Theater parking lots and you

posted by Michael Zoldessy on December 8, 2006 at 5:30 am

We’ve all heard the story so many times. Wouldn’t it have been great to wakeup and be in the 1930’s. Not because of the economic conditions and not because of anyone in particular, but for the movie theaters. This was golden age and it was going well until the suburbs came along twenty years later by kneading the population across a much larger landscape.

For the past decade, we’ve been at a new crossroads as well. A lot of our favorite triplexes and early multiplexes are getting phased out for new grander megaplexes. However, this transformation coincides with the last one. Just as people began going to smaller neighborhood theaters due to convenience, the same applies today. Not only because of the material amenities becoming more and more standard but because of the most precious commodity in some cities today, parking.

How much has the amount of available parking doomed or celebrated your local theater? Expansive exterior parking lots seem to go hand in hand with the new stand alone megaplexes. One can hardly find a more irritating experience than circling around a tight lot for a prized space. As a result, huge pieces of property have been partitioned off to make sure this doesn’t happen, at least during anytime but the most high traffic days.

The ease of parking has also been improved quite a bit. From different sized spaces to high tech lots that tell you the precise number of available spots on any given level. Let’s not forget about how much easier it’s gotten to get out of them. Prepay machines and lots where you in advance by space number are all the more common.

Maybe parking has judged the future of our theaters more than we know. To a lot of people, a night out at the movies is a rather casual endeavor. Once one has to be stuck finding a spot or valeting because the downtown theater has no parking, the simple night out becomes an event. Some people just don’t want an event every time they go out. Twenty years ago, the ideal place for a new movie theater was the local mall. With so many of the new theaters being stand alone entities, one has to wonder if a controlled parking environment was as much a reason for this trend as the extra theater space.

So what does this say about the future of our favorite theaters? With so many classic theaters in jeopardy, would the most feasible solution be to just bulldoze the structure across the street and build a new parking lot?

(Thanks to pbo31 for providing the photo.)

We encourage you to share your thoughts on the subject. For comments on the article or the blog itself, feel free to email me.

Comments (12)

Patrick Crowley
Patrick Crowley on December 8, 2006 at 5:44 am

Here’s a perfect example of this trend.

Pacific Theatres runs an awesome megaplex on 5th Avenue in downtown San Diego, but it does horrible business — empty all week, even Friday shows aren’t very busy — because there’s no place to park.

By comparison, the aging, mid 80s multiplex at nearby Horton Plaza does way more box office. Why? Two reasons: (1) it’s adjacent to a shopping mall and (2) parking is ample (and validated with a ticket purchase).

JodarMovieFan on December 8, 2006 at 11:05 am

The theaters that I frequent are either very near or in shopping centers so parking is not a problem. If it is an event film and I go to Baltimore’s Senator, or in the rarity of rarities, DC’s Uptown, then it is more challenging. At least the Senator has an agreement with the block away Staples to use their lot and there hasn’t really been any problems. The Uptown requires more strategic planning during non-rush hour times. You can case the store front parking, in front of the theater or across the street, but must first drop off your party to wait in line and then wait for the previous show’s patrons to exit their parking space, or if you’re lucky, park in one of the residential spaces that surround the theater. The only negative to the residential parking is if you catch a matinee showing, you must show a parking sticker or risk fines and/or towing.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on December 8, 2006 at 6:59 pm

No parking at the cinema? No problem – take the train or the bus there instead! These theatres all seem to do quite good business in congested downtown areas with little or no parking:

AMC Loews Boston Common
AMC Loews Harvard Square
Somerville Theatre

Meanwhile, this nearby suburban multiplex with plenty of parking has fallen well out of favor and is likely to close soon:
AMC Loews Assembly Square Cinemas

JimRankin on December 8, 2006 at 11:30 pm

Ah, if only it were simply ‘Build more parking and they will come’ but as most everyone here knows, there are many factors to making a theatre/cinema sucessful these days. For the most part, compared to the 1930s, we today have many more choices in entertainment and nature of entertainment sites than our predecessors did back then. Today it is as much a choice of whether one wants at-home our out-of-home entertainment as it is any consideration of parking amenities. Michael is right, however, that when out-of-home entertainment is chosen, parking nearness and ease as well as possible cost are high on the film-goers subconscious list of priorities.

