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O.C. Film Fans Drive : Exhibitors to Exceed Movie-Going Mobs Fatten Bottom Line at Theaters and Spur High-Tech Competition

Remember the scene in the movie “Being There” when guileless Chauncey Gardner said that he liked “to watch,” a straightforward comment about his obsession with television that was hilariously (and erotically) misinterpreted by his benefactor’s wife?

Well, there’s no mistaking how much Orange County residents love to watch--movies, that is.

The moment that “Batman” flapped into theaters last week, the Caped Crusader soared past all comers to set records at box offices around the country. On the average, the first weekend alone, each of the nearly 2,200 theaters showing the comic-book-come-to-life raked in more than $19,000 from bat-happy movie-goers.

But in Orange County, that’s chicken feed. We probably spend $19,000 per theater just on bon bons. In fact, the take on “Batman” around here was nearly double the national average: more than $35,000 per screen.

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And this is no bat-fluke.

The previous week, when “Ghostbusters II” opened, it scared up more than $21,000 per screen here, compared to a little more than $12,000 nationally. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” whipped up more than $34,000 per screen here compared to $16,000 nationally.

And it’s not just the big-budget adventure flicks that draw well. Box-office figures from last weekend show that the Disney Studios’ sleeper hit “Dead Poets Society,” in which Robin Williams plays the Rocky of rhyme, averaged more than $15,000 per screen in Orange County, again almost double the $8,343 national figure.

One happy result of this love for the silver screen: Orange County may be unsurpassed as a place to go to the movies. Certainly, the folks who run the theaters haven’t let these figures go unnoticed. In recent weeks two major, high-tech movie complexes have opened--one billing itself as “Orange County’s first state-of-the-art cinema complex,” the other going one better in boasting that its facilities are “ beyond state of the art.”

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Orange County, which now boasts well more than 200 screens, “has had tremendous growth in the last 10 years, and it continues to experience so much growth,” says Jack Myhill, general manager for San Francisco-based Syufy Enterprises, which operates 305 screens in the Southwestern United States, including the eight-screen Cinedome complex in Orange.

“We think it is an extremely attractive market,” said Bill Hertz, spokesman for the 463-screen Mann Theatres chain, which now has 12 in Orange County.

Attractive is right: In addition to a steady population increase (it’s up nearly 359,000 since 1979), Orange County is, needless to say, renowned for its affluence. The median household income for Orange County in 1987 was $42,831, compared to $33,878 for Los Angeles, according to the most recent figures from the state Franchise Tax Board.

Add to this that Southern California in general is more attuned to the movies than anywhere else because this is the movie capital of the world, and you can begin to understand why Orange County is a garden of movie delights.

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So each time a new complex opens, it’s a big event . When AMC unveiled its six-screen house at MainPlace/Santa Ana in 1987, officials trumpeted its cathedral ceilings, tasteful ceiling fans, Art Deco furnishings and up-to-the-millisecond multitrack stereo sound systems, not to mention the soft drink holders at each chair.

When Edwards Cinemas, Orange County’s largest chain with 80 screens here, opened its Hutton Centre 8-plex in Santa Ana last year, it upped the high-tech ante with Lucasfilm’s THX sound system in some of the theaters.

Now the trend seems to be toward personalized services. At Mann’s new complex in Laguna Niguel, Lucasfilm THX sound and JBL speakers (do we like brand names or what?) in all eight theaters is only the beginning. Bill Hertz said the two largest amphitheater-style theaters, which are still under construction, also will have “cry rooms.” This resurrects a convenience common to theaters in the ‘40s and ‘50s, giving patrons with noisy children a place to see and hear the movie without drawing the considerably less innocent cries of their adult neighbors.

Along with this obvious nod to the new baby boom, the Mann folks have taken into account residents of nearby Leisure World by equipping theaters with infrared sound systems, allowing people who are hearing-impaired to use volume-controlled headphones.

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This attention to service and technical excellence “is the trend in exhibition today,” Hertz said. “You must produce a better mousetrap to attract the movie-going audience. People are looking for the best--the state of the art.”

The owners of SoCal Cinemas, however, feel that “state of the art” is inadequate to describe their new Cinemapolis in Anaheim Hills (another area, by the way, where the population has mushroomed in recent years. Until Cinemapolis opened in May, all those Anaheim Hills-Yorba Linda-Placentia residents had to drive to Orange--the county’s leader, with 33 screens--or Brea to buy their Jujubes).

“We consider what (others are offering) is average for theaters today. That is the state of the art,” said Bruce Sanborn, whose grandfather started SoCal Cinemas in 1919. “We went beyond that at Cinemapolis.”

Of course, the ads touting Cinemapolis as “an entire city of cinemas” seem overblown, unless the city in mind is somewhere in Rhode Island, sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the main highway. Still, the complex does have some interesting features, including the free-standing building itself, which remotely resembles a stone castle from the English countryside (albeit one sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the main highway).

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The first thing you notice when you walk in is the screen over the concession stand showing trailers of current films and coming attractions.

Sanborn said the company’s own sound engineers created a system that “exceeds the specifications for Lucasfilm’s THX sound.”

And the company’s theaters are built wider than they are long, which Sanborn said is unusual for the industry and which, SoCal folks contend, affords better sight lines for more viewers.

The real distinction, though, is SoCal’s plan to instigate truly personalized service later this summer in one of the 10 theaters.

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The idea is to use the theater for non-mainstream screenings--art films, foreign films or second-run features--and, for an extra buck at the ticket window, to have theater personnel escort customers to their seats and attend to the customer’s needs (i.e., popcorn and hot-dog runs) during the movie.

Now, if they can get the orders right (“No salt on the popcorn, mustard only on that dog and no starch in the shorts, OK?”), that will be a development in movie-going I’m sure most of us will love to watch.


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