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Almost by accident, Larry H. Miller is becoming the Wasatch Front's movie mogul.
The auto magnate and Utah Jazz owner doesn't have the most theaters in Utah, but the 57 screens in his Megaplex Theatres chain, including a 20-screen venue that has its grand opening today in South Jordan, are among the Salt Lake Valley's most popular venues.
And he has dabbled as a movie producer, bankrolling the LDS-themed "The Work and the Glory" series, whose third installment hits theaters this fall.
But though Miller is big in the movie business - as the $33 million spent on the new Megaplex 20 at the District in South Jordan indicates - the movie business isn't that big to Miller. He estimates that movies account for only 0.2 percent of his annual revenue.
"It's not my favorite business, just because it's one I'm not that engaged with like the car business and the basketball business," Miller said this week. "I don't understand it as much as the others."
Miller learned a hard lesson about the movie business - about how personally people take their movies - when he pulled the Oscar-winning "Brokeback Mountain" from the schedule at his Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons in January.
He stands by his decision to pull "Brokeback Mountain," with its depiction of a gay relationship between two Wyoming sheepherders. But he said a meeting with University of Utah students last month "really gave me a different slant . . . on my need to be more sensitive to and aware of other people's feelings."
Miller's big regret is when offensive movies slip into his theaters. He points to "Hostel," a gruesome horror movie about torture that opened on Jan. 7 - the same day "Brokeback" would have opened at Jordan Commons.
"That one never should have gotten past us - that's ridiculous," Miller said.
Megaplex managers have new procedures to identify potentially offensive movies before they are booked, Miller said. "We're paying more attention earlier in the process," he said. "I'll be less likely to offend people."
Miller's Megaplex Theatres boast prime locations: the Jordan Commons in Sandy, Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, and the Gateway - the only theater in downtown Salt Lake City that plays first-run studio films. The Megaplex 17 in Sandy ranked among the nation's top grossing theaters on the opening weekends of several blockbusters, including "Pirates of the Caribbean." And Miller invests more money in his theaters than his competitors.
"Larry's got very good taste," said Dick Cornell, general manager of the new Megaplex 20. "There's some really nice things out there that normally movie companies won't spend money on."
Cornell touts such amenities as the food court, four-foot-wide aisles and "Memory Foam" seats.
The new theater also has the latest in digital cinema, 10 Dolby digital projectors, at $100,000 a pop.
"There's nobody, and this is according to the Dolby people, that has that kind of dedication to digital presentation," Cornell said. "But Larry said go for it."
Miller said he backed into movie exhibition, largely because of his relationship with The Boyer Company. Boyer approached Miller about running the Gateway theaters in 2001, based on Miller's success developing the Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons.
Boyer is also the developer of The District, at 11400 S. Bangerter Highway in South Jordan. "That's the same reason we're doing the one in Ogden, because they're the developers up there too," Miller said. That 12-screen venue is set to open in 2007.
Movie exhibition, Miller said, is far more unpredictable than his other businesses.
"It's so susceptible to the big titles," Miller said. "If you have two in a year, versus five - and five would be a really good number - it just changes your whole year. . . . Without those titles, it's really nip-and-tuck to make the business be profitable."
And with movies, quality doesn't always equal success. Miller can put a good car on the lot, or a winning basketball team on the court, and people will buy. That doesn't always happen with movies.
"There can be some really well done stuff - cinematography-wise, story-wise, even acting-wise - and not have it do well," Miller said.
Miller learned that lesson when he jumped into movie production. First he invested in Richard Dutcher's "Brigham City," an LDS-themed murder mystery that did not deliver at the box office the way Dutcher's debut, "God's Army," did.
Then Miller put up $7.4 million to make "The Work and the Glory," the first installment in a series of LDS-history melodramas based on Gerald N. Lund's books.
The first "Work and the Glory" made only $3.3 million in theaters, according to the Web site Box Office Mojo. (DVD sales pushed the movie into the black.)
The second movie, subtitled "American Zion," made just over $2 million in theaters; it hit DVD shelves on May 9. The third film, which was shot simultaneously with the second, is due in theaters this fall.
Miller said the box office disappointment of "The Work and the Glory" has "extinguished" his desire to be a movie producer. "I have no interest in the movie [production] business any more," he said.