National Amusements Inc., the Massachusetts-based chain that operates the Bridge, an upscale movie house in University City, has signed a purchase agreement for the Ritz Sixteen in Voorhees. Neither party disclosed the price or closing date. Someone close to the negotiation estimated that the deal would be completed by the middle of next month.
According to National Amusements spokeswoman Wanda Whitson, the Ritz will be renamed, but will retain the unique mix of art films and popcorn pictures that has made it a regional movie mecca since it opened in 1996.
Widely considered the top-line movie house in North America, exuding the cool air of a luxury hotel rather than the fevered vibe of a sports stadium, the Ritz was the pearl of a Philadelphia-area movie chainlet founded by the late Ramon "Ray" Posel.
In a separate deal, the Philadelphia operations of Ritz Theaters - Ritz at the Bourse, Ritz East and the Ritz Five - were acquired March 30 by Landmark Theatres, the premier art-film chain. (Landmark bought the Ritz name, which necessitates the renaming of the Voorhees property.)
"The two best chains stepped into the breach following Ray's death," said Harlan Jacobson, film critic and principal of Talk Cinema, a popular movie-preview club.
"National Amusements is truly forward-looking in the way they look at their audience. Most of the other chains are just popcorn mills," said Jacobson, whose Talk Cinema will continue to meet at the Ritz Five and the soon-to-be-renamed Ritz Sixteen.
Posel was the son of a movie-theater exhibitor. Shari Redstone, the president of National Amusements, which operates 1,500 screens in the United States, the United Kingdom, Latin America and Russia, is the granddaughter and daughter of exhibitors. Her father, Sumner Redstone, chairs Viacom/CBS, owner of the broadcast network, Paramount Pictures, MTV and Nickelodeon.
National Amusements operates theaters under the Bridge, Cinema De Lux, Showcase and Multiplex brands. The Bridge in Philadelphia and Atco Multiplex in New Jersey are its holdings in this market. It is not yet known whether the Sixteen will be a Bridge or a Cinema De Lux, but according to industry observers, those are the likely options.
Once the sale is finalized, National Amusements will review Ritz policies and ticket prices, Whitson said. For the time being, the Ritz Filmbill will continue to be distributed.
The spokeswoman said: "Patrons can expect to see more family-oriented content and programming." At many of its theaters, National Amusements hosts a summer program for students, Bookworm Wednesdays, as well as a Silver Screen series of movie classics.