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For Many, the Size of the Screen Matters

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Screen size does matter especially when a special-effects-heavy movie like “Armageddon” is involved.

With the second meteor movie of the season now playing at theaters everywhere--Disney’s “Armageddon” followed DreamWorks’ “Deep Impact"--moviegoers faced a dizzying array of choices--as many as six screens per location--but very little guarantee they would see the visual spectacle in its full glory. Screen size can vary tremendously from theater to theater, yet most exhibitors don’t indicate the size of individual screens in their listings.

However, with a little detective work and extra planning, savvy moviegoers can avoid disappointment at the megaplex. Tips range from playing it safe at big-screen havens to quizzing theater staffers about which showings are on the biggest screens.

“We are trying to work with theaters to anticipate demand and have the proper number of seats available,” says Phil Barlow, distribution chief for Buena Vista, Disney’s marketing and distribution arm. “If a person has a preference for the largest auditorium, it will be available, but we can’t guarantee it will be available at their convenience. They will have to choose between immediacy of showing or waiting for a slightly bigger screen.”

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“The worst thing that could happen is being short seated,” says Richard Fay, president of AMC Film Marketing. “If we don’t have enough seats, we hear it from the public and we hear it from the distributor. They’re focused on their gross.”

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Luckily for the choosy, there are a growing number of larger screens in the area. Although multiplexes carved out smaller and smaller screens during the initial building craze during the 1970s and ‘80s, newer megaplexes usually have at least one large screen. Pacific Theatres’ Winnetka 20 in Chatsworth, for example, has three 70-foot-wide screens, while the slightly older Beach Cities 16-plex in El Segundo boasts two 60-foot screens.

Newer General Cinema megaplexes might include 57-foot screens, while more recent vintage Loews Cineplex screens range from 50 feet to 60 feet wide. (Since today’s screens are often custom built to fit each auditorium, sizes aren’t necessarily standard.)

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Compare those to big-screen havens such at the Pacific’s Cinerama Dome, which stretches nearly 90 feet, and the 70-foot-wide screen at the Mann Village in Westwood.

Although Barlow says he always fights for the best presentation possible, he admits “sometimes you have to fight a little harder” for premium placement. With “Armageddon,” however, there was no resistance.

“In the case of a movie like ‘Armageddon,’ the picture is in control,” he says. “There’s not going to be any problem whatsoever having the biggest auditorium.”

Exhibitors agree. Chan Wood, film buyer for the Los Angeles-based Pacific Theatres chain, says he didn’t even have to think twice about where he’d place “Armageddon.” “Personally, I’ll put it on my 70-foot screens,” Wood says.

However, finding the biggest screen isn’t always easy when a theater’s got multiple prints. Of all the major chains operating in Southern California, only Pacific Theatres specifies screen size in its newspaper listings, and Pacific only began that practice after opening the Winnetka 20 in February.

“I figure if you have it, advertise it,” Wood says. “We believe in putting movies on big screens, so why not play it up?”

Although other exhibitors happily specify which auditoriums have DTS, SDDS or Dolby Digital sound systems, they say adding screen size information would be a logistical nightmare and encourage wrongful assumptions about each film’s relative worth.

“I don’t think we’d be inclined to do that,” Fay says.

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Marc Pascucci, a vice president for advertising and publicity for New York-based Loews Cineplex, calls such a policy “too cumbersome.” Pointing to the constant shuffling of auditoriums to meet demand, he says, “we don’t know that far enough ahead.”

The Orange County-based Edwards Cinema chain does, however, note which showings are on large screens in telephone recordings that can be modified on relatively short notice. The ability to shift movies into different-sized auditoriums with little notice is considered one of megaplexes’ advantages.

Fay considers the booking process a constant juggling of the needs of the theater managers and those of the studios. Not only must he do right by new releases, but also tend to holdover films.

“It’s a balancing act that’s something we work on very closely with distributors and our people,” he says. “It’s really a political and a business decision.”

Depending on how other big summer films such as “The X-Files” are performing, “Armageddon” might go on two big screens and two medium ones in some multiplexes. Pascucci says “Armageddon” will probably go on up to six screens in auditoriums ranging from 700 seats to 350. “Then if demand is even greater, we might put it in a smaller house.” Screen size could run from nearly 60 feet “probably down to 35 feet,” he says.

According to figures provided by General Cinema spokesman Brian Callaghan, a 750-seat house in that chain might sport a 57-foot screen, while a 450-seater could be 41 feet and a 250-seater screen might span 32 feet. He says the Massachusetts-based chain will probably carry between five and 10 prints of “Armageddon” at some of its megaplexes--as it recently did with “Godzilla.”

“Some people want it on a larger screen, and some people just want to see the movie,” Callaghan says.

“People do come in and ask for a certain auditorium,” Pascucci concurs. “For instance, in New York City, we were showing ‘Godzilla’ after 10 o’clock at night on the Imax screen, and there were requests for that.”

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“Armageddon” will be screened after midnight on an Imax screen at Edward’s Irvine Spectrum in Orange County. Like “Godzilla,” the movie won’t fill the Imax screen; traditional movies are not made for that sort of presentation.

One other quick way to gauge screen size is by noting which screens have digital sound. If only some do--the newer megaplexes tend to have digital sound in all auditoriums--it’s a good bet these theaters are the premium showplaces in the theater. THX auditoriums are an even better bet, since exhibitors must pay for that certification.

Even if moviegoers do end up in a smaller auditorium, exhibitors say they should not despair. They argue there’s less difference between a 450-seat theater and a 250-seat theater than there once was, thanks to improved theater designs.

“My opinion is, we as exhibitors have improved as a whole in terms of design with the stadium seating and we have improved screens,” Pascucci says. “A 400-seat auditorium today is like a 600-seat in the past.”

“I don’t believe there’s that much difference between 200- and 400-seat auditoriums today,” Barlow says. “In many instances, I would prefer a new 225-seat auditorium than a 500-seat auditorium with lesser sound.”


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