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How much does Orlando like the movies?

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Sit back and enjoy the show: Movie theaters are going up at a dizzying pace, threatening to squeeze the market and raising concerns about Orlando's ability to support so many screens.

In coming months, Orlando's metropolitan area will add some 110 first-run movie screens, raising the total to 465.

And more may follow. While five megaplex cinemas are under construction or in planning, proposals for three more are in the works.

But can Central Florida absorb a 31 percent increase in screen count?

Not if you go by one industry rule of thumb that says you need 10,000 residents for every screen. By that measure, Central Florida is short about 2 million potential moviegoers.

But don't roll the closing credits just yet.

The region's steady stream of tourists and swelling population make it a unique market better able to handle the influx, experts say. It helps, as well, that the proposed theaters are scattered across the region, from Winter Garden to downtown Orlando, in burgeoning retail epicenters.

"The new theaters are going up in areas that are seeing a lot of residential growth," said David Marks, president of Marketplace Advisors Inc. in Maitland. "Movie theaters, like drug stores and grocers, experienced a lull for awhile."

But now, he said, they've started pushing aggressively into fast-growing areas, often targeting large retail developments.

Developers also are encouraged by a thriving movie industry. After six years of industry consolidation, the closing of almost 1,700 out-of-date movie houses nationwide and numerous bankruptcy filings, cinema owners are healthier and moviegoers are returning in droves.

Total U.S. movie admissions were up almost 30 percent in 2003, compared to a decade earlier.

"Ticket sales the last three years were the biggest in terms of butts in seats since 1957," said Jim Kozak, editor-in-chief of In Focus magazine, a movie industry publication. "The slowdown that we saw for awhile seems to be passing."

The shrinking number of screen counts nationwide also appears to be reversing. Since 1999 -- when the number of movie screens nationwide hit a high of about 37,200 -- many have closed and construction of new screens stagnated. However, there are 36,585 movie screens today, 590 more than there were in late 2003, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Orlando's screen count has mirrored the national trend.

Between December 1999 and February 2001, 12 local cinemas closed, darkening 77 screens. However, some of those reopened as second-run theaters.

Since then, only a couple of new first-run theaters have entered the local market, including AMC Altamonte Mall 18 in 2003 and AmStar Lake Mary 12 in 2004.

So why the sudden surge in theater construction? In part, it has been fueled by the growth of open-air retail centers, which view movie theaters as a way to attract foot traffic and draw exposure.

Lifestyle centers, which offer a mix of retail, restaurants and entertainment, especially want a theater.

"Typically, lifestyle centers don't have a collection of department stores that serve as a magnet," said Bill Speer, president of Speer Consulting LLC, a retail real estate consulting firm in Southern California. "Theaters then become even more important of a draw, especially where there is an emphasis on restaurants and entertainment."

Take The Loop for example.

The 440,000-square-foot retail center going up near the Osceola and John Young parkways will be anchored by a 16-screen Regal Cinema, slated to open in the fall.

"Our goal is to give customers multiple reasons to come to The Loop," said Tom Wilder, principal at The Wilder Cos., the center's developer. "A movie theater is a huge bonus."

Theater owners also hope to pair their cinemas with high-profile, high-traffic retail centers.

Russ Nunley, marketing and communications director with Regal Entertainment Group, said the company looks for the right mix of retail, restaurants and entertainment and a growing market when opening a new theater. The company, the country's biggest theater owner, plans to add nine new megaplexes, and more than 100 screens, nationwide this year.

"Orlando is a very important market for us," he said. "We have a strong collection of theaters there and The Loop will strengthen our presence south of town."

Regal will face some hefty competition though.

A 20-or-more screen megaplex is planned for Winter Garden Village at Fowler Groves in late 2006 or early 2007, but developers haven't released details; AmStar Entertainment is adding a 12-screen multiplex at the Premiere Trade Plaza in downtown Orlando next year; Phoenix Theaters will open a 20-screen theater at Veranda Park in MetroWest next year; and Premiere Cinema Corp. will debut a 14-screen theater at Orlando Fashion Square mall this spring.

And there are at least three others being considered.

In Deltona, near Interstate 4, a 16-screen theater has been put on hold, though developers say they aren't shelving plans.

A 16-screen Cinema World theater is part of the 220,000-square-foot town center planned for the Hunter's Creek area. Lake Mary-based Pelloni Developing Corp., the project's developer, said it's researching the viability of two theaters in the region -- it would compete with The Loop.

And there is the possibility that a theater could be included in the 1.2 million-square-foot Plaza Collina shopping center planned for the Clermont area. Project officials say the center, which will open in phases starting next year, will have an entertainment offering.

"Geographically, these are all areas that need movie theaters," said John Crossman, senior vice president and director of retail services at Trammell Crow Co. "They sound like a lot of screens, but the theaters make sense."

Another fact that comes into play is the competition between theaters -- some of which will be vying for the same customers.

Newer cinemas generally offer larger screens, stadium seating and the latest technology, giving them an edge over some older locations. But they may have a tougher time in areas where a large, modern theater already has a foothold.

With two new downtown Orlando cinemas on tap, and the opening of an 18-screen theater in Altamonte Springs, the Regal Winter Park Stadium 20 at Winter Park Village is doing what it can to retain its market share.

Regal's Nunley said the 6-year-old theater is currently being updated in some auditoriums as part of its routine maintenance. Crews are repainting walls or replacing wallpaper.

And there is a strong incentive to keep these large theater complexes from closing.

The last thing a retail developer wants is to have an empty, shuttered movie theater as an anchor. Unlike big-box stores, theaters -- with their large auditoriums -- are difficult to reconfigure for a new business.

The only guaranteed winner regionally is the local moviegoer, who soon will have more opportunities to catch the latest flick -- even independent, lesser-known ones.

The Enzian Theater, the nonprofit, one-screen theater in Maitland known for running hard-to-find independent movies, is planning to expand as well, said Peg O'Keef, executive director.

The moviehouse hopes to build a second location -- a three-screen site in Winter Park -- but details are still being finalized.

"Our audience here has grown," O'Keef said. "Any expansion plans are guided by a desire to serve the community and meet the needs of our audience."

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Traffic in the narrow street of metrowest going to be awful.

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