- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Ticket prices at Loews and Cineplex Odeon theaters will rise 25 cents on average starting Friday, as the financially weak parent company of the cinemas struggles to get back on its feet.

Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. of New York, the biggest publicly traded U.S. theater chain, is raising prices depending on location. Tickets are now $10 in its hometown.

Locally, prices won't climb quite that high. For instance, at the Cineplex Odeon Uptown, the chain's main destination theater in Cleveland Park, adults will pay $8.25 instead of $8 in the evenings, and $6 instead of $5.50 for before 6 p.m. shows.

"We are doing this to at least partially offset the increase of the costs of operating our theaters," said company spokeswoman Mindy Tucker.

Although Loews Cineplex is the only chain planning to raise prices right now, others will follow, said Geoff Oltmans, an analyst with Lehman Brothers in New York.

"They all independently increment up as often as they can without disrupting the market," he said. "If [Loews Cineplex] is going to raise prices a quarter, people may or may not follow. But generally theaters end up pricing things together."

Loews last raised rates two years ago, when tickets went up a quarter.

The chain has 25 Loews and Cineplex Odeon locations in the region and nine of the District of Columbia's 11 theaters.

Loews Cineplex has been trying to trim expenses and avoid bankruptcy since last year. This month, the chain is closing 21 of its 365 theaters around the nation. Only one of the casualties is local the seven-screen theater at Manassas (Va.) Mall closed Feb. 15.

Unlike Loews Cineplex, nine chains have filed for bankruptcy protection over the past 14 months. Chapter 11 allows them to continue operating, but protects them from their creditors while they restructure.

Wehreberg Theatres Inc., a St. Louis-based, 95-year-old family owned and run chain in Arizona, Missouri and Illinois, is the latest movie operator with financial troubles.

Other movie chains under bankruptcy protection include United Artists Theatre Co., GC Co.'s General Cinemas, Carmike Cinemas Inc., WestStar Cinemas Inc., Silver Cinemas International Inc. and Edwards Theaters Circuit Inc.

The industry's woes began in the mid-1990s with the introduction of megaplex theaters. These new facilities offer stadium-style seating, surround sound and concession stands with gourmet pastries and fancy coffee drinks.

But they are also much costlier to build than traditional theaters, which is why the companies racked up about $7 billion in debt in their rush to build megaplexes. Then they were saddled with the older theaters they couldn't shed because of long-term leases.

Loews Cineplex and the nation's fourth-largest chain, AMC Entertainment Inc., so far are the only chains to avoid bankruptcy.

Missouri-based AMC doesn't plan to raise prices for now, said company spokesman Rick King.

"We normally review prices a couple of times a year," he said. "And it's on a theater-by-theater basis."

AMC conducts price reviews twice a year. Its springtime review is coming soon.

At most local theaters, prices for daytime shows for adults are between $4.50 and $6. Evening shows are more expensive, ranging between $6.50 and $9.75.

Lower ticket prices are available for children, students and senior citizens. Discount theaters show older films, where tickets are as low as $1.

The most expensive theater in the area is General Cinemas' upscale Mazza Gallerie megaplex in Friendship Heights, which opened last year and charges $9.75 for adults. Matinee shows are $6.

An employee at the theater said yesterday that no near-future increases have been announced.

Box-office workers at local Regal Cinemas and United Artists theaters also said there are no planned ticket-price increases.

Shares of Loews Cineplex closed yesterday at 15 cents on the New York Stock Exchange, unchanged since last week.

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