Editor’s Note: Today’s post is Part Two of a two-part guest submission from HHR’s local A/V geek, Jason McMillon
The 1990s, The Digital Sound and Megaplex Era
In today’s post, we’re picking up where we left off in Part 1, the 1990s. No other decade saw such a rapid expansion in the cinema industry than the 90s. With a demand for bigger screens, more spacious stadium seating, more showtimes, more movie choices, and top-of-the-line digital sound, the industry exploded with growth. The catalyst was AMC’s big experiment in Dallas, TX: The Grand 24. With 24 screens under one roof, AMC coined the term “Megaplex” to describe these giant cinema complexes, and it wouldn’t be long before the design kinks were worked out, and Houston would see their very own Megaplexes. The 1990s also was the decade we saw AMC take on certain theatres from General Cinema Corporation as GCC speeded towards bankruptcy.
AMC had six megaplexes in the works for Houston designed to replace their older, smaller theatres, the first of which would be Deerbrook 18. Cinemark threw a curveball by announcing their now-defunct Tinseltown Westchase theatre with 24 screens. Not to be outdone, AMC scrambled and added the six additional upstairs screens at the last minute bringing the total screen count to 24 to match Cinemark. Opening on May 24, 1996, Deerbrook debuted AMC’s High-back Loveseat, where you could lift the armrests, extra legroom, and all three digital sound formats – SDDS, Dolby Digital, and DTS. An absolute hit with movie-goers with its large, spacious auditoriums, Deerbrook 24 continues to operate today, having received renovations including a full bar, recliners in some auditoriums, upgraded food and beverage selections, and state-of-the-art Dolby Cinema and IMAX auditoriums with premium projection and sound systems. As massive as 24 screens were, AMC had bigger ideas waiting in the wings. AMC fully upgraded its theatres to Digital Projection by 2013 and is currently rolling out a nationwide upgrade to laser projection on all screens.
Sometimes coined a “gigaplex” by AMC, this behemoth of a movie theatre opened to the public May 16, 1997, with all of the upgraded amenities for the time: AMC’s high back love seats, stadium seating, large wall-to-wall screens and digital sound in every auditorium. Studio 30 received minimal upgrades over the years, including upgraded concessions and an Imax screen. Initially a wild success for AMC, with minimal reinvestment in the facility over the years, customers would complain about the cleanliness of the facility, including dirty seats and the lack of upgrades to recliners. I speculate AMC had issues with their landlord and lease negotiations which caused them to stop re-investing in the theatre for a number of years as their land values skyrocketed. The theatre finally closed on November 8, 2020, after AMC was unable to negotiate lease terms with their landlord, EPR Properties. The theatre was demolished in 2021 and the land was divided into 243 lots on the 20 acres and developed into Dunvale Village.
Gulf Pointe 30 and First Colony 24
Opening both theatres on December 19, 1997, AMC continues its 90s megaplex domination in Houston. With Gulf Pointe 30 meant to serve the market formerly served by Almeda Square 5 and First Colony taking on the Sugar Land market, both theatres were an instant success for AMC. Continuing the formula of Deerbrook 24 and Studio 30, both theatres offered large wall-to-wall screens, SDDS digital sound in all auditoriums, and AMC’s high-back loveseats. Both theatres are still in operation today, with Gulf Pointe 30 having received recliner upgrades, an IMAX auditorium, and a Dolby Cinema auditorium, while First Colony 24 has been upgraded with recliners, three premium auditoriums with an IMAX auditorium, a Dolby Cinema auditorium and an AMC Prime Auditorium. Both theatres feature a full-service bar and upgraded concessions. Both theaters saw renovations and upgrades to their lobbies. AMC fully upgraded its theatres to Digital Projection by 2013 and is currently rolling out a nationwide upgrade to laser projection on all screens. In 2015, a 70MM film projector was reinstalled at Gulf Pointe 30 for a run of The Hateful Eight starting 12-25-2015 and used again for a run of Dunkirk starting 07-20-2017.
Katy Mills 20
Competing against the Cinemark Katy 19-Plex across I-10, opening on October 29, 1999, attached to the Katy Mills outlet mall in Katy, TX. Featuring all of the same amenities as its bigger siblings, such as stadium seating, SDDS digital sound, and AMC’s high-back love seats, Katy Mills still operates today. Over the years, the theatre received a lobby renovation, recliners in the auditoriums, a full-service bar, and a Dolby Cinema auditorium. AMC fully upgraded its theatres to Digital Projection by 2013 and is currently rolling out a nationwide upgrade to laser projection on all screens.
