Back by Popular Demand, Big Theaters Will Plex Their Muscle

Times Staff Writer

The Loma and the Cinerama are gone, replaced by shopping malls.

San Diego County’s legion of large--900-seat or more--one-screen movie houses has been reduced to three.

Romantics and historical preservationists have deplored the demise of the Loma and the Cinerama, both of which were city landmarks.

But theater executives say they can no longer make a profit from such theaters. As a result, pessimists fear that the days of the Cinema Grossmont in La Mesa, plus Cinema 21 and Valley Circle in Mission Valley, may be numbered--a suspicion theaters say is unfounded.


Even so, a new type of movie center, which film distributors say constitutes a trend, will open soon in San Diego. One executive called it a “multiplex,” or multiple-screen theater, that “lets everyone eat their cake and have it, too, while we make a profit.”

Multiplexes are nothing new--they’ve been around a while--but the new generation is special in offering more than 200 seats per theater, as well as state-of-the-art equipment. Several such “plexes” have been introduced in the past few years in Los Angeles, where their successes have led to other openings across the country.

Introducing the Nine-Plex

San Diego’s introduction to the breed is the Mann Theatres 9, a “nine-plex” that opens Friday as part of the new Marketplace at the Grove Shopping Center, near the junction of California 94 and College Avenue.


Two of its auditoriums contain 450 seats and state-of-the-art projection and sound, which Mann executives say is an attempt to re-create the movie-going experience of the past while generating a profit. Multiplexes are here to stay, they say, simply because nine theaters are better (read: more profitable) than one.

Mann executives said the 900-seat Loma in Loma Portal closed because it no longer showed a profit. Executives of Pacific Theatres cited the same reason for closing the 975-seat Cinerama in East San Diego.

Although the larger auditoriums inside the Mann Theatres 9 are half the size of the Loma or Cinerama, they’re twice as big as the 200-seat variety of most multiplexes.

Ironically, the Mann Theatres 9 is within walking distance of the Cinerama’s burial ground. But no matter how nice the new place is, film buffs say it could never match the Loma or Cinerama for movie presentation.


“There’s no question that losing the large, single-screen theaters is tragic, because we’ll never get them back,” said Andrew Friedenberg, president of the Cinema Society of San Diego. “However, the good news is that major exhibitors are starting to understand that their success has always been in their strength--which is big-screen, big-sound, quality presentation.”

Friedenberg praised the Mann Theatres 9--which will be the county’s largest bank of theaters--as well as the United Artists 7 at Horton Plaza. He said that both contain auditoriums offering generous, as opposed to “cracker box,” seating, as well as high-tech projection and sound.

“That’s the good news,” he said. “They’re going to newer, better multiplexes where the films can be seen closer to the way film makers thought they ought to be seen. But none of these new ones, no matter how good, are anything like the Loma. They’ll never be like the Loma. Those theaters were palaces, as much a part of our history and culture as they were places to see movies.

“The new places are very well-constructed. They have wonderful seating and curved screens and terrific sound. The multiplexes built 10 years ago were cracker boxes. Let’s hope we never see them again.”


Ed Stuart, in charge of construction for Mann Theatres, is building the new nine-plex and earlier this week was roaming the site, supervising the hammering and drilling. Stuart has built a lot of theaters, in California, Utah and Arizona, but said the Lomas of the world are gone for good.

“You’ll never see them again,” he said. “I don’t know of a large, one-screen house that’s been built in, oh, the last 20 years. They’re dead.”

What is alive, he conceded, is a sense of compromise--an attempt to include a theater “kind of like the old ones” within the framework of a money-making multiplex.

He acknowledged that “a sense of the past--how good the Lomas could be"--has never died, and probably never will.


As a gesture to romance, the Mann Theatres 9 has resurrected the 50-foot-high neon majorette, which is 38 years old but hasn’t twirled in San Diego since the demise of the Campus Drive-In near San Diego State University several years ago. Neon preservationists wanted it restored and got their wish.

William F. Hertz, an executive with the Los Angeles-based Mann Theatres, said new movie centers such as the nine-plex represent a conscious attempt to appease filmgoers who prefer large, one-screen houses as the best places possible to watch movies.

“We now feel it essential to give the public a multiple choice,” he said. “The new San Diego theater will have two large auditoriums with 70-millimeter projection. All nine of the auditoriums will contain state-of-the-art THX stereo sound, developed by George Lucas (the film maker).” (He said the nine-plex will also offer listening devices for the hearing-impaired, making it the first theater in the county to have such a feature.)

Hertz said that, despite the epidemic of large, one-screen theaters shutting down, the Mann-owned Valley Circle and Cinema 21 are in no immediate danger.


“Hopefully, we’ll see them around for quite a while,” he said. “They’ve given a very good account of themselves. They’re specialty, exclusive-type houses. If we have an exclusive run, we’ll put them in those houses, which carry a marvelous presentation.”

Tom Royer is an executive with AMC Theatres, which operates theaters in Fashion Valley, Santee and Encinitas. Royer said the “cracker box” method of multiplex construction has failed aesthetically, if not financially, and that AMC, like its competitors, is “pursuing different alternatives . . . to employ the best of both worlds.”

He said that large, one-screen houses were “shrines to the industry” and that preservationists across the country have contested the demolition of such theaters. He said one trend, which AMC pursued in Detroit, seeks to connect a multiplex to a large, historical theater. Thus, the Americana 8 in Detroit contains seven small auditoriums attached to an older theater containing 1,765 seats.

“And that’s with no balcony,” Royer said.


He said AMC is “aggressively looking” to expand in the San Diego area, which film distributors regard as one of the hottest in the country.

Royer said the trend may one day produce multiplexes that have theaters as big as the Loma and Cinerama inside them.

“But that way,” he said, “theater companies could make a profit, and everyone could see and enjoy movies the way they’re meant to be seen. Maybe then everyone would be happy.”