Yet, other factors also hold sway, as in the nature of the venue itself: Quality of projection and Sound, Comfort of seats and available cup holders, Quality and variety of Refreshmants, Mode of Service (through traditional snack bars or at-your-table service dining in a ‘Brew Pub’ or Dinner Theatre), Ambiance (from Movie Palace grandeur getting difficult to find, to razz-ma-tazz neon extravaganzas), and such mundane things as Quality and temperature of air circulation and whether or not a visit to the restrooms reminds one of the proverbial ‘Black Hole of Calcutta"! Read the Forums at to see how these factors are routinely analized as to draw or discouragement potential.

So, in addition to selecting a cinema based upon what is showing —and exhibitors have little or no control over that quality— parking is really only one of a plethora of influences that form the total choice of ‘Should we go out tonight?’ and if so ‘Where should we go?’

I wish it were so easy as ‘knock down something nearby for parking’ and that will revive a movie house, as in the case of the no-parking GRAND ( ) or the AVALON ( ) here in Mileaukee, but that is not the case. Ever since the 1920s, the ‘car culture’ has dominated Americans, and while Manhattan and central Boston may be exceptions where people are willing to take public transportation, the rest of the country is firmly attached to their cars —regardless of the high price of gasoline! Let the parking lots sprawl to the limits of sight, but don’t bet the store on them to save a cinema.

TheaterBuff1 on December 9, 2006 at 7:54 pm

Here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I reside I wouldn’t so much say that people are in love with their cars as it’s just that poorly planned and haphazard urban development makes Philadelphia’s streets not the most pedestrian friendly, while our mass transit system here goes to two extremes that make people prefer to use their cars instead. At the one extreme, behavior on regular buses and subway/elevated trains is so packed and unruly that it’s just totally humiliation. And at the other extreme — the commuter train lines — if you have one single hair out of place, look the slightest bit tired, and aren’t dressed like it’s a NY fashion show, the conductors treat you like you’re some sort of a homeless person. As in, so much for paying considerably extra to more decently travel from here to there. The best way around it? Get a car. The huge downside to that though is how it’s driving so much of Philadelphia straight into the ground — urban-planning wise, pedestrian-wise, air-quality wise and so on. And of course the expense of it! The price of cars, repairs, auto insurance and of course gasoline itself! And the political leadership of Philadelphia is such that it seems to think it can somehow turn itself around for the better while conserving the existing status quo at the same time. It needs all new and truly progressive leadership plus a much better quality electorate to vote such in. Right now it has neither. And, incidentally, it has just a scant few movie theaters to speak of these days, and not a one which is especially impressive.

stevenj on December 10, 2006 at 9:24 am

The new Westfield Center in downtown San Francisco (which has a new Century 7 screen multiplex) was built without any parking. Why? Because the Center faces Market St and the Powell St subway station which has 9 different lines running on 2 levels. The back of the Center looks like a “front” also and faces busy Mission Street with a Bloomingdales and closer to the theater’s actual location within the mall. At least a dozen bus lines use Mission St. Good urban planning can make a difference in not encouraging the use of the automobile in planning these large developements.

TheaterBuff1 on December 10, 2006 at 7:22 pm

I so agree, good urban planning is key to everything. But here in Philadelphia, if those with good urban planning skills are not within the ranks of the privileged, good urban planning gets tossed in the waste basket as if having no value whatsoever. Right now, Philadelphia, unlike New York City, Ssn Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and so on is what can be described as a “dead wheel city.” That is, the rest of the U.S. has concluded it can get by fine without it, and so far it has. This, in turn, allows the incompetents who now head it up to continue on in positions of high rank unchallenged. And Philadelphia’s lack of good urban planning skills is really about to be put to the test when two sizeable gambling casinos rise up here, several medical institutions dramatically expand and several new and very sizeable condo complexes get built. Here in Philadelphia at the present moment there’s absolutely no concept of making sure the needed infrastructure is in place first — meaning that many street layouts that have been in place and relatively unchanged since colonial times are about to be strained big time. This will mean Philadelphia will go from being “dead wheel city” to “boondoggle city.” It should be quite hilarious when seen from a distance, but not so funny if you’re trying to live or run a business here — particularly if it’s not a casino, runaway medical institution or gigantic condo. And why there are so very few movie theaters in Philly right now.

