The last couple of years of the last century showed the direction that movie theaters across the Jacksonville area (and the country) would go in the 21st century — bigger, louder, plusher.
Decades-old smaller theaters made way for grand multiplexes, some of which were later renovated to make them even grander, to keep up the other fancier, new movie houses. Oversized reclining seats, bigger screens, 3-D screens, more powerful sound systems, fancier snack bars. Reserved seating. Even beer and wine.
But they have one thing in common: stadium-style seating, those steeply pitched rows of seats that guarantee unobstructed views of the screen over even the biggest hairdo.
Hard to imagine theaters now without such a thing.
In 1996, Regal’s Beach Boulevard cinema, now closed, had the first stadium seating in Jacksonville, featuring it in four of its 12 auditoriums.
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But it was AMC’s Orange Park 24 that kick-started the stadium-seating trend locally in 1997, wowing moviegoers across the area, who soon got used to saying "megaplex." By the end of that year, Regal’s new Beach Boulevard cinema was expanded and retrofitted, with stadium-seating in all 18 auditoriums.
That was followed within two years by Cinemark’s 20-screen Tinseltown theater (which anchored explosive growth in that area), then by AMC’s 24 screens at Regency and Regal’s 20 screens near The Avenues mall.
After that, theaters spread out across the area to follow suburban growth, springing up around spanking new housing developments, shopping centers and schools.
It hasn’t been easy for movie theaters in recent years though: Streaming services and better in-home entertainment centers have taken a big chunk of movie attendance, then movie houses shut down everywhere because of the pandemic.
But regular theaters reopened last spring, and this quickly growing city is still getting new megaplexes — such as Cinemark's new one in East Arlington — to get those itching to see the latest Marvel extravaganzas, big-name sequels and science-fiction would-be blockbusters.
Here’s a look back at some of the changes in moviegoing in Duval, Clay and St. Johns County during this century, from new to old.
2021: After showing pop-up drive-in movies during the pandemic, Sun-Ray Cinemas in Riverside opens a permanent drive-in theater in December at the Ramona Flea Market, 7059 Ramona Blvd. It has one screen and is open Fridays and Saturdays.
2021: Cinemark’s 14-screen Atlantic North and XD opens in September at Atlantic and Kernan boulevards. It’s state of the art, of course, complete with electric-powered recliner seats and wall-to-wall screens.
2021: A cinema complex on Fleming Island reopens in April as AMC Fleming Island 12 after previously operating under the Cinemark and New Vision names.
2021: The site of Regal’s Beach Boulevard 18 screens is rezoned for apartments. The first stadium-seating theater in Jacksonville is now closed.
2020: Cinemark’s 12-screen Durbin Park and XD opens in February at the Pavilion at Durbin Park in northern St. Johns County, just before everything shut down.
2017: More than two years after the old Amelia Island 7 closed in Fernandina Beach, B&B Theatres Amelia Island 7 opens in its place with new curved screens, electric reclining seats and a full bar, all among the things moviegoers now expect.
2016: The 12-screen Epic Theater opens in Oakleaf Station, at Argyle Forest Boulevard and Merchants Way. It includes a 70-foot curved XL screen, power recliners and a bar in the lobby.
2015: A 10-screen theater, now known as AMC Yulee, opens in fast-growing Nassau County.
2011: Bucking the megaplex trend, the old theater in Riverside, which first opened in 1927, is renovated into the single-screen Sun-Ray Cinema, showing a mix of offbeat and mainstream movies. It later expands into a small second auditorium. It joined the venerable San Marco Theatre, circa 1938, as a representative of a bygone era in moviegoing. Both have found their niches, and remain in business today.
2009: The Carmike 12, with stadium seating, opens in Fleming Island in Clay County, following the growth of the county’s suburbia.
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2009: A 16-screen Epic Theater opens on Florida 207 in St. Augustine, an area that's continued to add businesses and homes.
2008: The Playtime Drive-In on Blanding Boulevard, the city's last drive-in, closes its three outdoor screens. It had several names and incarnations (it showed pornography for a while) but was back to family movies and blockbusters when it shut down.
2006: Hollywood Theaters River City Marketplace 14 opens near Jacksonville International Airport, giving the growing Northside its own multiplex. It later becomes a Regal theater.
2006: Dickinson Theatres closes the Pablo 9, the last theater at the Beaches.
2002: StarNet closes the 1960s-era St. Johns 8 at St. Johns Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard.
2001: StarNet closes the Atlantic 8 Theatres in Atlantic Beach.
2001: United Artists closes its old Orange Park and Regency area theaters.
2001: StarNet Cinemas reopens Carmike's plush Mandarin theater and renames it Mandarin Corners 6. It also reopens a 10-screen theater on 103rd Street on the Westside and renames it Jax Cinema 10. The first closes in 2003, the second in 2005.
2000: Carmike closes its Mandarin Cinema 6 and Baymeadows 8 theater. Both had been renovated just the year before but couldn’t compete with the many-screened megaplexes that drew all the crowds.
2000: United Artists closes its eight-screen Movies at Mandarin.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: New Jacksonville theaters in an age of streaming services and pandemic