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A conversation with Frank Moson of MBK Construction Ltd., a major builder of megaplex theaters

MBK Construction Ltd. specializes in construction services in the retail and entertainment fields. Since 1994, MBK has built 75 megaplexes for AMC Theatres, together housing 1,225 screens and 240,000 seats. Frank Moson, vice president of the Irvine, Calif.-based company, recently talked to SCW about design and building issues related to megaplex construction.

SCW: Over the past decade, theaters have grown from offering one auditorium to several screens to nearly 30 screens. How big is big enough?

MOSON: Exhibitors have been wrestling with that question. How many screens should a theater have? What is the optimum size of the auditoriums? If you ask the major exhibitors, you'll probably get a different answer from each. After six years of building stadium-seating theaters, we've seen certain specifications come into focus. For example, it appears that the optimum number of screens generally lies somewhere between 16 and 20.

SCW: What about the 30-screen AMC Theatre MBK built at The Block at Orange in Southern California?

MOSON: There are exceptions, depending on the market. Of the 75 AMC Theatres we've built, five have 30 screens: The Block at Orange, Ontario Mills, Grapevine Mills, Deer Valley in Phoenix, and Studio 30 in Houston.

SCW: Megaplexes also seem to feature more elaborate designs and building materials.

MOSON: That's true. Moreover, each exhibitor is developing its own branded design. For example, Muvico uses elaborately themed displays. Their megaplex at Point Orlando, for example, has a pirate ship hanging from the ceiling of a three-story lobby. Edwards Theaters, on the other hand, focuses on materials. Their lobbies use neon, chrome and marble to create a sense of elegance. AMC has also developed a couple of different theme packages. Their odyssey package, for example, is based on outer space and includes a black ceiling with pinholes and fiber optic lighting above. You can see the constellations. Sometimes a comet flies across the sky.

United Artists (UA) does not build large, ornate lobbies. They focus on first-class seating and auditorium design. Some UA theaters have enormous auditoriums that seat 700 people.

SCW: What is the average number of seats in auditoriums?

MOSON: That varies. AMC's largest auditoriums have a little over 500 seats. In a 24-screen megaplex, they will design two 500-seat theaters, with the rest offering between 100 and 300 seats.

SCW: Does tiered, stadium-seating design raise concerns about emergency exits?

MOSON: Yes. In theaters with more than 300 seats, you have to provide emergency exits from the top and lower rows. In other words, you must provide an exit from the back of the theater. This is done with a top level exit to a mezzanine leading out of the theater.

SCW: What other regulations affect design?

MOSON: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) raises design issues. According to recent ADA rules, people with disabilities must be able to access seating at least two-thirds of the way up a tiered theater. To accommodate this, designs provide entrances leading into the middle rows of the tiered seating, allowing people with disabilities to go up or down and get to the seating they prefer.

SCW: On average, how much do stadium-seating theaters cost to build? How much per sq. ft.?

MOSON: It depends on the exhibitor and the kind of theming they use. I would estimate that certain Muvico theaters might push $200 a sq. ft., while United Artists' more modest designs might come in at $105 per sq. ft.

SCW: It seems that tiered theaters have been slow in arriving in downtown areas. Why?

MOSON: A 24-screen theater may require a footprint of 80,000 sq. ft. Buildings that large can be difficult to find downtown. Still, we're building theaters in downtowns. We just completed a 16-screen AMC project in a historic building on Van Ness Street in San Francisco. To fit 16 theaters into the building, however, we had to stack them on top of each other. We put four theaters on each of four levels.

SCW: Stacked theater designs must raise construction costs.

MOSON: There is a premium, yes. We built a single-level, 16-screen AMC theater in San Jose, Calif., not far from San Francisco. The stacked design in San Francisco cost about 8% more than the San Jose facility. Remember though, that the 8% differential did not include the cost of the shell in San Francisco.

SCW: Older, sloped-seating theaters have lost their appeal next to stadium-seating theaters. Do the exhibitors consider it worthwhile to renovate older theaters?

MOSON: Several exhibitors are exploring retrofits. AMC had a 10-screen, traditional sloped-floor theater at Disney World in Florida. We recently added 14 stadium-seating auditoriums. When that project was completed, we retrofitted the traditional auditoriums with a stadium design.

SCW: At what cost?

MOSON: The range to retrofit a sloped theater is $8 to $10 per sq. ft. You do lose some seats during a retrofit because of the configuration of the stadium. But if you have a good location, the retrofit costs are low compared to having the theater sit vacant. ep

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