Business Columns & Blogs

Silver screenless Tacoma an anomaly in multiplex theater world

Every so often a remark made in passing jumps out from a news story to smack the reader, prompting a response of “that can’t really be so.”

Such was the case with a recent News Tribune story about the closing of the Galaxy Narrows movie theater in University Place, and this sentence within: “The closure leaves Tacoma and its immediate surrounding area without a mainstream theater.”

In a city the size of Tacoma? Nah. Couldn’t be.

But in doing a quick check, whaddya know, it can be. True, there are multiplexes in Lakewood, and Tacoma has two independent, locally operated cinemas. Someone might reopen the University Place theater, and there’s been talk of putting a movie theater in the Point Ruston development.

But if your definition of mainstream is chain-operated multi-screen theaters showing first-run pictures, then yup, Tacoma is silver-screenless.

That seems odd not just because of Tacoma’s population, and not just because nearby areas like Kent, Tukwila and Renton are positively thick with multiplexes.

It’s also odd because it runs counter to the national trend. For all the well-publicized travails of the movie theater business, for all the competition from television and the Internet, the number of movie screens in this country has actually been on the rise.

We know this from data compiled by the National Association of Theatre Owners (yes, the acronym is NATO, and yes they use the alternative spelling of theater), which show a near doubling of indoor movie screens from 1987 to 2011, from 20,595 to 38,974. NATO data also show the number of outdoor – i.e. drive-in – screens falling over that period from 2,084 to 606. The surprising element there isn’t the trend but that there are that many drive-in screens still left.

There’s another data set worth taking a look at – number of U.S. cinema sites. From 1995 to 2011, the number of theaters (not screens) fell from 7,151 to 5,331.

In other words, fewer theaters but more screens per theater.

That won’t surprise any veteran moviegoers who have watched the virtual demise of the single-screen theater. The move to dual and then multiple screens was a defensive move financially for theaters wary of losing attendance to competitors inside and outside the business.

If you’re a one-screen house and the movie you’ve booked for a week’s run is a turkey, that’s bad news.

Have that happen frequently enough and you’re sunk. With a multiplex, however, even if one screen is occupied by a dud, you can hope that at least one, maybe more, of the movies on that week’s bill are pulling them in.

Motion picture studios and movie theaters have been under pressure to continually come up with changes and improvements since the dawn of television and continuing through VCRs, DVDs, video sales and rentals and now online streaming.

The studios quickly figured out that television wasn’t a threat, it was a new revenue-generating channel. The broadcast and cable networks, the video stores and rental services, the streaming services (with companies such as Amazon and Netflix figuring in there) needed content.

The studios were more than happy to provide it and squeeze a few more dollars out of their inventories.

That didn’t do much, though, for the other half of the business, the theater operators, whose audiences stayed at home to watch shows, sports, old movies and, in recent years, long-form dramas like “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.” For many one-time moviegoers, the comfort of home and increasing size and quality of TV screens meant they’d commit a couple of hours to watching a movie that didn’t rise to the threshold of making a trip to the theater. Here’s a consequence of those factors: NATO reports 1.339 billion movie admissions in the U.S. and Canada in 2010, the lowest total since 1996.

Thus the consolidation into chains that had the capital to build multiplexes and install such upgrades as stadium-style seating. The search for further crowd-pleasing improvements continues. Some theaters are installing Imax screens and projection systems, once confined largely to museums and tourist attractions. They’re also trying out special presentations of operas, plays and other events that are shown on screens across the country. And they’re hoping the studios continue to produce “event” movies that draw crowds.

That still leaves us with the question of why Tacoma has such a dearth of movie screens. It’s probably not that people in Tacoma don’t like movies. Here’s a guess that it’s been more an issue of real estate – finding parcels of a size, location, configuration and highway access to make a multiplex viable.

Finding such a property is only the start of the calculation. People still like going to the movies, but as history has shown, they won’t go to just any theater and they won’t watch just anything that happens to be on the screen in front of them.