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“If You Build It… They Will Watch”
The rise of the Megaplex and the unintended consequences of a surplus of screen real estate.
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Last week, we continued our exploration of our physical spaces by looking at the notion that new ideas must use old spaces to grow. We looked at the work of Jane Jacobs and how her principles inform the way we think about adaptive reuse.
Today, I want to turn our attention ahead a few decades to the 1990s and a fascinating phenomenon that played out right in front of our eyes. This was a story first reported on the podcast 99% Invisible and is a great example of the fluid nature of context and content.
Their episode tells the story in such great narrative form that I don’t want to pretend I can replicate it in a shorter form here. I will summarize, but if you are interested in the subjects we’ve been talking about, you will love 99% Invisible. Links to the full episode are at the bottom.
The Rise of the Megaplex–And the margin for content it created.
For the TL;DR Version (summarized from the episode and the great write-up on their website):
By the 1970s, the movie theatre business in the US was not so great. Bad theatres, the rise of home viewing, and other factors had dragged the reputation of going to the movies down.
Through the 80s, Stan Durwood and AMC saw what was happening worldwide with a new concept: The Megaplex. They opened the first US Megaplex in 1995: The AMC Grand 24 in Dallas, Texas.1
These new megaplexes were what we now expect out of a theatre today: new car smell, stadium seating, bright lights, multiple concession stands.
Here’s where our interest really picks up:
…between the rise of DVDs, and all this new screen real estate film studios cranked up their production. Films became more varied and a larger share of them started coming from original ideas, rather than from sequels, remakes, or adaptations. Suddenly the major studios were throwing money at new ideas and new directors. Creative new indie movies—the type of which used to live only in small arthouse theaters— started getting a wider release.
Jack Foley was a distributor at Columbia and he says the megaplex was a Trojan horse for slipping strange, subversive movies into unsuspecting suburbs across America. If the latest teen movie was sold out, kids might end up seeing something like Being John Malkovich. And Being John Malkovich was not an outlier. The year it was released— 1999 —was a year that many people believe was one of the best movie years ever. Not only did all these great movies get made, but they were able to find an audience in Megaplexes across the country.2
So this sudden surplus of a context that had not been previously available lead to a massive explosion of new and original content. “But wait,” you might be thinking. “Why did I just have to watch Fast and the Furious 257?”
By the mid-2000s, the movies were becoming a “first-weekend” business. Studios tried to break blockbusters wide, opening on as many screens as possible, and theater owners realized instead of putting a different movie on every screen, they could give the blockbusters multiple screens with a new showtime every 20 minutes. As blockbusters took up more and more screens, smaller movies got squeezed out.3
The episode goes into the full explanation of why this happened, but let’s stop and zoom in a bit on the narrative that supports what happened:
“I think sometimes people look back and say, ‘oh, there was there must be some kind of cultural movement that meant Americans were interested in indie films in the 90s,'” explains Ben Fritz, an editor at the Wall Street Journal. “No, it’s really the explanation is that the economics of the movie business changed in that time and that changed the types of movies the studios were making.”4
Did Stan Durwood and AMC believe in the early 1990s that they would be helping create the ruts that would bring about Avengers: Endgame? Perhaps. They wanted to see the movie business grow (after all, they did own a theatre chain), but I would argue that the rise of our current economy of the movie business was more of a (happy) accident than a well-planned trip.
I dare you (if you’re a fan of big-dollar blockbusters) to not watch this clip with a little nostalgia for a time come and gone (just about 2 years ago):
*Obligatory note about COVID and the movie business*
As we’ve already talked about with Netflix a few weeks back, the initial circumstances of a change are almost meaningless as an indicator of the change’s long-term ramifications. That also holds in our built world.
Today, we again find ourselves at an inflection point in the movie business. Regal Cinemas is just beginning to reopen their theatres where I live in Greenville, South Carolina. Still, the pandemic has already left its mark on the economics of the movie business around the country and world.
Zooming out a bit, what will the changing economics of movie theatres do to the shopping centers built around them? There are many ideas out there, but the truth is, we don’t know. But one thing we do know for sure: while we intentionally built the multiplexes, thereafter, they have shaped the movies we consumed on them, and the types of movie consumers we are.
And that’s the bigger point.
Thanks for joining me this week.
You can find the full episode on:
Further Reading and Notes:
One of the people interviewed for the 99PI story has an interesting-looking book (I’ve not read it yet!) on the movie business. You can check it out here!
Next Monday is Memorial Day! You can expect a shorter post; I’m going to put together my summer reading picks around the subjects we’ve talked about here. Thanks for sticking with me!