With the opening last week of its new Bay Street 16, AMC is throwing the East Bay movie exhibition market into further uncertainty. Despite anticipated traffic problems in its bottleneck location next to IKEA in Emeryville, the debut of the country's second-biggest exhibitor (3,308 screens, 235 theaters) into the Berkeley-Oakland market is sure to make waves among the East Bay's already-established chains and indies. This is particularly true for United Artists, which operates the nearby Emery Bay 10 as well as the creaky UA Berkeley; the Landmark art houses; Signature, operators of the Jack London 9; and Renaissance Rialto, operator of Oakland's stylish Grand Lake.
A cursory examination of last week's playbills suggests that distributors won't rent the same films to AMC's Bay Street 16 and UA's Emery Bay because of their proximity in Emeryville. The question then becomes: Who will get the plum movies? United Artists may still be hurt by its perception as a financially struggling operation with poorly run theaters, even though it was absorbed last year by the nation's number-one circuit, Regal Entertainment Group (5,850 screens, 552 theaters). Although UA Emery Bay put in new seats just before the opening of Bay Street (as did the Jack London), AMC still grabbed the season's most-highly-touted movie, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for Bay Street. The film also is playing the Jack London, the UA Berkeley, and the Grand Lake. However this pecking order plays out in the long run, it's clear that the East Bay's exhibition war is one of attrition. There will be no sudden third-round knockouts.
So who's going to be hurt most by the new plex? One East Bay movie veteran, who asked not to be named, sees trouble all over the map: "Grand Lake is gonna have a problem. Downtown Berkeley is gonna take a big hit; it's the parking. But if AMC and UA are paying attention, they'll pick off films from Landmark. As for traffic issues in Emeryville, this is gonna be a nightmare."
Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake and the Renaissance Rialto circuit, takes the new competition in stride. "The damage to the Grand Lake by the collection of faceless, soulless boxes has already been done," he sniffs. "But the fact that the Grand Lake is still there is a testament that people like a big, beautiful movie palace. We're survivors. We're going to continue pumping the movie-palace environment."
The winners and losers will emerge more clearly in the next few months, but in the meantime, if you're going to the Bay Street by car, pack a bottle of water and a Clif bar.
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