A long-awaited coming attraction is arriving at dozens of Southern California movie theaters--stadium-seating retrofits.
Many theater owners are replacing conventional seats in their auditoriums with the steeper-sloped stadium-style seats that became popular with the construction of multiscreen complexes in the 1990s.
The instant popularity of the new arrangement--which provides unobstructed views from every seat--prompted predictions several years ago that movie exhibitors soon would convert all their old theaters to the new format.
But the retrofitting revolution was sidetracked by bankruptcies at most of the nation's major theater chains--bankruptcies caused in part by the overbuilding of new movie theaters with stadium seating and the loss of patrons at theaters without it.
With some of those chains emerging from bankruptcy, and with some smaller operators willing to invest in retrofits, the business of installing new seats in old theaters is on the rise, said Jim Lefler, president of Costa Mesa-based Stadium Seating Enterprises.
"The retrofitting part of the business is definitely more active now than new theater construction," said Lefler, whose company has converted dozens of Southland movie venues to stadium seating in the last year, including nearly three dozen auditoriums for Newport Beach-based Edwards Theatres Circuit Inc. In the same period, construction of new theaters has come nearly to a halt after the heyday of the 1990s.
California has 4,296 movie screens, more than any other state, according to the North Hollywood-based National Assn. of Theater Owners. The group does not keep statistics on what percentage of the theaters have stadium seating.
Installing stadium seating has become a matter of keeping up with the competition, said Dan Akarakian, owner and operator of Whittier Village Cinemas in Whittier, a movie house that was built in 1939 and purchased by Akarakian in 1990.
Akarakian hired Lefler's company for a $600,000 retrofit that was finished earlier this year. Even though his box office revenue had dipped only slightly in the face of steep-seated competition, he decided to convert his theater. "All of our competitors have stadium seating," he said.
Switching to stadium seating costs $30,000 to $100,000 an auditorium, depending on the size of the theater, Lefler said. His company has patented a retrofitting system that he describes as "a giant erector set" of steel framing that can be built in one auditorium at a time while other theaters in a complex continue to operate.
Once the steel frame is in place, it serves as a form for pouring what Lefler calls "a big, concrete staircase," which is what stadium seating resembles. Retrofitting an auditorium takes less than three weeks, he said.
Theater owner Akarakian said a retrofit creates an open space underneath the seating structure that can be used for storage or other purposes. Akarakian used the new space to add restrooms to his complex, which was reduced to eight screens from nine by the conversion.
"You lose some seats as part of the process," Akarakian explained, so he combined two of his 200-seat auditoriums into a 300-seat venue.
Retrofitting reduces the number of seats by about 10%, Lefler said, because stadium seats are wider and provide more leg room. Typical conventional seats measure 21 inches from armrest to armrest and 38 inches from chair back to chair back, Lefler said, compared with 23 inches and 44 inches respectively for stadium seating.
Losing some seats is an acceptable trade-off, Akarakian said, because stadium seats are more likely to be filled. His year-to-year box office revenue has increased by about 10% since the retrofit, he said, although he's not sure whether the increase is the result of the new seats or of more popular movies.
Still, Akarakian said most theater operators must convert their old seats if they want to remain profitable.
The Edwards chain has retrofitted 32 screens in Cerritos, LaVerne and Valencia, said Steve Justus, the theater company's construction manager. He said retrofitting is planned for Edwards' 10-screen Atlantic Palace in Alhambra and for the Irvine Spectrum, which already has stadium seating for three of its 21 screens.
Justus expects retrofitting to continue as movie exhibitors try to catch up with the trend, except in a few cases in which theaters are structurally unsuitable for retrofitting or the owner deems a conversion unnecessary or too expensive.