On November 19th, 1999, AMC opened its last Houston megaplex on a pad of land in Northwest Houston, once owned by Johnny Carson. Seeing the growing market along the 249 corridor, AMC closed their existing 10 Plex the day before and began operations anchoring a new shopping center with various shops and restaurants. Featuring wall-to-wall screens, high-back seats, stadium seating, and SDDS digital sound, customers loved the new amenities afforded to them that the previous theatre did not have. As time went by, the theatre was upgraded with a Dolby Cinema, an IMAX, a full-service bar, recliners, and a full lobby renovation. Recently, their IMAX was upgraded to IMAX with Laser Projection and received an upgrade to the sound system. During renovations in 2015, AMC upgraded all of the sound systems in all of the auditoriums, including new JBL and QSC speakers. AMC fully upgraded their theatres to Digital Projection by 2013 and is currently rolling out a nationwide upgrade to laser projection on all screens.
The General Cinema Acquisitions
In the late 1990s, General Cinema began divesting theatres in hopes of saving itself from filing bankruptcy, and AMC purchased a number of theatres from them. General Cinema, founded in 1935, had spread itself thin and did not have the capital to keep up with the megaplex building boom. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 2000 and for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in October 2001. The last two remaining Houston General Cinema theatres – Meyerland 8 and Point Nasa 6 – were closed. Eventually, Meyerland was briefly re-opened by Entertainment Film Works, and Point Nasa 6 was eventually remodeled and turned into a dine-in theatre operated by Star Cinemas. Point Nasa 6 would see new life as “District Theatres by Star Cinema” when they moved over to Baybrook Mall with their brand new 10-Plex but today, the theatre sits empty and vacant. Meyerland 8 was eventually demolished, and in its place sits a Firehouse subs, a European Wax Center, and a Massage Envy.
Willowbrook Mall 6
In the Houston market, AMC took over the Willowbrook Mall 6-Plex, which it ran alongside the Willowbrook 24 starting on December 10th, 1998. It was operated for a time as a sub-run venue closing in the summer of 2000, an unremarkable early 80s General Cinema 6-Plex with average-sized screens for a mall theatre. The space inside Willowbrook mall, formerly the theatre, is now occupied by H&M.
Deerbrook Commons 6
The second GCC that AMC took over was the Deerbrook Commons 6 located at 9630 Farm to Market 1960 Bypass Rd W, Humble, TX 77338 playing the first-run titles which were also playing at the 24 plex across the freeway. AMC closed Deerbrook Commons in April 1999. The theatre saw a third life as Movie Tavern Deerbrook starting June 16, 2006, and closed operations permanently on March 16, 2020. The venue currently sits vacant and is owned by Triyar Realty Group.
The Loews-Cineplex Acquisitions
In 2006, AMC acquired what was left of the Loews-Cineplex corporation, not to be confused with Lowes Home Improvement stores of today. Over-expansion, and hefty leases, and the debt that Cineplex Odeon carried when Loews Corporation originally merged with them forced Loews-Cineplex into bankruptcy. At the time of the merger, Loews had closed all Houston theatres except for the Fountains 18, Northline Magic Johnson, and Spring 10 theatres. Loews had a history in Houston as one of the first motion picture exhibitors dating all the way back to 1929, with the Loews State theatre located Downtown at 1022 Main.
Opening on the same date as AMC’s Studio 30, the Fountains 18 was originally operated by Loews Theatres. This was Loews’ first and only Loews-branded theatre in Houston with stadium seating. The sprawling design concept placed the Box Office entirely in the lobby so patrons didn’t have to stand outside in bad weather. The original sound systems in the smaller houses were built extremely cheaply by Loews, featuring cheap analog stereo processors from Smart sound and amps by Hafler – a cheap now defunct audio company. Amps were replaced with QSC brand amps as the Haflers died, and sound systems were upgraded with Sony Analog and SDDS combo units. Larger auditoriums featured Dolby CP65 Stereo processors and QSC amps. Doing brisk business, AMC assumed operations in 2006 and continues to run the theatre to this day. As time progressed, AMC renovated the lobby (sadly, removing all the charm and character such as the gigantic popcorn tubs adorning the Loews concession stand), installed digital projection, both an IMAX and Dolby Cinema auditorium, recliners, and a full-service bar. Although being only 5 miles away from First Colony 24, the theatres seem to draw from different pockets to justify both theatres continual operation.
