ST. GEORGE – As part of a larger expansion currently under way at the Larry H. Miller Megaplex Theatres, on April 16, the company announced its pending acquisition of 11 movie complexes from Westates Theatres, including five in the St. George area, one in Mesquite, Nev., and three in Logan.
In the past three years, Megaplex Theatres has grown from 70 screens in Utah to more than 150 screens in Utah and Nevada.
Jeff Whipple, of Megaplex’s corporate advertising, marketing and public relations department, said, “The conversation (for the acquisition) has been over a year in the making. The folks at Westates have been terrific to work with, it’s been a conversation for some time, many at Megaplex have worked at Westates.”
Whipple said while the company looked for expansion opportunities, a couple of scenarios played out.
“Obviously, finding new locations in key areas was one of the possibilities, and looking at how guests were being served under the current operation was another – at the end of the day there was Westates (which) has been serving … communities for sometime.”
Whipple said those have been communities they have shown interest in approaching.
Westates will continue to operate several locations, Whipple said. “They’re regional, they’ve got operations in Holladay, Idaho, Arizona …”
Founding of Westates and Megaplex
Perhaps it speaks of the generations of the founders, those in which movies, drive-ins, and dinners went hand-in-hand as a dating top pick, but the Megaplex success indicates the choice of entertainment is as viable today as ever. The Megaplex Theatres are among the most popular theatres in Utah and frequently finish at the top in national box office results for opening night and weekend results for major Hollywood releases.
The inspirations for both Westates and Megaplex theatre companies resonate from earlier eras.
Tony Rudman started Westates in 1958 with the single screen Davis Drive-in Theatre in Layton, Tony Rudman Jr., president of Westates, said. From that one, the offering grew to over 100 movie screens in 25 theatre locations before the senior Rudman’s death in 2010.
Megaplex was founded by the late Larry H. Miller and his wife, Gail, when they were approached by Sandy City to do something with the original Jordan high school site.
Miller’s group of companies include more than 80 businesses, according to its website, among which are the Utah Jazz, EnergySolutions Arena, the Salt Lake Bees, Miller Motorsports Park and 39 automobile dealerships.
Whipple said the Millers first contemplated a park or a playground for the old Jordan high school site, but Sandy City encouraged them towards something that would generate tax revenue. The Millers considered the geography, reminisced many “dinner and a movie” dates, and decided to recreate their experience in what is now a Megaplex staple, “dinner and a movie.”
Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons opened in November, 2009, seven months after Larry’s death. It is representative of the Miller Companies’ theatre concept.
“It was designed with multiple restaurants adjacent to the movie theatres,” Whipple said, “And inside the lobby of the theatre was food court offerings, pizza, burgers…cup holders in the seats.”
He said it was designed so that their guests could have “dinner and a movie at the same time and take the meal into the theater with them.” It was “pretty revolutionary at the time. So we’ve worked at expanding that concept at each of our locations.”
When the company builds its complexes from scratch, it includes the elements of built-in food court with restaurants positioned nearby.
Whipple said it would be a process in the Southern Utah area: “Our goal is to build on what’s been offered by Westates in those areas…We have our team looking at each of the locations to see how we move forward to see what makes the most sense – we recognize some of these communities have their own needs because they’re smaller. It doesn’t make sense to expand to 20 screens where it doesn’t have a town to support it.”
Whipple used the Megaplex at Thanksgiving Point as an example, “We took over (that) location and operated it for several years and just recently are finishing up a fairly extensive expansion/remodel.”
Megaplex focuses on what Whipple called guest services.
“Thankfully there are a lot of communication tools that allow guests to let us know what works for them – Facebook, email or text – they tell us what they’re interested in – in fact, we very much encourage that kind of feedback,” Whipple said.
Communication from guests is influential to the Megaplex company. Whipple said they are interested to hear from their guests on services and the films, and to tell the company what movies they are interested in.
Selection of movies
What movies are screened is a fairly involved process, Whipple said.
“I used to think being a film buyer was a dream job, now I interact with our film buyer and it’s not as glamorous as you might think,” Whipple said. “We work a lot of the major studios…Blockbusters are certainly on the short list for consideration, what the market is interested in is absolutely a great factor…figuring out what the people in the community want to see.”
From Megaplex’s experience in the Salt Lake City market, Whipple said family films play great, along with kid movies and movies in the action, adventure, romantic-comedy, science fiction and superhero genres.
Film releases are seasonal. When school gets out, Hollywood turns out action films and big blockbusters. When school starts up, the horror films and family films release around the holidays. And then, Whipple said, grown-up artistic films come out later in the year in anticipation of the Oscars.
“The other part of it is the Miller family is committed to helping build Utah industry as much as possible,” Whipple said, “So there’s been quite a bit of support to independent films with strong ties to Utah and the west, films with local connections are hopefully being treated more than fairly with playtime.”
Whipple cited examples in “The Blind Side” and “Slumdog Millionaire” as fairly small films at the time they opened which picked-up big time once they got the buzz. The reason, he explained, some movies are not initially shown in all movie houses is that the smaller films will intentionally roll out in smaller distribution lists in hopes of building the kind of buzz that “The Blind Side” and “Slumdog Millionaire” received.
“So we’ll go back and forth repeatedly to see about getting a film available to us,” he said.
Discussing faith-based films, Whipple said it depends on how open the studios are to working with the theatres.
“The ups and downs of it from our standpoint is depending on the type of film that is being marketed, if it’s in the LDS market we’re among the first to get the calls.”
For example, Megaplex screened “Boys of Bonneville – Racing on a Ribbon of Salt,” about the Mormon meteor racecar driver, and another one about a Mormon skier.
In selecting movies to show, Whipple said, “We look at what the market shows interest in, we have a pretty good track record of identifying films that we think will work. Screen time is tricky – but especially at our larger locations in Salt Lake City there are more screens so we have more latitude to offer screen time to some of the smaller films.”
Implementation of change
“The transition and rebranding from Westates to Megaplex Theatres in these new markets will likely take several months,” said Blake Andersen, senior vice president of Megaplex.
Megaplex’s transition into the Southern Utah theatres is expected to be visible in June. The company will offer positions to all the people presently employed with Westates who are qualified and currently working in the locations being acquired.
“We’ve heard glowing reviews of the teams that are down there in the southern part of the state,” said Whipple. “We’re likely to do things differently – hopefully they’ll stick with us.”
St. George News invited Westates’ regional staff to comment on the transfer, but no response has been received by the time of publication.
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.