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Will the Force remain with Greater Des Moines theatres?


A week after “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” was released last month, Fridley Theatres’ General Manager Terry Dotson saw his theaters’ ticket sales jump 78 percent from the previous week.

“The last nine out of 10 weeks we’d been down,” said Dotson, whose Des Moines-based company owns and operates 33 theaters in Iowa, including three in Greater Des Moines. “So that’s going to help us quite a bit.”

Locally, theater operators are hoping that Hollywood will deliver a series of blockbuster movies this summer that will continue to boost ticket sales, which nationally have been down more than 8 percent this spring compared to a year ago.

At the same time, Greater Des Moines theaters are competing to fill a record number of seats following the opening of Century Theatres’ 20-screen megaplex at Jordan Creek Town Center in August 2004.

When California-based Century Theatres Inc. announced in January 2003 its plans to build the metro’s largest theatre complex, several theatre owners predicted that it would drive some of the area’s smaller competitors out of business. In January, the Silver Cinemas 10 next to Merle Hay Mall closed its doors, and other theaters are feeling the pinch from a 20 percent surge in screens.

One independent theatre owner, Billy Bryant, said revenues at his Billy Joe’s Pitcher Show in West Des Moines have dropped 25 percent in the past six months.

“Yeah, (Century) has so many screens and they use so much product and hold it so long,” said Bryant, who is in his 21st year of business. “We usually get (a new release) after six weeks, and they’ve been holding them for 10 weeks, and they’re getting worn out,” he said.

To compete, he’s held his prices to $3 and $4 a ticket for the past several years, and has been changing the menu of food items offered at the theatre, where patrons are served at their tables.

It’s not entirely Century’s fault his business is down, Bryant said.

“The movies themselves haven’t been very good. We need movies with ‘legs,’ long life – and there haven’t been that many,” Bryant said. “‘National Treasure’ and ‘Meet the Fockers’ have been the only ones that have lasted recently. Not having enough family movies has also hurt. There are a lot of PG-13 movies I wouldn’t take my grandkids to.”

From Dotson’s perspective, “(Century) is affecting the theatres in West Des Moines more than our theaters in Pleasant Hill and Ankeny, which really haven’t been affected at all,” he said. Dotson said he believes that Carmike Cinema’s Cobblestone and Wynnsong theaters have both been hurt by Century’s opening. Carmike’s regional manager did not return calls seeking comment on Century’s impact on its sales locally.

A publicly-traded company, Carmike reported a 75 percent drop in operating income for the first quarter of 2005, which the company attributed to “lower attendance which was impacted by industry trends generally, the lack of a comparable film to replace ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and screen closings for renovations and expansions.”

Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., a box office tracking firm in Los Angeles, said a variety of reasons are behind theaters’ slump in sales.

“The most important one goes back to the product,” he said in a phone interview. “Some of the movies have done well this year. But overall, moviegoers haven’t gotten excited about many films this year. I think it’s less chilling to say it is the product, as opposed to saying people are changing their habits. That would be a more chilling prospect. I think a movie like ‘Star Wars’ says there are movies that can motivate people to come to the movies. But that one movie is not enough to get us out of the slump.”

Over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, the top 12 movies in the country grossed $225.5 million, but still lagged 5.5 percent below last year’s record Memorial Day, according to figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations.

“Year-to-date really isn’t as bad if you take out the nearly $400 million that ‘Passion of the Christ’ injected into the market,” Dergarabedian said. “I’m looking at a summer that can be very good. But it’s more challenging to get moviegoers into the theater.”

The timing of movie releases can be critical, Dotson said.

“It really just depends on how the product falls each year,” he said. “People tend to see eight or 10 movies a year. A blockbuster will bring them back, and then there’s a dud and they’ll stay away for a while. One factor that actually helps us a little bit is that people aren’t driving as far, so they’re more likely to see a movie close to home, rather than driving to Jordan Creek. So high gas prices are helping us to some extent, I think.”

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