On Thursday, Regal Entertainment Group, the largest operator of movie theaters in the country, is set to open its newest theater at Towne Centre at Laurel, a $130 million, 400,000-square-foot retail development that officially opened Nov. 15.
The opening of the 12-screen theater signals the return of cinema in Laurel, and it comes with a twist. The theater, which can accommodate more than 1,000 moviegoers, aims to bring an element of luxury to the movie-going experience with the installation of king-size recliners for patrons.
"Bringing the Regal luxury experience to Laurel is very exciting for us at this entirely new open-air shopping center," said Christine White, marketing manager for Regal. "Moviegoers will soon be able to stretch out, relax and recline while watching the movie."
Russ Nunley, vice president of marketing and communications for Regal, said Regal is using the recliners in their new theaters across the country and is also converting some existing theaters.
In the mid-1980s, Laurel had three movie theaters with a total of 16 screens: eight at Laurel Lakes Cinema 8, which opened around 1985; two at Town Center Twin Theatres, which opened in 1970, and six at The Cinema at Laurel, which opened in 1966 as part of the expansion of the Laurel Shopping Center.
That number of screens grew to 20 in the mid-1990s when Laurel Lakes expanded to 12 screens.
A variety of factors slowly caused Laurel's movie theaters to fade to black. In 2010, lone survivor the Cinema at Laurel, then renamed Laurel Cinema 6, dropped the curtain, leaving Laurel theaterless.
The new Regal theater started showing re-run movies on Sunday, Nov. 16 at discount prices to raise money for local charities. On Thursday, the theater will officially open and begin screening first-run films, including "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1."
In addition to showing movies, the theater will also rent space to Lifehouse Church, formerly located on Montgomery Street. Regal rents space to churches in its theaters throughout the country as part of a program called "Regal Theatre Church."
The Regal is one of a handful of anchors for the development, which was originally announced in 2006 but had been stalled due to the recession. Other anchor tenants include Burlington Coat Factory, Sports Authority, Old Navy and Harris Teeter, the first in Prince George's County. The development also includes a variety of restaurants: Mission BBQ, Moe's Southwestern Grill, Nando's Peri Peri, FirstWatch, Buffalo Wild Wings, BJ's Brewhouse & Restaurant, Blaze Pizza and BurgerFi.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony last weekend, Laurel Mayor Craig Moe said the theater brings a special element to the long-awaited redevelopment project.
"I think a lot of people want to take advantage of the movies, and I think it brings the excitement to the center," Moe said. "There are different component of the Towne Centre, and this is a major part of it. ... I think it's a focal point when you come in, and it turned out real well."
Tom Fitzpatrick, president of project developer Greenberg Gibbons, said the theater was an easy decision for the project given the dearth of screens in Laurel.
"Part of the strategy of anchor tenants is to look for markets they are missing," he said.
Prior to the Regal opening, the closest theaters to Laurel were AMC Columbia 14, located 12 miles away at the Mall in Columbia; Regal Cinemas Bowie, located 14 miles away off of Route 197; and Cinemark Egyptian 24, located 12 miles way at Arundel Mills .
Karl Brendle, the city of Laurel's economic development officer, said the Laurel movie theater market has been "underserved" for years.
"We've been devoid of strong cinema for a long time," he said.
He said the demise of the market – driven by the closing of 12 screens at Laurel Lakes in 2000 and six screens at the Laurel Shopping Center in 2010 – was not indicative of a lack of interest locally.
"The demand was there, but it was a fluke," he said.
Brendle said the Laurel Lakes theater closed because it was one of the last theaters built without stadium seating. That shopping center was demolished to make way for an expansion that includes a Lowe's store. He said the Cinema at Laurel, or Laurel Cinema 6, was hit hard by the recession. Before it closed it was showing popular Bollywood films.
Richard Friend, whose blog "Lost Laurel" catalogs the city's retail history, said the Town Center Twin Theatres fell on hard times after Laurel Lakes opened. He said it lived on by showing re-run movies at discounted prices.
Because of the vapid market, Brendle said a theater was always on the books for the Towne Centre development, which cycled through various owners and iterations.
"The purpose of the Towne Centre is a mufti-trip kind of thing. You catch a show and dinner; it's designed to spend the whole evening there," he said.
Fitzpatrick agreed, and said the open-air, streetscape-style development is a departure from the traditional enclosed mall.
"The enclosed mall was not viable," said Fitzpatrick. "It's already a premier location, it was just a retail format that wasn't relevant in the marketplace. ... What we've created is so much more current with what people want today."
He said Regal's luxury approach fits with the modern theme of the center.
"We are really excited about how differentiated this particular movie theater will be," he said. "It says volumes about the type of market they are serving."
The theater has an added economic benefit in the form of an entertainment tax. The tax provides the city with a portion of every ticket sold at the theater.
Brendle said the majority of tax revenue will come from property taxes, but the entertainment tax "certainly wasn't coming in before, that's for sure."
While there is much excitement about the return of movies to Laurel, some question whether the movie theater business is still a viable proposition in today's culture.
For Prashob Menon, a media and technology consultant for Accenture, and Liam Boluk, a media and technology consultant and blogger, the answer is trending toward no.
The pair say that increased technology in home media, as well as the rise in popularity and quality of home video game systems, has put a strain on movie theater operators.
"The crux of the issue is, 40 years ago the movie theaters had a monopoly on an experience people loved. People still love that experience, but they are losing that monopoly," Boluk said.
Menon added: "A lot of people are choosing to watch [movies] in the comfort of the home instead of a theater."
Fitzpatrick said the developer doesn't have concerns about the viability of the industry, and likened it to the challenge retailers face with the boom of online merchandising.