Chained! The Megaplexing of America -- Part 2

Morrisville (population l,908) is a quiet little burg that lolls along leafy Highway 54, where gas stations sell night crawlers and road signs warn of slow-moving tractors. The only signs of public entertainment in Morrisville are its churches, simple wood-frame structures with peeling paint.Those churches will soon have competition: Carmike Cinemas Inc. is coming to town.The theater chain plans to bring 16 movie screens to Morrisville this fall, when builders complete the Park Place Shopping Center east of town, a stone's throw from wealthy Cary. Construction hasn't started, but bulldozers have gouged a crater in the red dirt that other machines will fill with concrete and creosote. "People in small towns have entertainment needs like everyone else," says Fred Van Oy, operations manager for Carmike. "Our mission is to bring movies to people who might otherwise not have access to them."While other chains build theaters near Chicago and New York, Carmike likes to place screens in small towns like Duncan, Okla. (population 15,000), which got hit bad in the '80s oil bust. Movies gave the town a therapeutic escape, says Van Oy, just as half a century earlier the silver screen helped lighten the Depression.Building in small towns has paid off for Carmike, known in the business as the Wal-Mart of theater chains. Earlier this year, Carmike passed United Artists to become the largest theater circuit in the United States.Based in Columbus, Ga., the company hasn't been around long; Michael Patrick and his dad, Carl Patrick Sr., started the business in 1982. After blanketing the Southeast like kudzu, Carmike spread up the Eastern seaboard, over the Southwest and into the North, putting 2,507 screens in 33 states and leaving a bare patch only in the Midwest.While some observers point to Carmike (named after Michael Patrick and his brother Carl Jr.) as an example of Southern business savvy, others say that the Patricks will not build where they do not control the market. The Wall Street Journal calculates that in 60 percent of its markets, Carmike is the only exhibitor in town; in the rest, the Patricks make do with an 85 percent share.Around here that estimate holds true: Carmike controls most of Raleigh's first-run commercial screens and all of Durham's, if you exclude the non-profit Carolina Theatre. With a 16-screen theater planned in nearby Morrisville and two more destined for Raleigh, Carmike's market share in the Triangle has no where to go but up.Especially now that summer's at the doorstep. With big box office almost guaranteed for Mission: Impossible, Striptease and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the hot months will be sweet to Carmike. The Patricks already know what they'll do with the profits: Architects are drawing blueprints for 20-screen theaters and scouts are sniffing out sites in the Midwest.Megaplexes -- theaters with 16 to 24 screens -- are fast replacing multiplexes, just as multiplexes replaced triples and triples replaced twins.In 1963, when the first twin cinema was built in Kansas City's Ward Shopping Center, a movie like Twister, with digital sound to burst your eardrums and special effects to twirl your eyeballs, was literally unthinkable -- the hardware hadn't been invented yet. Chock-full of sound and furious movement, movies like Twister and Mission: Impossible are products of the architecture in which they're presented: shoebox theaters have spawned a cinema of pure sensation. (While watching Twister, my mouth fell open and I forgot to breathe.) "They fit a relatively small screen," film historian Janet Wasko has written. "They don't depend on majestic images, grand scale or detail." "Dog poop on toast" is how one independent exhibitor describes typical chain fare. He requests anonymity, telling me that, as it is now, only two of the major distributors will talk to him.Indie exhibitor Doug Champion, who is passionate about things like screen size, floor gradation and seat placement, has a low opinion of Carmike. "They're sleazy, they're cheesy," he says. "Their philosophy is 'What's the least amount we can put into our theaters to get the most back out?' instead of the other way around. They're concrete boxes."Indie theater owners have another reason to dislike the chains: As their screens multiply, the circuits start tapping art-house product. "It gets to be spring," Champion says, conjuring up his worst nightmare, "and there are no more big movies. So the chains show some medium art films, which bleeds the independent exhibitor. So he's gone, there's six Arnold Schwarzenegger films playing in town and Raleighites are going 'What?' "We're established," Champion continues, "but it's going to be hard in the future for independents to insert themselves in small markets. If the chains use their size and force to block independents, I get scared. "It's happened."Dick Morris doesn't mince words."The theater business is a zero-sum game," says the man who books films for Champion and scads of other indie exhibitors across the country. "For every megaplex built in a mall, all the theaters within 10 miles will lose business. Moviegoers are not a changing population. They just change where they go."He's right. Variety regularly reports that the number of people who go to movies hasn't changed in years. "Chains seriously affect every art-film program," Morris continues. "Films like The Crying Game, The Piano and Pulp Fiction do well enough to permit exhibitors to play small, high-quality films like The White Balloon or Antonia's Line. "In fact," he says, "if it weren't for The Crying Game, the Rialto Theater would not exist."Not just the Rialto. Profits from The Crying Game not only helped Bruce Stone keep Chapel Hill's tiny Chelsea alive, it allowed him to open a second, grander art house (the Carolina) downtown.But that was before Eastern Federal, a small privately owned theater chain, built a six-plex within yelling distance of the Chelsea and added screens to the Plaza Triple across town.When the next Crying Game comes to Chapel Hill, the lines may well form across the street, not outside the Chelsea. Neither Eastern Federal theater in Chapel Hill is big enough to be a megaplex. But, like Carmike in Durham, Eastern Federal owns every first-run commercial screen in town. Does that constitute a monopoly?Well, maybe.But anti-trust suits are notoriously difficult to win. You can't just point to Carmike's 100 percent market share in Durham, cry monopoly and expect the courts to nod in agreement. You have to prove two things: first, that Carmike can maintain market share by excluding competitors and second, that the absence of competition allows the chain to keep the cost of movie-going higher than it ought to be.Dick Morris doesn't think the chains violate anti-trust laws. "They only build what they're allowed to build," he says. If the federal government can't do anything, how to stop them, then? "Megaplexing has to be prevented by city and county officials," says Morris. He tells me about a suburb of Tampa that allowed AMC, which wanted to erect a megaplex, only six screens. "AMC is moaning because they could make more money there," Morris says, "but the county commissioners knew what they were doing. The problem is, the developers are light-years ahead of most local officials whose job it is to protect the area from developers."I ask Fred Van Oy if local officials ever discourage Carmike from entering their community. "Not at all," says this soft-spoken man. "They usually welcome us with open arms."

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