Will New 16-Screen Complex Draw Moviegoers?

Cineplex Odeon's new downtown 16-plex, the three-story Meridian Cinemas, which opens today at Seventh Avenue and Pike Street, has more screens than any other Seattle multiplex to date - although it will soon be eclipsed by a larger ACT III multiplex in Auburn.

Like most new multiplexes, the Meridian features plush seats and Dolby Digital sound systems in every auditorium. One auditorium has a THX certification, and four are equipped with the DTS system, which uses a separate CD-ROM to create as many as six discreet channels of digital sound.

A gourmet coffee stand and mid-level restrooms will serve all the theaters, which range from 200 to nearly 400 seats. All are accessible by wheelchair via an elevator. Free listening systems are available for the hearing impaired. Spacious landings, escalators, a floor-level indoor ticket booth and exit-only stairs should keep large crowds moving smoothly.

Screen sizes are generous, though they come in different shapes; some are designed for wide-screen movies, some for standard aspect ratios.

"There's been no compromise on screen size," said Freeman Fisher, vice president of marketing and studio relations for Cineplex Odeon. "Even the auditorium with 203 seats has a large screen."

However, parking in the garage underground is not validated. Rates range from $4.50 per hour during the day to $7 for the evening.

"We were able to work out a deal with the garage at the City Centre theater," said Fisher. "We're working on one here."

During the press tour yesterday, the theater was heavily picketed by members of the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators. They are protesting Cineplex's decision to use non-union projectionists for the automated Meridian equipment. They plan to hold a rally at NikeTown at 6 p.m. Friday.

"This theater was not part of the union contract," said Fisher, who pointed out that all other local Cineplex Odeon theaters employ union projectionists. "It's not a matter of locking them out." He added that the concession and ticket stands will "employ a lot of the youth of Seattle."

Ironically, the first press screening at the Meridian demonstrated the drawbacks of automation. The movie started while the curtain was closed, the screening was stopped, lights went up and two staff members had to manually draw back the curtain. During the wait, one local critic shouted that management should pick someone off the picket line to get the show started.

To many moviegoers, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of 16 screens is Cineplex Odeon's commitment to introducing foreign and independent films to the downtown area. The Market Theater and United Artists Cinemas had some success with alternative film fare years ago, but it hasn't been tried on this scale before.

Friday's opening programs will include two first-run studio movies, "Daylight" and "Mad Dog Time," plus quite an array of art-house hits ("Swingers," "Bound," "Big Night") and movies that opened at art houses before finding a wider audience ("Emma," "Michael Collins").

Plenty to choose from

Next week, moviegoers will be able to choose between "Daylight" and such classics as "Chinatown," "Gigi" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," as the Library of Congress' National Film Registry Tour makes its first Seattle visit.

"It's not just a commercial house," said Fisher. "We'll be doing specialized films and an exclusive run of `Ghosts of Mississippi' starting Dec. 20."

Today and tomorrow, the Meridian will be featuring a more commercial collection of recent hits ("Babe," "Apollo 13"), a couple of art-house successes that played mainstream theaters as well ("Sense and Sensibility," "She's the One") and one oldie (1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade").

Admission for these films is 16 cents. The same price will apply to popcorn and drinks. Proceeds go to the Salvation Army Toy Drive. Regular Cineplex Odeon admission prices will apply beginning Friday.

"We're working out the bugs with these 16-cent shows," said Fisher. "We'll probably never have 16 different movies here; it will be more like eight or nine. We'll just be giving more options for when a film begins."

It will be interesting to see if the Meridian can draw audiences that have so far resisted venturing downtown to the Newmark five-plex, the U.A. Cinemas (now a discount house) or the King Cat, which has become a multi-purpose hall.

Discount being considered

"We are strongly considering going to a discount policy with the Newmark," said Fisher, who guessed that second-run films there might cost between $2 and $2.25. "Fortunately for us, the downtown area is exploding."

The 16-plex is part of downtown's revitalization, which includes NikeTown, Planet Hollywood and the opening of an 11-screen General Cinema multiplex in 1998.