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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Utah theater chain turns 'The Hunger Games' into an event

 Cinemimi[Saturday, March 24, 2012] 
Patrons seeing 'The Hunger Games' at a Megaplex Theatre in Utah can get made up like Katniss or duel like a tribute. The chain's success has the attention of Hollywood studios.
The Megaplex Theatre chain, which includes the Megaplex 17 (shown here) at Jordan Commons in Sandy, Utah, has a multi-pronged strategy for turning big-ticket movies such as "The Hunger Games" into an event. (Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times) 

"The Hunger Games" is big enough of a draw this weekend that movie theaters don't have to do much to sell tickets — in the opening hours, hundreds of thousands of fans dropped nearly $20 million for admission.

But those who showed up at the Megaplex Theatre in Sandy, Utah, for the first screenings were able to participate in their own (nonlethal) version of the cinematic teen death match, donning sumo wrestling suits, picking up laser guns and jousting with inflatable swords. Before battling strangers and friends, patrons could visit Cinna's Salon and have their eyes decorated with glitter — just like the film's heroine, Katniss, gets dolled up by a stylist named Cinna before she's thrown into the arena. The winner took home a backpack and lunch box donated to the theater by the studio, Lionsgate.

All the extras weren't cheap; the premiere party cost patrons $34, on top of an $8.75 ticket. But these kind of aggressive marketing activities have helped to propel the small, six-theater Megaplex chain in and around Salt Lake City into the ranks of the nation's top-grossing outlets for teen movies in recent years — and caught the attention of Hollywood studios.

It's not just the parties at Megaplex, owned by the Larry H. Miller Group, that boost its opening-weekend grosses; the chain has a multi-pronged strategy that includes renting out auditoriums to corporations and playing one big-name movie on the majority of its screens.

As a result, four of the top six grossing theaters for midnight screenings nationwide were Megaplex outlets, Lionsgate said Friday.

In November, when the fourth "Twilight" film was released, one of the cinema's branches in South Jordan, Utah, brought in more money on opening weekend than any U.S. theater outside of one in New York City, where ticket prices are far higher. The location in Sandy came in fourth in the nation for both the debut of the vampire flick and the final installment of the "Harry Potter" franchise last summer.

At Megaplex early Friday, "The Hunger Games" was playing on all of the chain's 92 screens. The movie remained in all of those auditoriums for 3 a.m. showings as well, then was pared back to about five screens per location for the remainder of the weekend.

It wasn't just teens showing up for the PG-13 film. Many of those who came were adults who work for companies like JetBlue, Ameriprise and 1-800 Contacts, all of which, Megaplex says, are eager to buy out entire auditoriums for team-building outings. Heading into the weekend, Megaplex had sold out 96 screenings, guaranteeing more than $100,000 worth of sales.

Celeste Casey, a 30-year-old marketing distributor for the greeting card company Send Out Cards, rented out a 530-seat theater at midnight to help boost her client network.

"It was insane. The local news station came in and filmed the audience with everybody screaming and cheering," Casey said Friday morning. "When we got out of our movie, there was a wall of people, and we could hardly move. People were dressed up like characters with rhinestones on their face and hair dye. I can't imagine the money and time they put into these costumes. There were vendors selling 'Hunger Games' themed-cakes and blankets and socks. It was so exciting."

Because of the circuit's track record, Megaplex has developed a working relationship with a number of movie studios. When Summit Entertainment (which recently merged with Lionsgate) released "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1" last fall, it sent a handful of the movie's lesser-known stars, including Ashley Greene and Peter Facinelli, to attend a mini-premiere at one of the Megaplex locations.

"Because of what they've done in the past, you pay attention when they need more prints shipped to them or when they say, 'Boy, can you get some of the actors here for personal appearances?'" said Richie Fay, Summit's president of domestic distribution. "We have to encourage people going to the movies across the country — it can't just be focused on the coasts."

Julene Jolley, 55, is the Megaplex director of events, and she and her team are responsible for devising tie-ins for every major movie release. She brought in a rock climbing wall and a bull riding machine for a "Harry Potter" film, set up an elaborate replica of the wedding scene in the most recent "Twilight" film and tracked down a Justin Bieber look-alike for the premiere of the pop star's documentary.

"What we are trying to do is expand the moviegoing experience," she said.

Megaplex Theatres was founded in 1999 by Miller, a local car dealer who also owned the Utah Jazz basketball team at the time. He had no experience in Hollywood but was eager to learn, recalled Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.' vice president of distribution.

"One day I got a call from this guy who said, 'You don't know me, but I'm successful in my own world. I've never owned a movie theater, but I love movies,'" Goldstein said. "He wanted to know about the nuts and bolts of the business, and soaked in everything I told him like a sponge."

Miller, a member of the Mormon Church, invested in a 2001 Mormon-themed production called "Brigham City" that didn't crack the $1-million mark at the box office. Three years later, he put more than $7 million into another Mormon-themed production, "The Work and the Glory," which grossed $3.3 million. Though the film did well enough to spawn two sequels, Miller told the Salt Lake City Tribune in 2006 that the overall lack of success "extinguished" his interest in film production.

The businessman also weathered some controversy after he pulled the acclaimed 2005 drama "Brokeback Mountain" from Megaplex theaters because it centered on a gay relationship. Gay rights groups protested the move, and Jay Leno even made a joke at Miller's expense on "The Tonight Show." Miller later apologized, calling the ban a "knee-jerk reaction." He died in 2009.

Also key to the success of a film at Megaplex is avoiding an R rating. In 1986, then-Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Ezra Taft Benson delivered a speech to the "youth of the noble birthright" in which he explicitly cautioned: "Don't see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive or pornographic."

"That hasn't been enforced since, but many Mormons still have the 1986 speech in their mind," said Dean Duncan, a professor in the department of theater and media arts at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

It also does not hurt when themes of the films fall in line with Mormon teachings. The "Twilight" series, for example, argues for chastity before marriage, and the author of the books, Stephenie Meyer, is Mormon. The "Harry Potter" novels that inspired the movies have been commented on favorably by religious scholar Jeffrey Roy Holland, a Mormon senior apostle and former BYU president. The church declined to comment for this article.

But James Marsh, a media industry analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co., says that in an era when movie attendance continues to decline and theater owners turn to broadcast operas and other fare in addition to films, there may be lessons in the Megaplex story.

"Theaters have a finite amount of content coming to them, so Megaplex is making the best of what they're getting from the studios. There are fewer blockbuster films, so how can they make the ones they get a bigger event?" Marsh said.

"Other theater chains are working on improving concessions or doing film distribution deals to get more content. Megaplex is embracing the film and looking for that hard-core fanboy to come in and immerse themselves in the movie. I don't hear the big guys doing that."


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