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Muffled screens
Is it curtains for the movie theaters of Boston?

BY PETER KEOUGH


The movies first lured me in at the Rialto Theatre, in Roslindale Square, in the early ’60s. I was nine. The place, I recall, was huge, dark, cool, and mostly empty. The rowed seats sagged but were inviting with their tacky burgundy plush. Popcorn permeated the air, from the greasy crackle of the concession stand to the soothing dimness within, where it hung more faintly and mixed with other smells — dust, orange soda, generations of human exhalations — to create an aura as distinctive as that of a church.

What film was it? Maybe Merrill’s Marauders, or She, or Help! I was more a generist than an auteurist at the time, though it would be 10 years before I understood those terms. And the theater, even then, was at best second- or third-run. More than a specific movie, though, I think it was the curtain that sealed my fate. Vast, pleated, purple, and inexorable, it stirred to life as the darkness fell, murmuring prayerfully, like a hand opening a book, or a door opening to the light.

There’s none of that at the new 19-screen Loews Boston Common Theatre. No curtains, no smell other than the residue of construction, no popcorn as yet, unless you include the faux kernels in the seven-foot-tall container on top of the concession stand.

For this is business, after all, not nostalgia. We’re standing in the current nexus of corporate, real-estate, and entertainment interests in Boston, a towering lobby three stories above Tremont Street. Dancing across the newly carpeted floor is a faint laser image of the Sony logo, and Michael Norris, executive vice-president of Loews Cineplex Entertainment, is explaining the new complex.



Where did all the theaters go?
Find out where they are now.





“We heard from the public what they wanted. They wanted spaciousness. They didn’t want to stand outside, they don’t like to stand in lines. They wanted upscale finishing. They don’t want crummy theaters. They wanted to go to a complex where they could get in quickly. They wanted nice comfortable seats. They wanted big screens and soundproof rooms. They wanted to get a large selection of items at the concession stand. A restroom near each screen. All of these things we’ve listened to.”

What else do people want? They want the Back Lot bar, a 150-seat lounge on the second floor (not yet open, so we couldn’t try it out). They want the right to order a reserved seat for an extra five bucks. They want big fat columns that look like the staging of Aida by way of Toys R Us. They want hot fresh chicken wings, curly fries, and chicken tenders served up with a minimum of waiting. They want — and this is where Mike is starting to lose me — to be the first people in Boston to pay $10 for a movie admission.

“It’s the first $10 admission, true, but only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” he explains. “It’s basically economics. . . . Raising prices is usually not our answer, it doesn’t help us that much. But we asked people, and they said if you give me what I want, I don’t have a problem with that.”

So what do you get for $10, $15 for a reserved seat? Mike takes us down to the largest theater on the street floor, a 700-seater with a 56-foot screen and Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, and we watch a couple of trailers, including the one for Jurassic Park III. The quality is impressive. One thing bugs me, though. No curtains.

Something else that bugs me are the famous movie lines inscribed on the walls outside the theaters, expected classics like “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” but also some Reagan-era chestnuts like the Field of Dreams motto, “If you build it, they will come.” This sounds at first like wishful thinking, but then it occurs to me, what choice will “they” have? Just as in the rest of the media and entertainment industry — TV networks, publishing companies, radio stations, recording labels, newspapers and magazines, and the Internet — the trend in moviehouses is toward consolidation and concentration, with ownership getting distilled down to the fewest possible corporate entities. It’s the unified-field theory of capitalism, where there’s only one game in town.

IN 1970, exclusive of local odeons like the Rialto, which was my own personal field of dreams, there were some two dozen cinemas just in Boston. By 1980, as mega-corporations started taking over the old studios, the number had dropped to 13. By 1990 there were only seven.

Today? The new Boston Common (which will open next month, as soon as the fire inspectors give the okay) joins the Loews Cheri and Copley Place and the General Cinemas Fenway. That’s four. And tomorrow?

“Well, I don’t think you need a real big crystal ball for that one,” says Norris, pondering the fate of the Copley Place and the Cheri. “Anytime anyone opens a megaplex anywhere in a neighborhood near older theaters, the effect has been felt. And I think if this theater is going to have the effect on the other theaters that we think, we’ll have to make some tough decisions.”

By next year, would it be safe to say that the only theaters in Boston will be the Fenway and the Boston Common?

Mike ducks. “It might be safe for you to say that. I wouldn’t say that.”

Okay, so I’m saying it. Would it be so bad? True, there were two dozen theaters back in the ’70s, but only about 32 screens. Even without the Cheri or the Copley Place (and there’s speculation that the latter might hang on to show arthouse or alternative fare), the Fenway and the Boston Common will have that many between them. And nostalgia aside, what’s the problem with having the same number of movie screens in two centralized, convenient, state-of-the-art if expensive (recall that when the Fenway opened, it was the first to jack up tickets to $9.50) venues rather than scattering a lot of shabby theaters along Washington Street? Does anybody really miss the Publix?

What we don’t want, of course, is what happens in John Waters’s Cecil B. DeMented, where a shot of a super-multiplex marquee shows just three movies with roman numerals playing on its scores of screens. That doesn’t seem a problem for Boston, since different companies own Loews and General. For now, anyway. Those who read those boring little business items in trade magazines like Variety, however, may have noticed that in recent weeks a megacorporation called Onex (“a buyout firm,” the Wall Street Journal calls it) not only has bought up the General Cinema Chain, which filed for Chapter 11 shortly after opening the Fenway 13 last year, but is also trying to clinch a deal for the similarly beleaguered Loews chain. If Onex winds up owning both Loews and General, one has to wonder how much choice Boston moviegoers will have.

