Theater waits for attack of the big screens
Jul. 16, 1997

While talk of multi-screen movie theaters and entertainment complexes steals the spotlight in Germantown, in the shadows sits a small, six-screen hometown theater that locals have relied on for feature flicks since it opened 10 years ago.

The Sony-6 Theatre in the Germantown Commons Shopping Center on Middlebrook Road continues to showcase the latest releases, while on the horizon is a possible 24-screen AMC megaplex at Milestone or a Hoyts Cinema 14- to 16-screen theater one mile away at the future Town Center. Both proposals are likely to go before the Montgomery County Council this summer and could open within two years.

Despite the imminent arrival of one or both of these projects, Sony plans to keep the six-screen theater open.

"We have no alternative plans at this time," said Pamela Henning, Sony director of Publicity, Promotion and Interactive Marketing. "We're open and will continue to be open."

Sony's lease at the Germantown Commons is through 2007, according to Susan Goyette, spokesman for the Mills Corporation, which runs the shopping center.

Currently, the Sony Theatre attracts many local residents as well as spillover crowds from the Cineplex Odeon Rio complex in Gaithersburg, said Josie Blasi, assistant manager for nine years.

Blasi acknowledges the restaurants at Rio attract many people to that theater, but noted the Commons has its own eateries, albeit more casual, including Woodside Deli, Nickleby's and El Mexicano.

The shopping center theater does show its age, with Dolby stereo sound that was the latest technology 10 years ago, but since has been replaced with digital sound. For today's movie houses, high-back, cushioned lounging chairs and stadium seating replace the smaller, tighter rows of stiff, upholstered plastic seats.

On a Friday afternoon last month, patrons commented on the stature of the small theater and weighed it against the impending competition.

"I like it," said Vicki Zaelke of Damascus, who brought her family to see "Hercules," until the kids changed their minds to "Batman & Robin" instead.

"It's not 15 theaters, so there's not going to be 300 people," she said.

But when asked about patronizing a 14- or 24- screen megaplex, Zaelke said she wouldn't be turned off.

"I would go there, too."

Mike Hammett of Gaithersburg said he brought his children to the Sony specifically for the 4:25 p.m. show time of "Hercules." "The time slot is everything," he said. "I take my kids to the movies all the time, so the earlier the better."

Germantown resident Michelle Deneke took in the "Batman" show with husband William and 8-year-old son Bryston. Deneke is the vice president of the Germantown Citizens Association, which has publicly supported the AMC theater proposal over the Hoyts proposal for Town Center.

Deneke said either of the theaters may drive business away from Sony, but more screens mean more variety, including foreign films and independent releases.

"It's time to move over to bigger, better, improved things," she said.

There are 190 to 260 seats in each of the six theaters at Sony. At a Friday 7:15 p.m. "Batman & Robin" show on the second weekend for the summer blockbuster, only about 50 of the 200 seats were filled.

There were no long lines awaiting to get into opening night of "Hercules" or any of the other five movies, but Assistant Manager Jan O'Brien attributes that to Sony's customer service policy.

Showtimes are staggered so a person does not wait in line for more than three minutes to buy a ticket. That service extends to the concession stands where customers are served quickly and efficiently, O'Brien said.

"Personalized attention is what they are going to lose," he said of the larger theaters. "I think the multiplexes are too big to handle what this community needs."

Germantown resident Sara Miller, 18, said she wouldn't mind a 24-screen complex coming to Germantown, but her 16-year-old sister Katie said she likes the low-key atmosphere of the Sony.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of people who come here," Katie Miller said.

That suits the younger Miller who said she likes to avoid crowded theaters where there is a lot of talking and kids crying.

The local theater is more than movies, employing many local teenagers and providing space for local groups to meet.

Christ's Church at Germantown, a new independent church, just signed on to rent space at the theater on Sundays between September and December.

Minister Darin Brown said finding the theater was "a last ditch effort to find a place to meet."

Brown said it was difficult to find available space in Germantown. Some congregation members are "kind of excited about it," he said.

Brown said he plans to use a video system to show lyrics of hymns on the screen during the services.

"If you're in a theater, you may as well use it."