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MUMMY, TAKE ME TO MUVICO

You can learn a lot working at a movie theater.

How much soda the human bladder can comfortably contain. Why children don't order Coca-Cola. How people like their popcorn. (A clue: wet.) When people like to see scary movies - and when they don't. How to calm an angry customer. (Two words: free passes.)

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And if you work at the Muvico Egyptian 24 at Arundel Mills Mall, which for two years running has sold more tickets than any other movie theater in the country, you will also learn a little mythology. That creature out front is Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead. The building, with its detailed hieroglyphics and massive columns, evokes an ancient tomb.

A burial place is the last place you would expect people to flock on weekends. And yet the Muvico Egyptian sold 2.85 million tickets last year and is shooting for 3 million this year. That's more people than will see the Orioles play at Camden Yards all season.

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Less than four years after it opened in Anne Arundel County, Muvico has become the dominant theater in Maryland. It sells more tickets, pops more popcorn and makes more money than any other. The theater's success is partly a product of location, but it has as much to do with skillful management, almost flawless film presentation and a theme-park atmosphere that transcends the gray boxy squares of most theaters.

"In a world with a lot of alternatives to going to the movies, you really have to entice the audience," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a California-based box-office tracking firm. "What Muvico is doing - creating a theme or ambience around the whole moviegoing experience - has been a great move for them. Muvico has raised the bar."

Muvico succeeds by giving people what they want. On June 4, for instance, the new Harry Potter movie opened on seven screens there. Shrek 2 was on five screens and The Day After Tomorrow on another five, meaning that 17 of the theater's 24 screens were devoted to just three movies.

Film snobs may grumble that Muvico is squandering its wealth of screens and failing to make lesser-known, independent films available to a wide audience. But Muvico says its mission is mass not class: to premiere big Hollywood films, and to fill the seats.

"Summer is survival of the fittest," says Bill Garza, the 35-year-old managing director of Muvico. "Your movie has to do well. If it doesn't, it's off the screen pretty quick."

As the summer blockbuster season gets under way, The Sun spent a recent Friday night behind the scenes at this sprawling, 4,878-seat megaplex. Even on a relatively smooth night, small crises kept employees scrambling. One worker had to be fired. Another walked off the job. The soda fountains went on the fritz. And that was all before 8 o'clock.

Muvico Truism No. 1: A scary movie on a Friday night will fill the house.

Horror and action pictures do particularly well at Muvico, but you can take midnight Friday showings of scary movies to the bank, no matter how awful the movie is. Not Saturdays, though, and managers aren't sure why.

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"Maybe everyone goes to church on Sunday," speculates senior operations manager Dan Hogan.

Otherwise, there are few guarantees in movie scheduling. Garza doesn't decide which films his theater will show. That call is made by the Muvico chain's national film buyer in Los Angeles, who early each week sends Garza his Friday lineup. But Garza must figure out which film goes in which of his 24 theaters - a lot of latitude when his two biggest theaters seat 485 people and his smallest 101.

There is much to consider: You don't want the films in the biggest theaters to start at the same time, or you'll get long lines for tickets and concessions. Nor do you want popular movies in adjacent theaters, lest the lines get tangled. You want to squeeze in as many showtimes as possible, and to place each movie in just the right size theater, so you fill it up without turning people away.

"It's a no-brainer to put Harry Potter in your big houses," Garza says. On Harry's opening day, June 4, all its showings up to midnight sold out, as did some showings of Troy, Van Helsing and Raising Helen.

(A word about sellouts: Muvico does not actually sell every single seat in a theater. There is usually a buffer of five to 10 seats, Garza says, but they might not be empty. Some mothers carry a baby into a movie, then place the child on the seat next to them.)

Around 8 p.m. on June 4, Garza began to worry about The Day After Tomorrow. He had put the action film in larger theaters than the family-oriented Shrek 2. But instead, Shrek was packing its theaters while Day After was unspooling in half-full houses.

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That would be corrected the next day, when Garza moved Shrek to the medium-size theaters and Day After to the smaller ones.

"It's guesswork on a Friday," he says.

Muvico Truism No. 2: If you're showing a kids' movie, you're going to sell a lot of Sprite.

Hogan believes the run on Sprite during kid flicks is because parents want a non-caffeinated drink for their children that also won't stain their clothes. When the smallest drink sold is 20 ounces and the largest 44 ounces, that's a lot of potential spillage.

Employees push the large, noting it comes with free refills. But even they admit that anyone coming out for a refill will probably be stopping at the restroom first.

In the candy department, kids like anything sour - Sour Jacks and sour watermelons - while adults go for the chocolate. More adult-oriented movies playing means you'll sell more Raisinets and Goobers. And everyone loves Twizzlers - Muvico's No. 1 candy seller.

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They sell lots of pizza during teen movies, lots of chicken fingers and buffalo wings for action movies, and lots of popcorn all the time. On the day Harry Potter opened, Muvico sold 927 large popcorn tubs, 583 medium and 443 small, in addition to 420 extra-large family-size buckets. And if you're selling popcorn, you've got to give people butter. In a typical week, Muvico goes through 200 gallons of popcorn oil and 400 gallons of self-serve popcorn butter. "Some people make popcorn soup," Hogan says. "That popcorn's just floating in butter."

