Movie house plots character switch

New rivals may inspire a focus on art films

February 04, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

With the Rouse Co. considering adding a megaplex movie theater to the newly renovated Mall in Columbia, moviegoers are left wondering whether the aging three-screen theater across the street at Lake Kittamaqundi would survive.

How can a small, 25-year-old movie house with no stadium seating, plush reclining chairs or 14 screens showing the latest blockbusters compete in the new era of the megaplex?

Stan Howard, longtime manager of General Cinema's Columbia City 3 movie house, thinks he has the perfect solution.

"There's probably no way we'd be able to survive if a new megaplex opened right across the street from us," Howard said. "But I think we could do pretty well if we turned this into a theater that showed independent and small art films. Customers tell me all the time that they wish we would change our format."

Howard and others say turning the Columbia City 3 theater into an artsy cinema house that features exclusive documentaries, foreign and independent films could be just the ticket for the small theater.

Helen Ruther, co-founder of the Columbia Film Society, said the change would revitalize the theater and breathe new life into the arts scene in Howard County.

"I think we could definitely support an art movie house here," Ruther said. "It would be great if we could show the kind of films that are shown at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. If people drive into Baltimore, they'd come here if something decent was playing."

Drawn by the stadium-style seating, coffee bars and an ever-expanding variety of films, customers are flocking to megaplexes -- theaters with 12 or more screens -- at the expense of older theaters.

Around the country, owners of small theaters are seeing all but their most loyal customers flee to cineplexs owned by such conglomerates as United Artists Theaters, Sony, General Cinema, Hoyts and Lowes Cineplex Entertainment.

In Howard, Columbia City 3 theater and Columbia Palace 9 on Route 108 have seen the size of their audiences shrink since United Artists opened Snowden Square 14 megaplex in Columbia in December 1997.

"There's no question that the Snowden Square theater has hurt us," Howard said. "Our clientele is more of an adult crowd -- people who come to dinner at the restaurants here at the lake and who don't want to fight the crowds or the packs of teen-agers at the megaplex.

"We do really well when we feature small films like `Down in the Delta' or `Waking Ned Devine,' which didn't do well at Snowden," Howard said. "I'd love to see this theater become a Sundance Theater," referring to Sundance Cinemas, a chain started by General Cinema Inc. and actor Robert Redford that shows independent films.

Columbia Palace 9 officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Though General Cinema, based in Chestnut Hill, Mass., owns and operates the Columbia City 3 theater, the Rouse Co. owns the waterfront property on which the theater stands.

Alton J. Scavo, Rouse Co. senior vice president, would not say whether the company will build a megaplex at The Mall in Columbia, but he did concede that the company is "weighing the pros and cons of building a megaplex movie theater in downtown Columbia."

Scavo said the success of the 14-screen theater at Snowden Square proves there is a demand for another megaplex.

"I think a modern, state-of-the-art megaplex would be an exciting addition to Columbia," he said. "There's a market for it here. Columbia has a good income stream, it has daytime employment and residential sites."

The megaplex at Snowden Square is "always crowded and a mob scene. There's proof that another megaplex would be able to do well here," Scavo said. "Could we have supported a 15-screen theater 15 years ago? Probably not. Today, we can support multiples."

With Howard County's rapid growth over the past two decades, the need for more amenities and services has risen, he said.

"A theatergoer now has a whole new set of expectations," Scavo said, "and a small theater built in the '70s is going to have a more difficult time competing. Any cinema that's built today -- forget whether it's built at the mall or not -- has to have that next generation of amenity packages that will give them the edge in order to complete."

The next generation would probably look a lot like the General Cinema megaplex in Owings Mills, which unveiled 14 screens in December and will open three luxury theaters tomorrow for patrons 21 and older.

The Owings Mills megaplex offers up-to-date standard features -- stadium seating, digital sound and wall-to-wall screens -- in 14 of the theaters. The adults-only theaters will have a separate entrance, coat checking and a 120-seat restaurant.

Patrons will sit in big leather chairs as they sip gourmet coffee or perhaps fine wine while watching first-run movies. Premium ticket holders will have separate restrooms, too.

Tickets at the premium cinema -- with three screening rooms that will seat 120, 88 and 64 -- will cost $12 to $15 and can be reserved with a credit card (443-394-0065). Valet parking might be available, for an extra charge, and the theater has applied for a liquor license. The menu is likely to feature such fare as artichoke dip, sauteed chicken with rice noodles and prime rib.

But Columbia City's three-screen theater will always have a place in Stan Howard's heart.

"I'd rather stay here and become an art house than leave," Howard said. "I'd love it if 100 people a week wrote in to say they agreed with me."

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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