
Theaters like Manhattan's 6,200-seat Roxy (opened in 1927), designed by Walter Ahlschlager and billed as the "cathedral of the movies," came to symbolize the excess and grandiose ambitions of the 1920s picture palace. As might be expected, the most deluxe theaters were found in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, though a host of smaller cities, including Minneapolis, Minnesota, Portland, Oregon, and Jersey City, New Jersey, could boast of having world-class picture palaces, often built as part of the Loew's or Fox first-run theater circuits. Fewer than seventy-five deluxe theaters were operating at the end of the silent film era, yet these metropolitan venues provided a disproportionately large share of the box-office revenues for the major Hollywood studios.
At the same time, the studios also depended on the distribution of their continuous stream of features, shorts, and newsreels to the twenty thousand other movie theaters in the United States. Even with the construction of deluxe palaces, the average size of the movie theater in the late silent era remained around five hundred seats, approximately the same as it had been in the mid-1910s. In other words, most spectators experienced the movies not in a magnificent picture palace but in a much more modest and less spectacular venue, probably located in the same business district where they bought groceries, got haircuts, and shopped for dry goods. However, the elaborate design, luxurious interior decoration, and commanding street presence of the picture palace did constitute an ideal toward which smaller theaters might aspire as they were periodically remodeled or updated.
The picture palace quickly came to occupy a privileged symbolic position in writing about the "golden age" of the movies. If the picture palace has had a long life as an icon signifying a spectacular and glamorous Hollywood, as a building it was very costly to operate and maintain. The picture palace was also linked to the economic fortunes of the downtown area where it almost always was located. By the 1950s, these once-grand theaters began to be razed or transformed for other uses. Restoration work at the end of the twentieth century rescued a small number of America's picture palaces. An object of nostalgia and community pride, the preserved picture palace (like the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, California) was usually not reopened as a movie theater; instead, it was restored to serve primarily as a multi-use community theater and venue for high-culture performances.
The American film industry's transition to sound, which began in 1927 and was completed by 1930, had an immediate effect on the nation's movie theaters. The cost of installing a sound system—"wiring for sound," as it was called—could be prohibitive for the independent owner-operator of a small theater. There were competing sound systems, and each system required the purchase of new projection equipment in addition to speakers. Costs for converting theaters to sound had dropped significantly by 1929, though the investment could still run as high as seven thousand dollars for even a small theater. Good quality sound reproduction might even entail the redesigning of the auditorium itself to improve acoustics, as well as the installation of a quieter heating and cooling system. (The transition to sound thus indirectly led to an increased use of air conditioning.) On the positive side, the novelty of sound became, in the short term, a major drawing card for theaters.
Particularly from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s, the state of sound film technology required that projectionists be responsible for the audio as well as visual quality of the movies screened. Staffing of the movie theater changed as well with the introduction of sound, as talkies quickly replaced the regular live entertainment that had always been part of the moviegoing experience.
In effect, with Hollywood fully committed to the production of sound films, theater owners had no choice except to wire for sound, sell out, or close. Approximately two-thirds of the fifteen thousand theaters in the United States were wired for sound by 1930, as the new technology spread to small- and medium-sized theaters outside of first-run venues in major cities. The problems caused for theater owners by the industry's rapid transition to sound were compounded with the increasing economic effects of the Great Depression, which began in 1929. The Film Daily Yearbook estimated in 1933 that no more than half of the movie theaters in certain parts of the United States were actually wired for sound and open for business. At the same time, after a period of unbridled expansion and acquisition, major theater chains owned by Paramount, RKO, and Warner Bros. went into receivership, often meaning that the control of theaters reverted to individual owner-operators or to regionally based companies.
Coupled with the economic woes of the 1930s and the costs of wiring theaters for sound films, exhibitors also faced the increasingly widespread popularity of radio (with its "free" entertainment). In addition, a burgeoning nontheatrical market for moving pictures had emerged with the growing availability of 16mm sound projectors in the later 1930s. Exhibitors increased efforts to attract audiences to the theater by lowering ticket prices and relying on special promotions, contests, and double-feature programs. Decreased costs made air conditioning a more available amenity by the later 1930s, so that the movie theater became one of the first public sites to offer ordinary citizens the luxury of climate-controlled comfort. At the same time, the sale of candy and, especially, popcorn emerged as a crucial source of revenue for the exhibitor, with carbonated soft drinks soon to follow in the 1940s. Vending machines and, eventually, a larger and more elaborate concession stand became a standard component of the movie theater. Concession sales often brought more profit to the theater than box office receipts.
