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The theatre was packed, but it would soon be empty.

On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon in May 1999, my father surprised me by driving us to the 30-screen AMC in Vaughan, which was set to open that Friday. We were there as volunteers, to hand out ice cream to the guests invited to the theatre’s opening gala. I took full advantage of the opportunity, running through the long hallways and breathing in that new multiplex smell. As a boy of eight, I played around: my father challenged me to see how long it would take me to sit in every seat of auditorium 21. It didn’t take long, as there were only 86 seats.

That evening, a long line of moviegoers snaked past the cinema’s east end concessions stand for the theatre opening, chowing down on dinner, popcorn, and ice cream. More than a decade later, on my last visit to AMC Interchange 30, that eastern enclave (with auditoriums 18 through 30) would be the only section of the giant theatre still showing movies – albeit ones that were already a couple of months old. The tickets were discounted, no trailers played before the feature, and as the show started, I noticed a sizeable patch of dirt on the bottom right of the screen. I posited that it was accumulated dust or hairs on a projector that the cinema employees had forgotten to clean.

With its quantity of screens and stiff competition from the 19-screen Colossus across the 400 highway, the AMC was doomed. It shuttered in 2014, although the giant complex still stands. Its presence is a reminder of the Canadian mega-plex boom of the late 1990s, when exhibitors Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon quickly expanded the number of available screens to show films. During the same period, the Kansas-based AMC Theatres planted its seeds, hoping to grow audiences in Ontario and Quebec suburbs.

“The lobbies were extravagant, bursting with movie memorabilia, fast-food options, and a bizarre array of colours and modernist architectural choices.”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the initial Canadian mega-plex boom. It began with the opening of the Coliseum Mississauga in May 1997. With well-equipped sound, curved screens, and stadium seating, these entertainment complexes were curiosities that, for a brief period, coincided with (and helped to spur) boffo box office. One can see a symbiosis between the opening of multi-screen cinemas and accelerated box office levels, which jumped in North America every year from 1991 to 2004. (Ticket pricing certainly helped to inflate those figures.)

Some of the mega-plexes were a hook to draw families and young adults into consumer spaces, bringing traffic into shopping malls. As Michael Posner wrote in Maclean’s during the summer of 1997, these centres were part of a broader phenomenon: “the proliferation and enrichment of what social demographers call the out-of-home entertainment experience.”

Between 1996 and 1999, Famous Players opened 45 new locations, with more than 300 screens. Initially, these attractions found the masses. The lobbies were extravagant, bursting with movie memorabilia, fast-food options, and a bizarre array of colours and modernist architectural choices. I can even remember the newspaper ads. One for a new Famous Players Silvercity had a man sitting in a chair that dwarfed him, suggesting the enormity of the new features available at the multiplex. (The chain’s tagline at the time was “Big Screen, Big Sound, Big Difference.”)

These entertainment centres were well equipped to handle boisterous opening weekends for record-breakers like Star Wars prequels and Harry Potter installments. But their ubiquity was also a problem. A few years into the 21st century, with ticket prices going up but audience numbers stagnating, these massive theatres were also frequently empty. The speed in which these mega-plexes enthralled Toronto moviegoers didn’t quite fit in with the demand.

According to exhibitor data, admissions at North American cinemas in 1997 were the highest in 30 years. So, the time to unleash these big-box chains was right. The problem was, the growth in attendance related to the number of new screens didn’t correlate. Cineplex Odeon, Famous Players, and AMC would open potentially huge mega-plexes a few blocks away from their competitors. This resulted in a split of movies, as centres within a close proximity would not play the same titles.

On the bright side, this expanded the number of niche, art house and Canadian titles available for Toronto moviegoers. The AMC Kennedy Commons and Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Grande, located near Famous Players grandiosities, were often hubs for foreign-language and awards season fare. However, the small distance between mega-plexes cut into theatre profits. An exorbitant number of seats in these cinemas ensured that many locations were dormant aside from the Friday night and weekend shuffle. This competition divided the screen traffic, instead of prompting moviegoers to seek out smaller and less heralded films.

The stupidity of placing giant theatres so close together eventually helped to drive some of these places out of business. Strangely, and quite annoyingly, there were few incentives to lower ticket prices to create more of a competition between exhibitors. If the Scarborough Coliseum had all the popular movies, there wasn’t much the AMC Kennedy Commons nearby could do.

“A single movie ticket costs more than some monthly streaming subscriptions, ensuring that the mega-plex parking lots have lost their lustre as a high-school hangout spot.”

The boost in big screens has not done much for the popularity of Canadian films. Mega-plexes have always profited mainly on American product, perpetuating the sense that movies worth paying top-dollar to see are imports.

These mega-plexes’ arrival also marked a shift to newer ways to watch movies. In 1999, the Paramount (now Scotiabank) in downtown Toronto began screening movies with a DLP cinema projector – a move that would soon spell the end of the projectionist. At the same time, presentation was often a problem. The vastness of the screen in smaller auditoriums meant that the projector light bulbs had to be constantly changed. (The dimness of certain images continues to be a problem today, and could even be greater due to the more standardized mode of digital projection.)

Another drawback of these expensive complexes was the expanded time for pre-film commercials. This helped reap the exhibitor profits after a long and expensive period of building the property. However, the overwhelming amount of ads and previews, often lasting between 15 and 20 minutes, has helped to shape one neglectful pattern of film spectatorship.

Today, multiplexes can still sell tickets to movies up to 30 minutes after the printed start time. This means that, quite frequently, late audience members are entering the cinema during the opening reel, distracting attention from the events on the screen – and sometimes forgetting to silence cell phones. Due to the delay in the film’s actual start time due to commercials, there is less of an urge to be there for the allotted time.

Currently, Toronto’s theatrical market looks increasingly like the year-end box office results. There are lot of big moneymakers that take advantage of the size and number of multiplex auditoriums for massive opening weekends. There are a lot of small independent films that have a hard time expanding due to the absence of more modest theatre spaces. Meanwhile, there are a lack of medium-budgeted films to play at the few theatres that currently land between art-house and mega-plex.

Aside from a few recent shifts in mega-plex culture, such as the now-pervasive UltraAVX format, these massive theatres have been slow to update or re-form old features. (The next time you visit a theatre that has not replaced the original seats, be wary of rips in the cushioning.) The mega-plexes that were fodder for teenagers and youths in the late 1990s and early 2000s also cannot claim the same turnout. A single movie ticket costs more than some monthly streaming subscriptions, ensuring that the mega-plex parking lots have lost their lustre as a high-school hangout spot.

While it looked as if these monster mega-plexes would help to reignite a new era of cinemagoing, these promises were short-lived. It turns out that having a big lobby, big screen and big sound system didn’t actually make too much of a difference.