The concession stand is where most theaters, Muvico included, really make their money. More than half of ticket sales goes to the studios, but Muvico gets to keep every penny from concessions. To keep lines short and customers happy, the theater has 23 registers, four popcorn poppers, six soda-fountain towers, three TurboChef ovens, one deep fryer - and about 45 people to staff them on a typical Friday night.

Muvico likes to sell about $3 in concessions for every ticket sold. The day Harry opened, the theater averaged $3.22, impressive considering the soda fountains lost carbonation for part of the night. The Coke man was called in, while employees scrambled to sell bottled soda.

"It's like a Navy ship, it really is," says Landon Whitt, 18, who works the ovens, making pizzas, pretzels and other hot food to order. "We've got radios going, people going, ovens, broilers."

He means handheld radios, not ones tuned to rock or hip-hop stations. It seems half the employees at Muvico have a radio on their hips, and they're often barking questions and transmitting crises:

"Bobby! What's your 20?" (That would be location.)

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"Bill! The Harry Potter line is getting out of control."

Sometimes it's hard to tell who's being called. The theater's top staff includes a Bill, a Phil and a Will, whose last name happens to be Hill.

It's so hectic that sometimes new employees turn in their uniforms and just leave. On a recent night, as Garza finally sat down in his office at 1 a.m., one of his coordinators told him a staffer had quit earlier in the evening.

"He said it was too stressful for him," the aforementioned Will Hill told Garza. "No notification. He just walked off."

"Maybe," Garza said, "he was just lazy."

Earlier in the evening, Garza had to confront an employee who was moonlighting for another movie chain, violating Muvico's conflict-of-interest policy. The employee asked what would happen if he refused to quit.

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Then you're fired, Garza said.

He doesn't like to be The Donald, but, fortunately for him, he hires a lot more people than he fires: 15 to 20 new people every week to replace those who walk off, give up, go to school or find higher-paying jobs (Muvico employees, largely teenagers, start at $6.50 an hour).

Muvico Truism No. 3: Any weather extreme will pack the theater.

Says Hogan: "If it's raining, everyone goes to the movies. If it's snowing, everyone goes to the movies. If it's really hot, everyone goes to the movies. If it's really cold, everyone goes to the movies."

This was proven once again this past Memorial Day. The theater had done great business all weekend, and Garza figured people would want to spend Memorial Day outdoors, so he reduced his staffing.

And then it rained. All day.

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Lines backed up. The concession stand ran out of popcorn for 15 minutes. At one point, there were 40 hot-food orders waiting to be filled. Usually, orders are cleared within a few minutes, and sometimes so quickly that the food gets to the counter before the customer is finished paying for it.

Muvico Truism No. 4: No matter how crazy the theater is, all is calm in projection.

Take an elevator up two stories from the lobby and you'll find the single projection booth that serves all 24 theaters. The only sound is the rhythmic unspooling of film. Employees read books or do homework, waiting for the time when they must get up to start films or move them from one theater's projector to another.

It doesn't matter if there is one person in a theater or 500. It doesn't matter if the concession line is 20 people deep. It doesn't matter if the bathrooms have run out of paper towels. There are always 24 movies to be played in 24 theaters.

But calm doesn't mean easy. The theater has about 800 showtimes each week. And before the films can be shown, they must be spliced together. The movies come on multiple reels - 11 for Troy, for instance - which must be taped together to make one continuous movie. And each print of each film must be viewed in a theater start to finish by a projectionist before it's shown to the public, to check for mis-splices or audio problems.

That means if the theater gets seven prints of Harry Potter, as it did this month, each of those seven prints must be viewed separately in its entirety.

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"I had to watch Star Wars: Episode 2 twice," grumbles Jared Jarsocrak, the projection manager. But he's not really unhappy. Jarsocrak, who lives in Reading, Pa., says the quality of the theater makes his 242-mile round-trip commute worthwhile.

"I love the theming," he says of the ancient-Egyptian-tomb motif. "Most other theaters are very sterile. They're just boxes. There's some flair to this."

Muvico, a Fort Lauderdale-based company founded in 1984, has only 14 theaters nationwide, but distinguishes itself with the size and themes of its venues. Its average theater has 19.5 screens, the highest in the industry. The themes includes the Parisian and the Palace, both in Florida.

"It hearkens back to the old days," said Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations. "There's the old Egyptian Theater here in Hollywood. Just being in that building is exciting."

Garza feels the same way about the Egyptian at Arundel Mills. He's worked in theaters half his life, climbing up from the concession stand. Every Friday night, the all-important opening night in the movie-theater business, he takes the late shift - 4:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. When he finally gets home, his wife is already asleep. But that's OK. It allows Garza time to get some more work done.

Not surprisingly, he's writing a screenplay. The working title: "Bringing Doomsday."


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