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Ongoing labor turmoil at Regal Cinemas, the nation's second-largest theater chain, spurred local union leaders to stage informational pickets Friday, on what is traditionally the busiest movie-going day of the year.

A handful of protesters passed out slingers outside cinema complexes in North Buffalo and Lancaster, urging people to boycott Regal on the grounds that the chain is trying to break the union that represents projectionists. Similar demonstrations were held outside hundreds of Regal properties in 10 states.

The chain opened the two 16-screen local complexes earlier this month and plans to open cinemas in Orchard Park and Niagara Falls later this year.

Regal has been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees. The union accuses the corporation of firing dozens of full-time projectionists in Ohio, Virginia and Indiana and replacing them with part-time workers who allegedly receive low wages and no benefits.

James B. George, business agent for Local 233 of the IATSE, claimed patrons could end up being the losers if Regal continues to rely on untrained part-timers.

"In fact, many people have already seen the impact in the overall presentation of films in some regions. There have been problems with both sound and pictures," he claimed.

Brandon Gregory, general manager at Regal's Elmwood Center 16, declined to comment on the informational picketing.

"It has always been Regal Cinema's policy not to discuss personnel matters," he said.

Officials from Regal's corporate headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., could not be reached for comment.

Regal operates more than 2,250 screens in 22 states and has been adding dozens of screens per month. Union officials claim company revenues have ballooned from $39 million in 1992 to more than $400 million this year.

George, who has been a projectionist in the Buffalo area for more than 20 years and currently works at General Cinema's McKinley Mall 6 in the Town of Hamburg, accused Regal of being "greedy" by denying workers a "family wage." He said a typical union projectionist can make $15 an hour in most regions. He accused Regal of paying staffers less than $7.50 an hour or forcing theater managers to run the projectors themselves.

He added that many moviegoers are unaware of the fact that one projectionist is often operating six, 10, sometimes more than a dozen projectors simultaneously.

"In a way, it's almost like being an air traffic controller because you have so many things happening at one time," he said.

Most movie patrons politely took the leaflets that urged them to boycott Regal, then bought tickets for their intended shows.

"The kids want to see 'Flubber,' what can I say?" said one father as he headed for the box office.

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