I recently went on a movie-watching spree, seeing four films in a little over a week -- for $7.50.
tTC No, I wasn't hanging out at my local video store, waiting for the latest release to arrive, then popping it into my VCR and watching the images on the 27-inch television screen in my living room.
I'm talking real movies in real movie theaters -- on a big screen, with stereo sound, and fresh popcorn and Raisinets on sale in the lobby.
To be sure, the films I saw weren't the ones everybody is talking about this holiday season -- "JFK" and "Bugsy" and "Star Trek VI." They were "Ernest Scared Stupid" and "Livin' Large" and "Ricochet" and "Highlander 2," which had first been released in early fall but which I had never seen before.
What I did to see so many movies at such a low price was to make the rounds of some of the Baltimore area's bargain, or discount, movie theaters.
The seven such theaters -- one in the city, and the other six ringing it -- show films at prices ranging from a buck to $2.50, depending on the theater and time of showing. Except for the one in the city, they are located in smaller, out-of-the-way strip shopping centers. They are also located in a sort of entertainment limbo, halfway between the first-run theaters (often in gaudy new multiplexes located in fancy, upscale malls) and video rentals that have grown enormously.
Although they're relics of small, second-run neighborhood theaters that used to be a big part of the movie industry, executives say the bargain houses are holding their own by appealing to nearby residents attracted by their convenience and others who want to go out for a movie but at a fraction of the usual cost (approximately $6 a ticket at most first-run houses). They stress the discount is in the price of the movies, not in the quality of the theater.
"Our theory is the only thing we won't give you is the same time slot for the release of the picture," says Irwin Cohen, president and chief executive officer of RC Theatres, whose local discount operations include the Village 3 in Reisterstown, the Hollywood Twin in Arbutus and Hillendale Cinemas in Towson. "We'll give you as good a theater [as a first-run house] and we'll still clean every auditorium after each show."
"We have stereo and wall-to-wall screens in all of our theaters," adds Ben Ryland, director of advertising and promotions for giant Loews of Baltimore, which has bargain operations at Jumpers Mall in Pasadena and North Point Plaza in Dundalk.
Both men say the seating capacities of the theaters and, more importantly, their locations, determine whether they will be bargain houses.
"Where the Hollywood is located . . . there are 18 screens around playing first-run movies and 10 more coming. The marketplace for first-run movies has already been gobbled up," says Mr. Cohen, whose company owns 130 screens in four states, most of which show first-run films.
The amount of time between the initial release of a movie and its opening at bargain houses varies, but usually is less than three months. The big-name films that began showing up in the multiplexes between Thanksgiving and last week -- "Beauty and the Beast," "The Addams Family," "My Girl" -- should find their way to the discount screens by the end of next month.
And the release of a film on cable pay-per-view or videocassette doesn't spell the end of its run at the bargain houses.
"We played 'Robin Hood' for two months in the discount houses; it did well even after the video," says Loews' Mr. Ryland. "At Jumpers, we've been playing 'Terminator 2' and 'City Slickers,' which are out on video, and people keep coming.
"A lot of films lose a lot on TV. Plus, people like getting out of the house."
My own introduction to bargain theaters came when I took my 14-year-old son to see "Terminator 2" -- which we had somehow missed last summer -- at the Hillendale for a buck-fifty. In addition to people like me seeing a film for the first time, Mr. Ryland says the bargain houses attract fans who want to see a movie again; the theaters are "heavily populated" on Friday and Saturday nights, he says, with teen-agers on dates.
And last Saturday at the Village 3, Mae Lewinter of Reisterstown was there to see Goldie Hawn's "Deceived." She said she went to the Village about once a month because of the price -- $2.50.
"I'm a senior citizen and the price is right," she said. "And the movies are good. I haven't seen this movie."
Barbara Schulman of Pikesville was there with her two sons, ages 7 and 4, to see "Ernest Scared Stupid."
"We just missed it the first time around. We're catching it here," she said.
Farud Poulson, 15, and his brother Marcus, 8, of Reisterstown were also there to see "Ernest." The two had been there a couple of days before, taking advantage of a $1 Wednesday special.
"Ever since it's gotten cold, there hasn't been much to do, so we've been coming here to the movies," Farud said.
Where to find reel bargains
*Hillendale Cinemas, 1045 Taylor Ave., Towson. $1.50. (410) 337-8413.
*Hollywood Twin Cinema, 5509 Oregon Ave., Arbutus. $1, Mondays-Thursdays; $2.50, weekends. (410) 242-1188.
*Liberty Cinemas, Liberty and Old Court roads, Randallstown. $2. (410) 521-4447.
*Loews Jumpers Mall, Ritchie Highway and Jumpers Hole Road, Pasadena. $1.75. (410) 768-5151.
*Loews North Point Plaza 4, 2399 North Point Blvd., Dundalk. $1.75. (410) 288-9294.
*Patterson 1 and 2, 3136 Eastern Ave., Patterson Park. $1.50. (410) 675-0943.
*Village 3 Cinema, 11905 Reisterstown Road, Reisterstown. $2.50 ($1 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). (410) 833-0744.