The 1930s also saw a marked drop in the number of new theaters—and picture palaces, in particular—being constructed. However, even small-town venues that depended on rural audiences had long realized that periodic renovation and updating to decor as well as equipment was a sensible business practice that associated the theater with the "modern." Art deco design, with cleaner lines and less surface decoration, became a more prominent feature in renovated theaters and the relatively few newly constructed theaters. This style was featured in one of the few new theatrical ventures to emerge in the midst of the Depression: the small but sleekly designed newsreel theaters operated by Trans-Lux and other companies in major metropolitan areas. Equipped with an innovative rear-projection system, the first Trans-Lux theater opened in New York City in 1931, creating a trend that flourished during World War II and continued until the introduction of commercial television.
One architect who did continue to design striking new and remodeled theaters during the 1930s was S. Charles Lee (1899–1990), who worked principally in California. For example, Lee's streamlined aesthetic, which made ample use of rounded forms, horizontal lines, and industrial material (aluminum, glass, and chrome), was especially evident in the Academy Theatre, which was built in 1939 in Inglewood, California. Other architects, including, most notably, Ben Schlanger, also argued in the mid-1930s for an even more austere and efficient type of modern theater, designed and built exclusively for screening moving pictures and intended to maximize the viewing experience. In some respects, these ideas were not fully implemented until the emergence of the megaplex theater complexes of the 1980s and 1990s.
Shrinking movie attendance from the late 1940s into the 1950s, coupled with the increasing suburbanization of America, led to a new round of theater closings as well as to certain technological innovations intended to underscore the superiority of the big-screen experience over the small, black-and-white image of home television. Preeminent were much-publicized wide-screen processes, which offered images wider and more horizontal than the standard "academy" ratio found on television. Although wide screen had been experimented with at various times in film history, it did not become a key selling point for Hollywood until the mid-1950s. To project wide-screen CinemaScope or VistaVision films, theaters needed to convert projectors as well as install a new screen. (Additional speakers for stereo sound were another option, more likely found in high-end theaters.) This upgrading was costly, but deemed necessary if theaters were to offer an experience that drew customers away from their television sets and back to the movies.
Another, more significant lure for moviegoers in the 1950s and beyond was the drive-in theater, which began in the United States, spread to Canada, and eventually even to Australia. In 1933 the first drive-in, called the Automobile Movie Theatre, was opened by Richard M Hollingshead Jr. in Camden, New Jersey. It accommodated four hundred cars arranged in a terraced and ramped space, allowing for relatively unobstructed sight lines toward the mounted screen. Fewer than three hundred drive-ins had appeared by the end of World War II, but by 1958 the number across the United States hit a peak of almost six thousand. They then constituted almost half of the nation's total screens, with many drive-ins to be found in rural areas or near smaller towns, where setup costs were low and commercial amusements rare. Construction of drive-ins in suburbia accelerated in the late 1950s, driven by the availability of inexpensive land, the shifting demographics of America, and the ubiquity of the automobile.
Drive-ins, sometimes equipped with small playgrounds and picnic areas, offered ease of parking and access, a decidedly homey and informal atmosphere, an opportunity for an inexpensive family night out, and a site that promised relative freedom (and even privacy) for teenagers on dates. Cafeteria-style snack bars became a substantial source of income, offering hot dogs and pizza as well as candy, soft drinks, and popcorn. Live entertainment sometimes served as another drawing card. Even under the best circumstances, the drive-in was not an optimal venue for viewing motion pictures: high-quality screens were expensive to erect; twilight washed out the projected image, which could be proportionally quite small; and sound quality was poor because of portable speakers, though eventually some drive-ins transmitted movie soundtracks through car radios.
While drive-ins initially competed with indoor theaters for mainstream Hollywood movies, even gaining access on occasion to first-run releases, these outdoor venues eventually began to be associated primarily with more marginalized types of programming, often low-budget genre movies well outside the boundaries of standard family fare: teenpix in the 1960s; horror films; softcore sexploitation; and even, during the 1970s, X-rated fare. By the early 1990s, fewer than nine hundred drive-ins (including some multiscreen venues) remained in business, sometimes operating as swap meets and flea markets on the weekends.
Paralleling the rise of the drive-in was the abandonment, demolition, or conversion of a great many urban movie theaters, both pictures palaces and smaller neighborhood venues (which sometimes became churches or markets). Some larger downtown theaters stayed in business by shifting to Spanish-language films or to low-budget fare, like the wave of horror and science fiction films that emerged in the 1950s.