NOT THAT THERE’S ANY NEED to panic just yet. When it comes to choices in movie viewing, few areas are as blessed as ours. Boston proper can boast the Museum of Fine Arts’ formidable film programming and the always interesting film series at the Boston Public Library. Harvard Square has the Brattle Theatre and the Harvard Film Archive; in Brookline there’s the Coolidge Corner, and a little farther out the West Newton Cinema.

And we can be especially grateful for the Landmark Theatre’s Kendall Square Cinema, which is now under “old” management. Paul Richardson and Bert Manzari, who initially nurtured this “specialized cinema niche” into what has been a lifesaver for those who want to take in an art or foreign film under pristine conditions topped off by a cappuccino and a Haägen-Dazs ice cream, have returned. Now once again president and executive vice-president, respectively, of Landmark Theatres, the two are back in charge of the Kendall, which when last checked was offering on its nine screens fare ranging from the re-release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to the Chinese love story The Road Home.

“It’s the best of American independent and foreign-language films,” says Richardson, explaining the programming philosophy that has driven them since he and Manzari started out in the business in New Mexico in 1974. “Film that is challenging. Film . . . the only definition is that it be good.”

By the 1990s they had a modest chain of about 150 screens in 50 locations. Then they felt compelled to sell. “The Silver [Cinema] guys bought us in April of 1998,” says Richardson. “Bert and I stayed for roughly a year and then went our separate ways. When Landmark went into bankruptcy, we were interested because we’d spent a lot of years building this, and we suffered a lot of disappointment watching a company that we had built struggle so badly. Then we went to Oaktree Capital Management, who won the bankruptcy bid, and got the company back and here we are. That’s the short version.”

A happy ending. But what’s the deal with all these bankruptcies?

“Silver’s plan was to apply the same business approach to the art theaters as they do the discount theaters,” Richardson points out. “They thought that way they’d make more money. But it takes more TLC to run this kind of a chain. More grassroots marketing. Film-savvy staff, as opposed to minimum-wage high-school kids.”

Fair enough. But why is it that General, Loews, and Landmark are all folding at the same time? Especially when the box office seems to be breaking new records every year?

“Well, I think it’s pretty simple,” says Richardson. “There was an enormous building binge that went on. Not so much in Boston, Boston’s kind of late to come to it, but certainly across the country you were seeing 24- and 36-screen multiplexes popping up all over the place, and a lot of the financial community got behind these binges and gave the companies the ability to do it. And everyone was building based on the fact that if I didn’t build on this corner, somebody was going to. Consequently, they were saddled with a lot more screens. They had a lot of four-to-six-screen complexes that were completely cannibalized by these megaplexes, but at the same time they were still having to pay rent on them. The film companies were being, I wouldn’t say opportunistic, but they were certainly aware of the situation. They could place their films on two and three and four screens in every complex. A film that does all its business in two to three weeks rather than eight or 10 weeks, if you understand the way film deals are constructed, is much to the advantage of the distributor [i.e., the percentage of the grosses taken by the exhibitor increases the longer the film is in the theater]. All those things conspired to make it a very difficult environment.”

As is often the case in such binge-and-bust situations, one savvy corporate raider walks away with all the marbles. Oh, by the way, what is Oaktree Capital Management?

“Onex,” says Manzari, who’s been pretty quiet up until now, “is the company that’s buying.”

I feel a chill. Is Onex the number 666 of the entertainment industry? To find out, one should ask Philip Anschutz, Denver billionaire, Republican, and pal of Bob Dole, owner, at least in part, of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings and the Staples Center, and Qwest Communications. And through Onex owner or prospective owner of the Loews, General Cinema, Landmark, Edwards, Regal, and United Artist theater chains, approximately 20 percent of the screens in the United States, second only to Sumner Redstone’s Viacom in share of the market. He’s not exactly a public kind of guy, however. So instead I decide to chat with George Mansour, the sibyl of Boston film exhibitors, who has seen and done it all (the old Nickelodeon, the old Boston Film Festival, the old Gay & Lesbian Film Festival) since the days of Edison. If anyone can quash, or instigate, rampant paranoia, it’s George.

“He will become a fantastic force,” admits George about Anschutz’s prospects. “I mean, General Cinema, Regal, UA . . . my God. And you throw in Landmark. He really controls the whole city. Redstone only has the Circle.

“In some ways, though, owning everything can be a blessing, I know it’s not supposed to be that way. But it certainly frees you up to eliminate bad things and maximize good things. It may be that the Fenway and the downtown house will make beautiful music together. No, there’s no conspiracy. It’s just business.”

Maybe big business. “I understand that a major source of his money comes from high-definition video,” George hints. “Think about that. Converting all these screens to high-definition and then these movie companies will be forced to make the films in that. And then be forced to pay him. Wouldn’t that be interesting.”

Probably more interesting than some of the movies they’ll be screening. Whoever in the end takes over, I just hope he has the sense to put up curtains.

Issue Date: June 28- July 5, 2001