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on December 11, 2006 at 4:56 am

I don’t think that parking is the sole issue whether or not a theatre can attract big crowds. There are many reasons why a theatre can or cannot draw people. Consider the following cases in Chicagoland:

1) The River East 21 and 600 North Michigan theatres are in congested areas with little street parking. Theatre goers can expect to pay up to $20.00 in using the pay lots in the area. But these theatres are very well served by public transportation and taxis. Many people live in the area and can walk to these theatres. As there’s mid-scale and upscale shopping and dining nearby, people combine these with a trip to the movies. So the River East and the 600 North do very well.

2) The North Riverside and Lincoln Village have ample parking. Although I haven’t been to these places in a long time, and don’t have attendence figures, there’s gotta be a reason that AMC-Loews jettisoned these theatres. The Golf Glen (now closed) also had more than ample parking.

3) The Music Box Theatre has almost no street parking nor pay lots. Because of it’s specialized programming, it does very well. It is also in close proximity to two major CTA bus lines and the L.

4) The Patio Theatre had several owners come and go and I have no doubt that its near-total lack of parking was a factor. Although reportedly its present closure is because of a dispute the owner has had with the City of Chicago.

5) The Three Penny Cinema, like the Patio, had almost no area parking. Yet due to the high concentration of people living in the area, the right movie would still draw a huge crowd. This place was closed because of the owner’s inability to pay the high City of Chicago amusement tax.

I conclude that parking can be a factor. In areas of concentrated populations, combined with other attractions and decent public transportation, places like the River East and 600 North will draw. In the outlying residential areas, then it becomes an issue. And as far as the Lincoln Village and the North Riverside are concerned, if theatres are not marketed well and operated half-a$$ed, then it means nothing if there’s good parking.

TheaterBuff1 on December 11, 2006 at 6:19 pm

In Chicago’s case it helps considerably that it’s not a dead wheel city and hasn’t been written off as such by the rest of the U.S. (as well as itself) the way Philadelphia has. At the same time, in Chicago’s case I am quite amazed that it can have such a thing as an “amusement tax” yet the theaters you cite still do well! Particularly in its being “high” as you say. Not that I think such a tax is a good idea. Rather, it sounds as if despite the city of Chicago’s efforts to cripple its theaters with such a high tax — causing the Three Penny Cinema to fold as you say — the enthusiasm among the everyday citizenry towards movie attendance there is so great that it makes no difference. Meantime, I hope the money Chicago collects from this tax is used in a way that benefits the theaters equal to or beyond what they’re forced to pay.

As for how critical parking lots are to a theater’s success, if getting to and coming from the theater other than by car is a pleasant experience, and the theater itself is run very well, lack of parking should not be a problem. On the other hand, if the theater itself is run very well, but it’s either very remote to get to, or located in an unpleasant community, then its having adequate parking is obviously very needed. But ultimately there has to be an enthusiastic theater going public for any theater to be successful. Chicago appears to clearly have that. And in my gut I think Philadelphia does, too. But in our case our leaders have succeeded in knocking all the theaters down and keeping them down despite what the actual market is.

Paul Fortini
Paul Fortini on December 12, 2006 at 6:51 am


I know that this is a little off-topic. I forgot to mention that in addition to the City of Chicago amusement tax, there is also a Cook County amusement tax, which is levied in addition to the City tax. The Cook County amusement Tax is 1% and the City amusement tax is 8%.
The City amusement tax is so high because they wished to avoid an increase in property taxes. For The Three Penny Cinema, that meant losing 71.5 cents for every $6.50 adult ticket and 44 cents for every $4 student, senior and child ticket, according to an article in CRAIN’S CHICAGO BUSINESS on the closure of the Three Penny.

For years, the smaller chains and the independents have wanted the
City of Chicago to impose the tax on a “sliding scale”, arguing that the larger chains like AMC and Keresotas are more able to pay this tax, whereas smaller chains like Village and indies like the Three Penny are not.

TheaterBuff1 on December 13, 2006 at 8:19 pm

Yes, I absolutely agree it should be on a sliding scale. But then I feel that way, of course, regarding all taxation. And residential property taxes I’m against completely, since no cashflow is being generated in that case.

As for theaters, when they make money they should be taxed as businesses accordingly, and in direct proportion to the cashflow they generate. But if they don’t generate cashflow but are an enhancing part of the community nevertheless, helping uplift area businesses and so on, then they should be treated as nonprofits and granted tax exemption accordingly.

ewokpelts on December 18, 2006 at 12:17 am

The Music Box DOES have a parking plan. They rent the Chicago Public School Lot at night for Valet/lot parking. But I agree, access to more methods of transportation is a key to thier survivial.

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