CLEARWATER — Pinellas County's first new cineplex in a decade opens today at Westfield Countryside Mall, offering high-tech theaters and thousands of seats to a city that has long gone without.
The Cobb Countryside 12 will employ 85 and seat 2,000 across 12 theaters, half of them equipped for 3D. Executives predict the theater will sell 500,000 tickets in the first year.
Clearwater hasn't had a first-run movie theater since 2002. For years, city residents have been forced to travel to Oldsmar, Largo, Palm Harbor and Pinellas Park to see new releases.
That ends at 10:40 a.m. today with Cobb Countryside 12's first screening, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. That film will be the first to showcase the theater's most striking new technology: 42 motion-actuated D-Box seats, which vibrate and wobble in sync with the film.
The reserved D-Box seats, filling one theater's front three rows, have vibration controls that moviegoers can adjust from light to intense.
During a demonstration, an action scene from Terminator Salvation, the seats felt reminiscent of a theme-park motion ride, tilting and rumbling with every truck crash and machine-gun blast.
Also reminiscent of a theme park: the price. D-Box seats cost $8 on top of admission, for a total of $18 for adults.
Tickets for movies shown on the six 3-D screens will cost $3.50 extra.
The new technology extends to the projection booth, where banks of servers, amplifiers and digital projectors dot a spacious control room. Replacing film reels, movie studios now ship movies on 500-gigabyte hard drives, which can only be decrypted and played with special digital keys.
The digital projectors automatically focus, resist dust and debris, and run off computerized schedules, set to an atomic clock. Instead of a cadre of projectionists, one computer technician can manage an entire cineplex.
It's a big change for those in the theater business.
"When I started, we had to change the reels, and if we didn't do something right, people threw stuff at the window," said Cobb Theatres CEO Jeremy Welman. "It's a different world."
Based in Alabama, Cobb operates more than 20 theaters across Colorado and the Southeast, including CineBistro theaters in Tampa and Wesley Chapel.
But executives expect the Clearwater cineplex will be one of their five highest-grossing theaters, said Guy Austin, Cobb's executive director of operations. Considering it will open off busy U.S. 19 in an established mall, in a city of 100,000 with little local competition, Austin called its development "a no-brainer."
Said Welman: "A city the size of Clearwater without a theater is strange, really. People driving north and south just doesn't make sense."
The theater sits on the second floor of the mall's new 70,000-square-foot addition, part of a $12 million makeover that began in 2009. Joining it are Grimaldi's Pizzeria and BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, both under construction on the mall's ground floor.
Countryside Mall's last movie theater, the AMC Countryside 6, and another five-screen AMC theater at the old Clearwater Mall, closed in 2000, made obsolete by the whiz-bang Woodlands Square 20, which opened that year in Oldsmar.
How the Cobb cineplex will compete with that theater and others like Park Place Stadium 16 and Muvico Palm Harbor 10 — not to mention home-theater upgrades like Netflix movie streaming and 3D TVs — remains to be seen.
Executives wouldn't release predictions for costs or profits, and most box-office revenue will return to the Hollywood studios. But Cobb may have a secret weapon for business: a self-serve concession lobby. Moviegoers can serve themselves sodas, Icees and frozen yogurt.
Alongside movie staples like popcorn, the lobby also offers a few unconventional additions: funnel cakes, cheeseburgers, salads and — yes — deep-fried Oreos.
"It's funny. We have all this technology," Welman said, "but our money-maker is a snack bar."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com.