Magic Johnson Northline 12
Essentially a 12-screen version of the Fountains 18, Loews entered into a partnership with Magic Johnson to open theatres in lower-income neighborhoods. Magic Johnsons Northline 12 opened in January 1998, and after the AMC merger with Loews in 2006, the theatre was closed in January 2007 due to poor performance. Notably, during construction of the theatre, on January 31, 1997, a 20-foot wall on the south end of Northline Mall, where the former Joske’s building was being demolished to make way for the incoming Magic Johnson Theatres cinema, collapsed, killing three people and injuring seven more. Today, Northline Mall has been demolished and replaced with Northline Commons, and a Walmart now sits in the place where the theatre once was.
Spring 10 (formally Loews Spring 10)
Opening on December 7th, 1984 (alongside Loews Bay Area 6), Loews debuted the Spring 10 complex touting 70MM projection (Loews showed Dune for six weeks starting 12-14-1984 as the only 70MM presentation at this theatre) and Dolby Stereo in every auditorium. Featuring Loews signature push-back style seats (boy, those made cleaning auditoriums a pain when I had to deal with them while working at the old Loews Saks cinema on Post Oak), this theatre was state-of-the-art for the time and was Loews’ first big push back into the Houston market. AMC took control of this theatre in 2006 as part of the Loews-Cineplex merger. Loews had not invested any additional money in this complex since its opening and while not in bad shape, it certainly was a time relic that did little business. Everyone was surprised when in 2015, AMC invested in a complete renovation, including a new lobby with a new concession stand, new carpet, new bathrooms, new digital projection, recliners, new screens, new sound systems, new wall curtains, and a full-service bar.
The Carmike Cinemas Acquisitions
Carmike was a relatively unknown exhibitor in the Houston area with only ever having two theatres in this market, both of which were obtained through acquisitions of their own: The former Rave Yorktown 15 and the former Angelika Film Center, and then Sundance Cinemas in Downtown Houston. AMC acquired Carmike Cinemas for $1.1 Billon on December 16, 2016, expanding its footprint to make them the largest movie chain in the world based on the number of screens.
Opening to the public as the Rave Motion Pictures Yorktown 15 on November 8th, 2005, Rave was a young company out of Dallas and this was their 21st theatre and their only Houston theatre. It featured Rave signature touches such as extra legroom, oversized rocking seats, wall-to-wall screens, and digital sound in all auditoriums. By 2007, the theatre had been upgraded to DLP Digital Cinema. In 2012, Rave entered into an agreement to sell 16 of its theatres to Carmike Cinemas, including its Houston location. Carmike upgraded the largest auditorium to its signature “Big D” premium screen experience, including recliners, premium sound, and a gigantic screen. Upon taking ownership of the theatre in December of 2016, AMC installed Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, slapped their logo and signage up, and did little else. The theatre closed in December of 2021 over lease negotiations. Represented by Apex Realtors, the space is currently being advertised For Lease as either a 2nd Generation movie theatre or possibly redeveloped for housing.
Operating as the Angelika Film Center from December 25th, 1997, to August 28, 2010, the Angelika was built as part of Houston’s Downtown renovation. Situated in the Bayou Place entrainment complex, the Angelika ran for 13 years and closed suddenly after a dispute with the landlord. Angelika stripped everything they could out of the theatre, including wall vinyl and water fountains. Sundance Theatres took ownership of the property in March 2011 and invested $2.25 million worth of remodeling. The theatre again re-opened for business on November 21st, 2011. In October 2015, Sundance was sold to Carmike, who continued operating the theatre as Sundance. With the purchase of Carmike by AMC, AMC took ownership in December 2016. Today, the theatre operates with minimal upgrades by AMC, and reviews are generally unfavorable for this location.
The 2000s and AMC scales back expansion
The 2000s saw AMC halt its expansion in the Houston area, with the remaining neighborhoods and markets being served adequately by such competitors as Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark. In fact, AMC has only built one new theatre in the Houston area since opening Willowbrook 24 in November of 1999.
Metropark Square 10
Opening on March 1st, 2019, AMC finally built a new theatre in the Houston market for the first time in twenty years. Long gone are the days of the megaplex, and this time AMC built a modest 10-Plex just north of Houston in Shenandoah, TX. Featuring a more toned-down and muted color scheme, this newest build features all of AMC’s latest amenities, including recliners, IMAX with laser projection, a Dolby Cinema auditorium, and a full-service bar.