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Movie house competition heating up in the Hub City

If it was a movie, might be called ‘Clash of the Cinemas’

Hattiesburg — If this was a movie, it might be called “Clash of the Cinemas.”

The competition between Hattiesburg’s four existing cinemas and two proposed new ones, a competition that could — if all announced expansions and renovations are carried out — result in the city’s 19 present screens increasing to 50 or more and some of the existing cinemas being forced out of business.

According to industry experts, the key to survival is a cinema’s physical amenities, and the most important of these is stadium seating. Matt Brandt, an executive with Los Angeles-based Trans-Lux, which owns a chain of cinemas, said that some 99% of movie houses now being built have stadium seating and that those that don’t “face extinction.”

“Whoever gets in there with stadium seats will take the market,” Brandt said.

Southern Theatres, LLC, of Metairie, La., positioned itself to become the first to offer these amenities when, in late July, it signed a purchase agreement with Hattiesburg’s Terra Firma Corporation for 10.6 acres in Chauvet Square to build a $12-million, 14-screen multiplex.

This new cinema, to be called the Grand, will have 50,000 square feet and 2,400 rocking chair stadium seats. In addition to the usual movie fare of pop corn, candy, hot dogs and soft drinks, the Grand will offer gourmet coffee, frozen cappuccino and frozen daiquiris.

The cineplex is the first part of an overall $40-million project that will bring new restaurants and businesses to Chauvet Square, according to Nick Welch, Terra Firma’s managing member. Chauvet Square is located near the intersection of Hardy Street and Interstate 59.

Hattiesburg now has four cinemas — The Regal Theaters/United Artists 9 in Turtle Creek Mall (off U.S. 98), the six-screen Broadacres Cinema (near U.S. 49), the Cloverleaf Cinema (in Cloverleaf Mall, U.S. 49) and the Beverly Drive-In Theater (U.S. 49).

Rave Motion Pictures of Dallas has submitted concept plans to the city for a $12-million cineplex near Turtle Creek Mall but the plans must be modified and then will have to be approved by the city.

Rave opened a 15-screen cineplex in a Birmingham suburb this past June with 3,300 reclining rocker seats with retractable cup holder armrests and unobstructed viewing that utilizes 18-inch risers, with 48 inches between seats.
There are no definite plans at this time to enlarge or renovate the 10-year-old Turtle Creek Mall United Artists 9 theater, according to both mall and cinema officials, although there have been some discussions.

In a prepared statement, mall spokesperson Andrea Saffle said, “We have been in contact with Regal to discuss possible upgrades and improvements of the facility. However, at this time, there are no plans in place.”

Regal Entertainment Group includes Regal Cinemas, United Artists Theatres and Edwards Theatres. The Group operates 6,119 screens in 562 locations in 39 states and is the largest motion picture distributor in the world. Corporate offices are in Knoxville, Tenn.

O’Neil Theaters has announced plans to enlarge its Broadacres Cinema from six to 14 screens, with stadium seating, later in the year, according to Stephen Moss, director of field operations. But Moss had no comment on anything more specific about the expansion plan.

The Beverly and Cloverleaf have not announced plans for expansion or renovation.

George Solomon of Southern Theatres said that Hattiesburg simply could not support so many movie screens and predicted that some of the theaters wouldn’t survive. He expects construction on the Grand to start by the beginning of September.

Within 60 to 90 days after construction begins on the Grand, Welch says that he will announce the names of three sit-down, chain restaurants that will open in Chauvet Square. He expects the cinema and the restaurants to open early in 2005.

Terra Ferma has formulated plans with the city for street work to improve access to Chauvet Square and the Grand, according to Welch. The city is now putting out bids.
In terms of developing property, the location that gets a movie theater first wins, according to Brooks Holstein, a partner in Comvest Property, LLC. Comvest is developing the retail outlets in Chauvet Square.

“Getting the Grand gives us a tremendous competitive advantage,” Holstein said. “The businesses follow the theater.”

In addition to the Grand and the three restaurants, Welch said that Chauvet Square is seeking retailers such as Barnes & Noble Bookstores, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Academy (sporting goods) and Bass Pro Shops.

“We have a list of very good properties,” Holstein said. “We do mailings and we make direct contact. We already have personal relationships with real estate directors of many of these retailers.”

Holstein said that the Chauvet Square project was fortunate to have Southern Theatres’ Grand locating there.

“Southern is one of the best creative theater organizations in the nation,” Holstein said. “Southern was the company in the Gulf South that pioneered stadium seat mega-theaters.”

T. R. Solomon started out in the movie business in McComb, then moved to the New Orleans area. George Solomon is his son.
Comvest Properties is located in Biloxi. Among their developments is the Crossroads Center at Interstate 10 and U.S. 49, near the Gulf Coast.

Hattiesburg officials estimate that the Grand will gross $385,000 in sales taxes and that $71,225 will go to the city. The new cineplex will employ 100 people.

Welch describes himself as “an entrepreneur type of person.” He was drawn to the Chauvet Square project because Hattiesburg is a vital area. “And the Pine Belt is growing faster than other parts of the state.”

Welch’s partner in Terra Firma is Tom Anderson.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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