Coming Attractions Expansions: Additional screens at the Charles and Senator theaters will attract more independent movies and allow greater flexibility in scheduling.

December 07, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

If you wanted to see "Gummo" last week at the Charles Theatre, but couldn't find a sitter for a few days, you were out of luck: Harmony Korine's controversial new movie closed after a one-week run, just when audiences were beginning to catch on. If you had read about one of the year's most acclaimed documentaries, "Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival," you had to travel to New York, Washington or Philadelphia to see it. It didn't play Baltimore.

And if you wanted to see a movie at Baltimore's beloved Senator Theatre, but "Boogie Nights" wasn't your particular cuppa, you waited for weeks for a new movie to hit the landmark theater's legendary screen.

Such are the limitations of the single-screen movie theater. But the scenario could look a lot different by next year. Plans are under way to add four screens to the Charles Theatre, on Charles Street at Lafayette Avenue, bringing its total from 485 seats to about 1,171. The Senator, on York Road near Belvedere Avenue, is adding two auditoriums: One will hold 475-500 seats, and the other will seat 200 filmgoers.

Clearly, converting the Charles and the Senator makes sense for their owners, who are regularly faced with two frustrating imperatives: to keep a film long after it's profitable for them because the studio is still making money and won't pull it. Or to shove a moderate performer off the screen early in order to make way for the next movie, killing any chance at valuable word of mouth and profits.

With their newly expanded venues, John Standiford, who operates the Charles with his uncle, James "Buzz" Cusack, and Tom Kiefaber, who owns the Senator, will enjoy more flexibility in what films they book and when. Being able to move a film to a smaller auditorium, Kiefaber explains, "will please the film company by maintaining the run of a film, while bringing a new first-run film into the theater."

Adding two auditoriums will also bring back an audience that inevitably wanders away when they see the same title on the marquee for weeks on end.

"One of the biggest complaints we hear is that we hold the films too long," Kiefaber says. "So we are in some way alienating or losing people who want to come to the Senator and experience a new film. We've lost somebody to their laser disc player every time that happens."

Kiefaber, who generally plays blockbuster movies like "Air Force One" and "Con Air" during the summer months, reserving the fall for such "art" films as "Washington Square" and "The English Patient," says that he hopes to bring in more art films throughout the year.

"I would have loved to run films like 'Mrs. Brown' or 'Sling Blade' or 'Lone Star' during the summer, when they came out," he says, adding that the Senator also will be playing more repertory classics after the expansion.

Not only does an audience exist for vintage fare, Kiefaber insists, but an even bigger audience can be created. "A synergistic effect of having a series of classic films being shown in a smaller auditorium is that you can develop a coterie of people who are interested in it."

Standiford, who says that attendance is up at the Charles by 10,000 this year, also plans to program retrospectives, as well as titles that, while potentially lost in an auditorium of 485 seats, stand a good chance of consistently filling 110 or 150 seats night after night. As a result, titles that otherwise would have passed Baltimore by will make a stop. Standiford points to such critically acclaimed documentaries as "Message to Love," "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" and "Paradise Lost" as examples.

In addition to more obscure films, Standiford says, "We'll probably be playing more of the commercial movies that appeal to an art audience, like 'Welcome to Sarajevo,' or 'L.A. Confidential.' "

Audience for art films

This is good news for Baltimore filmgoers who have been made to feel that the city has fallen off the studios' radar. "We're horribly under-screened, especially from an art-film angle," says Jed Dietz, president of the Producers Club of Maryland. "You look at the ads for the Washington Post and the ads here, and you can see the four or five films that are missing."

But it's not for lack of audience, Dietz insists. "We've done a lot of prerelease screenings that people have loved, and they don't care if it cost $80 million or $80,000."

Baltimore boasts two art houses in addition to the Charles and the Senator: the Orpheum, a single-screen theater in Fells Point that plays revival and specialized releases, and the Rotunda, a two-screen theater in the Rotunda shopping center owned by Loews/Sony Theatres.

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