When Lenny Morales began working at the Schuh Theater in Mannheim two years ago, the lines for first-run movies would wrap around the building.

“For the big, top-selling movies,” he said, “we had crowds, big crowds.”

Last weekend, when “Mission: Impossible III” debuted at the 720-seat on-base theater, only a couple hundred people showed up, Morales said. The low turnout, he and other officials suspect, has more to do with deployments and changing priorities than Tom Cruise and his lackluster image.

Across Europe, attendance at Army and Air Force Exchange Service theaters has been lagging, said Moreno L. Alarilla, chief of the food and theater division for AAFES-Europe.

From February to April 2006, ticket sales at AAFES theaters dropped by 38 percent compared with the same period last year, Alarilla said. Total revenues — admission and concession stand sales — were off by 25 percent for the same period.

But military theaters aren’t the only ones with more empty seats.

Last year, the number of moviegoers in the United States dipped by at least 6 percent, according to industry trade publications. The drop represented the largest decline in 20 years.

“There just weren’t any good movies out there,” said Alarilla, referring to the first part of this year.

But, he adds, the reason for the decline in attendance at AAFES theaters goes beyond poor movie- making. DVD rentals and sales, for example, are an obvious factor, Alarilla said.

“Our demographics have shifted, too,” Alarilla said. “We have a lot of troops deployed.”

Morales said he’s noticed far fewer single soldiers passing through the turnstiles than before. Today, he explained, a moviegoer is far more likely to see a couple of moms and their kids at the concession counter than a group of young soldiers.

“We are trying to focus on the families,” Morales said.

Whatever the reasons for the decline, Alarilla said he hopes the coming summer season — punctuated by the June 2 release of “The Da Vinci Code” in AAFES theaters — will mark the beginning of a turnaround in attendance. Special promotions are being considered, and AAFES also intends to play up all of the recent theater upgrades, a program that goes back several years.

Army Spc. Ryan Benson, 21, of Kennedy, N.Y., is just the kind of patron Alarilla and Morales want to keep happy.

“We are going to ‘V for Vendetta’ tonight,” said Benson, assigned to the 94th Engineer Battalion, Vilseck, Germany. “The movies on post are good. They are cheap at $3, and they give you something to do instead of just staying in the barracks. I go about once a week.”

Seaman Brenden Carmody of Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy, doesn’t frequent AAFES theaters. In the Navy, the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Department runs the projector.

Still, he understands why many people aren’t entering military movie theaters.

“A lot of it is the movies themselves,” Carmody said. “They play movies that not a lot of people are going to see. Maybe they should check out the reviews before they choose them.”

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