CHARLOTTE-The writing isn’t on the wall, or screen, for many movie theater operators in this Southeastern bailiwick. Despite recent closings by several national chains, new theaters continue to surface.

For example, locally-based Consolidated Theaters is opening Manchester Cinema, a 12-screen megaplex in Rock Hill, SC just across the state line about 30 miles south of the Queen City. The newly-opened Manchester Cinema in Rock Hill is just a screen shout away from an older eight-screen cinema, and across town from a third seven-screen cinema. The managers of the older theaters hope to compete with Manchester Cinema but already are considering changing their format by showing older movies at discount prices.

Although analysts say too many theaters spread the audience too thin, advantages of the new theaters include stadium seating that offers comfort and unobstructed viewing, surround-sound and concession stands offering everything from soup to cider. The new state-of-the-art houses are forcing other theaters to renovate or go out of business. Half of the country’s largest theater operators have filed for bankruptcy protection since August.

Yet according to the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of movie screens has jumped to almost 38,000 from 28,000 since 1995. In Huntersville, for example, just 20 miles north of Charlotte, a chain is planning to open 16 screens next spring off Interstate 77 near the Palace Stadium 12, and just one exit from a dozen screens in nearby Cornelius, NC.

A 24-screen theater opened at Concord Mills in September 1999, a year after the 14-screen Starlight Stadium opened on US 29. Also, in October 1998, Regal Cinemas opened a 22-screen theater off Interstate 485, following another 22-screen property at Carolina Pavilion on South Boulevard.

A nationwide expansion of new theaters has forced four of the industry’s eight largest chains to file for bankruptcy in the past four months. The choice for older theaters is to upgrade facilities by adding more screens and better seating, or convert to a facility that shows second-run movies at low prices.

According to Bill Wilson, director of real estate for Eastern Federal, a Charlotte company that operates 20 cinemas in the Carolinas and Florida, in markets where there is a choice moviegoers say they want stadium seating or they will stay home.

In the past 10 years, movie attendance has increased nationally to 1.5 billion from 1.2 billion, according to the MPA. That growth has leveled off somewhat, but there continues to be an acceleration of movie screens. When Eastern Federal opens its new theater next spring, there will be 40 screens in north Mecklenburg County.

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