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So many films, so few screens

Too few movie screens.

That's Buffalo's problem at the moment. And that's the major reason Christmas night turned into a bit of a mess at the Regal Elmwood Theater, necessitating calls for police and the whole theater complex shutting down early for the night.

Once upon a time we were significantly overscreened. Sometimes there wasn't even enough "product" (as movie distributors call it) to fill the individual movie theaters.

But with the crucial temporary closing of the Walden Galleria theaters while a new theater complex there is being built (summer is the target opening), we simply have too few screens to cope with the sudden opening of a smash hit on a holiday vacation night that has become a huge one for movie-goers.

The Walden Galleria may be in Cheektowaga, but as Al Wright knew many years ago when he first built the Holiday Theaters there, that area is a perfect place for a movie theater to draw from all over, including inside the city.

The problem is worst inside city limits. With no first-run multiplex in South Buffalo or on the East or West Sides, there is only the Market Arcade Complex downtown, and the North Buffalo Theaters to contain all movie-loving city-dwellers who prefer not to go out to the far burbs -- The Elmwood Regal, the single screen North Park and the three-screen Amherst.

And because the latter two are among our precious art film purveyors, a box office behemoth like "Dreamgirls" and a potential smash piece of slasher junk like "Black Christmas" -- just the sort of thing teens gravitate to on holidays after all that enforced family conviviality -- had far too few screens inside city limits on their opening day.

That's something of an invitation to crowd unrest.

And even though the wonderful new version of "Dreamgirls" opened in the Elmwood complex's two biggest and best equipped individual theaters, there was still no guarantee it would be adequate to contain every person inside city limits who wanted to see the film on its opening night.

So what happened were turn-aways and subsequent unrest. Young crowds couldn't get into the movies they most wanted to see and grew restless.

You could see that moment coming the minute the Walden Galleria temporarily got out of the movie business. At that moment, all it was going to take was one gigantic smash hit for a crowd-control problem somewhere.

Newscasters at Channel 4 -- where they are legendarily sensitive to any disorder that might take place within a two-square mile of its Elmwood Avenue digs -- even managed to squeeze two nights of alarmism out of it, with worries from the theater's Elmwood Ave. neighbors teased on TV all night. (For many years, Channel 4 staffers got used to working at a considerable geographic remove from urban civilization. Not even a Twin Fair next door brought them into proximity to the real world. You can imagine their horror at a mild episode of disorder just yards away.)

When we were overscreened locally, we could routinely depend on almost all significant films getting to us, simply because there were always screens to fill.

Not these days. So abundant is "product" and so limited sometimes are the first-run screens in play that we still haven't seen hide nor hair of award-season favorites like "Little Children" months after their release.

True, conditions for crowd-control problems won't be perfect the way they were on Christmas night, when the huge number of young Buffalonians wanted to get away from home and celebrate a vacation period by seeing one movie they'd long been waiting for and another of the sort they usually flocked to.

But that doesn't mean that conditions are going to be truly comfortable again until the perfectly located Walden Galleria gets back into the first-run film exhibition business this summer.


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