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Short of projections

Superman couldn't save Duluth's publicly funded Omnimax theater this year, as attendance at the 10-year-old attraction hit an all-time low. As a result, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's top executive said the facility is going back to...

Superman couldn't save Duluth's publicly funded Omnimax theater this year, as attendance at the 10-year-old attraction hit an all-time low.

As a result, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's top executive said the facility is going back to the basics: shorter, science-based features aimed at kids.

Two factors -- a lackluster blockbuster, and competition from Duluth 10 Theatres and the Great Lakes Aquarium -- contributed to sagging interest, said Dan Russell, DECC executive director.

The DECC signed a contract for a 12-week run of "Superman Returns," a large-format version of the movie that coincided with its release on regular cinema screens. The showing came a summer after the successful 2005 "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" remake.

But "Superman Returns" got a tepid reception and lukewarm box office results. Roger Ebert called the movie "glum" and "lackluster."

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After starting "really, really good" -- "Superman Returns" made more than $100 million in its first week of release in North America -- the movie "fell off the map," Russell said. The theater had to ride out its three-month commitment with Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. to show the 154-minute film during the prime summer months. Tourists just didn't want to take three hours out of a nice summer day to watch the movie, Russell said.

"We were pumped up for 'Superman,' " he said. "Looking back, it was a lousy decision."

"Superman" was just the latest bad news for the $9 million venue, which never has lived up to expectations.

Ten years ago, a city-hired consultant predicted about 250,000 cinema-goers annually. At its best, in 1997, the theater drew more than 197,000. The city has projected this year's audience to total 69,000.

COMPETITION

The large screen also must vie with blockbuster movies and otters for attention.

Two years ago, city officials OK'd a privately run 10-screen multiplex next to the Omnimax. The multiplex has increased the tourist draw to Canal Park and downtown, but has siphoned off Omnimax visitors, Russell said.

Cinema Entertainment Corp. of Waite Park, Minn., built the 10-screen facility and signed a 25-year lease. Before it was opened, the company predicted 400,000 visitors a year. CEC Vice President Tony Tillemans said those weren't his expectations, but the Duluth 10 Theatre has performed well. He declined to give specific attendance numbers, citing proprietary concerns.

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"We're happy with the level of business that we're doing," Tillemans said. CEC also operates the Lakes 10 Theatre in Hermantown and the Superior 7 Theatre.

"It did hurt attendance," Russell said of Duluth 10. "We just opened 10 competing screens right next to us."

CEC makes a $180,000 annual lease payment to the DECC, Russell said, which eases the pain. The Omnimax also has the right to exclusively show two first-run movies per year.

The Great Lakes Aquarium also pulls 20,000 to 30,000 visitors from the cinema each year, Russell said, as the aquarium and the Omnimax tap into the same demographic. The aquarium, which also receives a subsidy from City Hall, isn't part of the DECC budget.

The Omnimax will become a "profit center" when it is paid off in 2011, Russell said. About $900,000 that goes to loan and interest payments then will be available for ongoing DECC maintenance.

Imax Corp., which produces the film and equipment to show movies on a screen 10 times larger than usual, has had its own troubles.

The company introduced digitally remastered movies four years ago to accommodate first-run blockbusters on its large-screen format. But the Toronto-based company is struggling to retrofit theater systems and build new ones. The company was put up for sale earlier this year; its stock price hit a five-year low in November.

Although Imax supplies most of Duluth's big-screen movies, Russell said the Omnimax is turning to another distributor, MacGillivray Freeman, for its next big show.

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"Hurricane on the Bayou" is a 42-minute feature that examines the condition of Louisiana's ecologically fragile bayous before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. The film is expected to be a hit.

The theater is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through the winter months, offering reduced prices --$4 per ticket -- on Sundays. Regular ticket prices are$7.50 for adults, $6.50 for students and seniors and $5.50 for children age 12 and younger.

If the Omnimax's poor performance had been forecast, it might never have been constructed, Russell said. But more than 1 million people have viewed a film there, and the theater serves as a regional draw.

Mayor Herb Bergson is making the best of a problematic situation.

"It's like the aquarium: You work with it," he said.

JASON MOHR covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached at (218) 723-5312 or by e-mail at jmohr@duluthnews.com .

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