Before 1960, a few theaters had been built in shopping centers. There were even rare attempts to create twin cinemas, so-called because they included two separate auditoria with a common foyer and box office. But the multiplex was very much a product of the 1960s, usually credited to Stanley H. Durwood (1920–1999), who built his first twin cinema in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1963. Housed in a suburban shopping center, Durwood's multiplex used the same projection facility and concession stand for both (one seating three hundred, the other four hundred). The concept proved profitable and repeatable, and Durwood's American Multi-Cinema (AMC) company quickly became one of the major theater chains in the United States.
The years from 1965 to 1970 saw approximately one hundred new shopping center theaters open annually in the United States, each promising ample parking, an array of retail stores, and more than enough room for an inexpensive multiplex. This new type of venue flourished while the total number of movie theaters in the United States remained relatively constant, at fewer than ten thousand (40 percent of which were drive-ins). The multiplex trend extended to urban settings, as certain picture palaces were remodeled to house multiple screens.
As the multiplex evolved after the mid-1960s, it came to feature up to eight box-shaped theaters, each seating usually fewer than three hundred patrons. When built within shopping malls, multiplexes became even more conveniently integrated into an inclusive, teenage-friendly retail environment. Small screens and cinder-block walls that provided poor soundproofing made the multiplex, at best, a marginally satisfactory site for watching the movies. One improvement in the 1960s that greatly benefited the multiplex was the introduction of the powerful xenon bulb, a steady-burning, long-lasting light source that replaced the carbon arc in motion picture projectors. Increasingly automated platter projectors allowed for the entire program (trailers, advertise ments, and feature film) to be placed on one reel that required no rewinding. Theoretically, at least, an untrained projectionist could simultaneously run all the screenings in a multiplex.
The 1970s saw significant improvement in the quality of theatrical sound reproduction, first with the introduction by Universal in Earthquake (1974) of "sensurround," then with the increased use of the highly influential Dolby noise reduction system in films like Star Wars (1977) and Saturday Night Fever (1977). By the mid-1980s, Dolby had become the industry standard, and the large number of new theaters constructed in the 1980s and 1990s prominently featured state-of-the-art sound systems, like Lucasfilm's THX and Sony's Dynamic Digital Sound, which made the audio experience an increasingly essential aspect of theatrical film exhibition.
The new multiscreen theaters built after the mid-1980s, called megaplexes, differed significantly from the boxy mall or shopping center twin cinemas. Offering fifteen or more screens under the same roof, the megaplex was typically housed in a spacious, freestanding building, surrounded by a vast parking lot and easily accessible by car. In more urban locations, the megaplex might be situated within a shopping mall, like the Beverly Center Cineplex in Los Angeles, built in 1982 by the Canadian Cineplex theater circuit, which would soon become Cineplex Odeon, one of the top theater chains in North America. Cineplex Odeon is often credited with beginning the era of the megaplex. The theater construction boom in the United States and, eventually, in much of Europe and Asia, that lasted well into the 1990s meant that the megaplex became the predominant type of movie theater during a period of surprising growth for the motion picture industry. Between 1988 and 1998 the total number of screens in the United States rose from twenty-three thousand to thirty-four thousand, while screens in western Europe rose ten percent (to over twenty-three thousand) and in Asia—exclusive of China—remained roughly constant.
Promoted and, in part, designed as entertainment "destinations" or "complexes," megaplexes often featured video arcades, flashy interior design, extensive concession areas, computerized ticket counters, and indoor cafes. Especially in comparison to the shopping center multiplex of a generation earlier, megaplexes promised an enriched moviegoing experience, with comfortable stadium seating arranged to provide each spectator with an unobstructed view of a screen that was appreciably larger in relation to the auditorium size than had previously been the case. Having twelve auditoria (with different seating capacities) under one roof allowed for great flexibility in maximizing box office receipts over the short and longer term, as a highly publicized blockbuster might open on five screens and within two weeks be cut back to one or two of the smaller screening sites.
From the nickelodeon to the megaplex, the movie theater has proven to be a remarkably durable and varied commercial entertainment enterprise. It is a site that has deeply shaped the way countless spectators have experienced the movies.
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Gregory A. Waller