At the other end of the film exhibition business from the drive-in was the art cinema, whose roots were in small, metropolitan-area theaters that opened in the 1920s and 1930s like New York City's International Film Arts Guild and Little Carnegie Playhouse. Such venues targeted a well-to-do clientele by screening otherwise unavailable films that were experimental, foreign-language, or in some other way identifiable as "art" rather than commercial entertainment. By the early 1950s, the art house or, in industry parlance, "sure seater," was gaining popularity, not only in metropolitan centers but also in smaller cities and towns that were home to colleges and universities. Catering to an adult audience and often charging appreciably higher ticket prices than ordinary movie theaters, the typical art house was a newly constructed theater of approximately five hundred seats or a refurbished older venue, intimate and decorated with an eye toward modernist design rather than picture palace exoticism. Coffee was the concession of choice, complementing the films screened, which might include revivals of classics as well as new non-American films. Attendance at such theaters peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, before the widespread diffusion of the home VCR allowed for a different type of art film distribution.
Before 1960, a few theaters had been built in shopping centers. There were even rare attempts to create twin cinemas, so-called because they included two separate auditoria with a common foyer and box office. But the multiplex was very much a product of the 1960s, usually credited to Stanley H. Durwood (1920–1999), who built his first twin cinema in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1963. Housed in a suburban shopping center, Durwood's multiplex used the same projection facility and concession stand for both (one seating three hundred, the other four hundred). The concept proved profitable and repeatable, and Durwood's American Multi-Cinema (AMC) company quickly became one of the major theater chains in the United States.
The years from 1965 to 1970 saw approximately one hundred new shopping center theaters open annually in the United States, each promising ample parking, an array of retail stores, and more than enough room for an inexpensive multiplex. This new type of venue flourished while the total number of movie theaters in the United States remained relatively constant, at fewer than ten thousand (40 percent of which were drive-ins). The multiplex trend extended to urban settings, as certain picture palaces were remodeled to house multiple screens.
As the multiplex evolved after the mid-1960s, it came to feature up to eight box-shaped theaters, each seating usually fewer than three hundred patrons. When built within shopping malls, multiplexes became even more conveniently integrated into an inclusive, teenage-friendly retail environment. Small screens and cinder-block walls that provided poor soundproofing made the multiplex, at best, a marginally satisfactory site for watching the movies. One improvement in the 1960s that greatly benefited the multiplex was the introduction of the powerful xenon bulb, a steady-burning, long-lasting light source that replaced the carbon arc in motion picture projectors. Increasingly automated platter projectors allowed for the entire program (trailers, advertise ments, and feature film) to be placed on one reel that required no rewinding. Theoretically, at least, an untrained projectionist could simultaneously run all the screenings in a multiplex.
The 1970s saw significant improvement in the quality of theatrical sound reproduction, first with the introduction by Universal in Earthquake (1974) of "sensurround," then with the increased use of the highly influential Dolby noise reduction system in films like Star Wars (1977) and Saturday Night Fever (1977). By the mid-1980s, Dolby had become the industry standard, and the large number of new theaters constructed in the 1980s and 1990s prominently featured state-of-the-art sound systems, like Lucasfilm's THX and Sony's Dynamic Digital Sound, which made the audio experience an increasingly essential aspect of theatrical film exhibition.
The new multiscreen theaters built after the mid-1980s, called megaplexes, differed significantly from the boxy mall or shopping center twin cinemas. Offering fifteen or more screens under the same roof, the megaplex was typically housed in a spacious, freestanding building, surrounded by a vast parking lot and easily accessible by car. In more urban locations, the megaplex might be situated within a shopping mall, like the Beverly Center Cineplex in Los Angeles, built in 1982 by the Canadian Cineplex theater circuit, which would soon become Cineplex Odeon, one of the top theater chains in North America. Cineplex Odeon is often credited with beginning the era of the megaplex. The theater construction boom in the United States and, eventually, in much of Europe and Asia, that lasted well into the 1990s meant that the megaplex became the predominant type of movie theater during a period of surprising growth for the motion picture industry. Between 1988 and 1998 the total number of screens in the United States rose from twenty-three thousand to thirty-four thousand, while screens in western Europe rose ten percent (to over twenty-three thousand) and in Asia—exclusive of China—remained roughly constant.
Promoted and, in part, designed as entertainment "destinations" or "complexes," megaplexes often featured video arcades, flashy interior design, extensive concession areas, computerized ticket counters, and indoor cafes. Especially in comparison to the shopping center multiplex of a generation earlier, megaplexes promised an enriched moviegoing experience, with comfortable stadium seating arranged to provide each spectator with an unobstructed view of a screen that was appreciably larger in relation to the auditorium size than had previously been the case. Having twelve auditoria (with different seating capacities) under one roof allowed for great flexibility in maximizing box office receipts over the short and longer term, as a highly publicized blockbuster might open on five screens and within two weeks be cut back to one or two of the smaller screening sites.
From the nickelodeon to the megaplex, the movie theater has proven to be a remarkably durable and varied commercial entertainment enterprise. It is a site that has deeply shaped the way countless spectators have experienced the movies.
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Gregory A. Waller