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First class at the movies Luxury: General Cinema is hoping that such amenities as wine, gourmet dining and leather chairs will lure movie-going adults away from the competition into its premium screening rooms.


Do you love to watch the Ravens from the luxury boxes, while others squint from the nosebleed section? Do you hand your car keys to a valet while the rest of us circle the block? Then General Cinema's latest attempt to rebound from its dismal earnings could be good news for you.

The theater chain is hoping three new luxury screening rooms in Owings Mills, tentatively scheduled to open the first week of February, will help boost profitability and bring back the customers it has lost to competition.

The premium cinema will be adjacent to the theater's 14-screen megaplex that opens Friday. But aside from digital sound and wall-to-wall screens, the two won't have much in common. The adults-only luxury theater will feature a private entrance, coat check and a gourmet restaurant that seats 120.

Patrons will sit in big leather chairs as they sip gourmet coffee or perhaps a glass of fine wine while watching first-run movies. No whining children or boisterous teens here. Premium ticket holders will have their own bathrooms, too.

Fancy megaplexes -- theaters with 12 or more screens -- have been sapping customers from General Cinema's older theaters. Parent company GC Cos. Inc., based in Chestnut Hill, Mass., reported a net loss of $41.56 million for fiscal 1998, compared with a profit of $14.76 million in 1997. It took a fourth-quarter charge of nearly $40 million associated with the cost of closing poorly performing theaters.

"The year went from bad to worse," said Mike Florin, an analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison. "General Cinema is primarily an older circuit, and it's under severe competition from newer megaplexes. The premium cinema is a good idea."

Along with the premium sites, the company is focusing on building traditional theaters in its better-performing Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. It also has teamed up with Robert Redford to form Sundance Cinemas, a chain of theaters that will show independent films.

Other theaters are moving in the same direction. Loews Cineplex Entertainment and United Artists Theaters plan to open luxury theaters in several cities throughout the United States; Cineplex Odeon Corp. opened one in Toronto last April.

General Cinema unveiled its first premium cinema last spring in Chicago. Spokesman Brian Callaghan wouldn't discuss its profitability, but pointed to the fact that the chain is copying the format here, and in Milwaukee next spring, as a sign of its success.

Tickets at the premium cinema -- with three screening rooms that will seat 120, 88 and 64 -- will cost between $12 and $15 and can be reserved in advance with a credit card. Valet parking might be available, for an extra charge, and the theater has applied for a liquor license. But you won't find nachos or chicken wings at this theater. The menu is more likely to feature artichoke dip, sauteed chicken with rice noodles and prime rib.

"This is really for the better-heeled who like to do everything in the best possible way," Callaghan said.

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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