With So Many New Movie Complexes In Dallas, How Close Are We To Peak Theater?

Twenty years ago, Dallas boasted the biggest movie theater complex in the world. AMC’s The Grand off Northwest Highway — now a Studio Movie Grill — had a then-unthinkable 24 screens.

Just a few short years later, though, that figure was moot: Suddenly, the region boasted not one but two 30-screeners that are still operating today — one in Mesquite and at the other at the then-booming Grapevine Mills Mall. These spots came as part of a mass expansion of movie theaters in the area — one that hasn’t really slowed down since as North Texas has continued to grow.

And that growth is fairly mind-blowing, actually. These days, the two biggest chains in town, AMC and locally owned Cinemark, each have nearly a dozen theaters located within 25 miles of Downtown Dallas. But even that volume isn’t guaranteeing these entities a massive market share. Instead, the movie house competition has only increased in recent years — especially in developing suburbs — as more and more theaters from smaller chains pop up around the area.

No longer is just being big or having a lot of screens good enough. In general, if your movie theater isn’t offering something beyond a movie and standard concessions, you’re behind the curve. Some theaters have added luxury seating — hello, recliners! — along with booze and gourmet food options meant to entice the general public. Others have started offering repertory screenings or special performances (like operas and plays) to bring in cinephiles and other more discerning patrons alike.

The best, like the Alamo Drafthouse, combine all of these elements. As theaters go, there’s simply no equal to the Alamo’s first two of four planned locations (so far) around North Texas. The ticket prices are reasonable, the food and alcohol selections are excellent, the service is impeccable and the showings outside the typical first-run movies are beyond compare.

But there’s competition outside of the cinemas to contend with as well. For many folks, myself included, a theater remains the best place to experience most films, but with increased ticket prices (currently averaging a whopping $8.70 per Box Office Mojo) and only a 90-day window before I can see a movie from the comfort of my own home, I better be getting a lot of bang for my buck.

Acknowledging that push-pull is something that’s being considered by most theaters now opening in the suburbs, such as Addison’s LOOK Cinemas and Fairview’s iPic. Tickets run much higher at both theaters — upwards of $15 at the former and sometimes as much as $25 at the latter — but both feature luxurious seating and upscale food and drink options. It’s an expensive night out, but it does guarantee a certain clientele (i.e. no loud kids or people who talk back to the screen).

Both of those theaters are also plaintiffs in separate lawsuits that accuse AMC of violating federal antitrust laws. Basically, they allege that bigger chains lobby studios hard to restrict showing the biggest movies only at their theaters, leaving the smaller but snazzier theaters to suffer.

“AMC is trying to strong-arm the film distribution companies into giving them exclusivity with films,” LOOK’s attorney Brett Johnson told the Dallas Morning News last April.

That’s why it helps when theaters that aren’t part of a big chain know their audiences well and find lanes to occupy outside of the standard film-release cycle. Bill DiGaetano, COO of the Alamo DFW group behind the Alamo Drafthouse’s North Texas expansion says his theaters will “always do 80 percent first-run” films in its scheduling, but his two currently open Dallas-area locations use their remaining 20 percent to cater to crowds with appetites for repertory screenings of the movies of their youth and for craft beer.

And the Alamo is hardly alone in this fight. The Texas Theatre, with its sole screen, serves as an avant-garde beacon, showing movies from farther off the beaten path as well as hosting burlesque shows and concerts. Richardson’s FunAsia has carved out its niche by showing exclusively Indian films. Meanwhile, both area Angelika locations typically stick with the arthouse crowd, who are searching for the latest critically acclaimed independent or foreign film or possibly even a broadcast of a ballet or opera.

Without these secondary money streams, some of these smaller theaters would have trouble keeping their lights on.

“Summer can be slower for us since we don’t show a lot of the bigger blockbusters,” says Adam Conway, the Angelika’s manager of events and marketing, hinting at some of the issues his company faces in the battle against the big boys. “But it really depends on the product that is available. A case I can recall from a few years back was Moonrise Kingdom, which we opened in the summer, and it was one of our largest-grossing movies of the year.”

Only so much of that is up to Conway and his fellow programmers, though. Like every theater, especially those clustered together, the Angelika Dallas in particular has to fight for the rights to the movies they want to screen with studios and other nearby theaters — some of which are fighting a similar fight.

“We have a lot of smaller independent studios that will submit their films to us for consideration of exhibition,” Conway says. “We also are subject to restrictions where a movie theater in a certain radius may not be able to show the same movie at the same time. So, for Dallas, we compete for movie allocations with Magnolia [and] Inwood. Neither of us can have the same movie playing at the same time. In Plano, we compete with Cinemark West Plano.”

With fierce competition, it’s a little surprising that so many area theaters have managed to stay in business. But at least the consumer seems to be coming out on top through all of this. For most of us, there’s strength in numbers. Thanks to creative promotions and the need for theaters to stay competitive through up-to-date amenities, the case could be made that there’s never been a better time than right now to be a cinephile in Dallas.

How this will play out moving forward, though, is anyone’s guess. One thing that’s certain is that more movie theaters are indeed on the way — the result of the region’s continued population increase, the latest boom coming as major employers like Toyota and State Farm move here.

The Alamo Drafthouse, for one, seems ready for this next chapter, having already broken ground on two additional locations in Las Colinas and Little Elm, and reportedly having its eyes set on many more. And more competition is on the way, too: Cinepolis, the biggest movie theater chain in Mexico, will enter the market in 2017 by opening a eight-screen complex in Victory Park, followed by a second location set to open that same year in Euless.

Is all of this a lot to swallow? Absolutely. But the growth is a result of demand. North Texas may feel like it’s approaching peak movie theater at times, but full saturation still appears a ways off.

There’s still time to run to the concession stand for some popcorn. The show’s only just getting started.

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