Good times roll for art films

Not only has the Charles Theatre expanded, the avant garde has reached the suburbs.

August 15, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

For a brief moment this summer, Baltimore filmgoers may have thought they were seeing things. The Charles Theatre, the venerable art house that had recently added four screens, was playing such big studio movies as "Summer of Sam," "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

Meanwhile, the 17-screen General Cinema megaplex in Owings Mills was showing "Limbo," the latest low-budget feature from independent filmmaker John Sayles.

Was there something wrong with this picture?

Not really. Since the arrival of the expanded and renovated Charles, as well as new multiscreen complexes like that in Owings Mills, the tectonics of Baltimore's art-house terrain have shifted. Most observers agree that the changes bode well for filmgoers, who will have more films to see and more comfortable and attractive theaters in which to see them.

For the Charles, playing "Austin Powers" was part of an experiment that started in April, when the theater unveiled its new addition during the Maryland Film Festival. Crowds were strong that week, then dropped off precipitously, according to Charles co-owner John Standiford.

Just as the festival ended, Standiford created a film calendar on which repertory classics, contemporary cult films and experimental works were scheduled. Reaction to the calendar was uneven: Krzystof Kieslowski's "Dekalog" series was a hit, whereas a program of noir films from the Universal archive bombed. Then suddenly, titles like "8 1/2 " and "Touch of Evil" gave way to "Austin Powers," "South Park," "Summer of Sam" and "Eyes Wide Shut" -- not exactly struggling-art-house fare.

According to George Mansour, who books the Charles as well as 15 other art houses along the East Coast, the move was made to find a new audience for the theater and to develop relationships with major studios whose films heretofore hadn't played the Charles.

"We're trying to strike a sort of balance [between] playing some of the Hollywood films that are acceptable," Mansour explained. "The only one I felt was really off our line was 'Austin Powers.' But 'Summer of Sam,' good or bad it's a Spike Lee movie, and 'South Park' had a certain cachet."

Both Standiford and Mansour consider "Austin Powers" a mistake. "We were really looking to get as many people into the theater as possible," Mansour explained, "so we thought [the movie] had a certain something we could justify." The movie, which was geared toward filmgoers much younger than the Charles' usual core audience, played there for only four weeks.

But Mansour emphasized that by playing major movies and generating respectable box-office grosses, the Charles' ability to get choice bookings down the road is enhanced.

"There are films that go into nine places that are good and interesting," he explained. "You have to look at each film individually."

'Witch' success

But even such high-profile bookings as the new Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick turned out to be piddling compared with the Charles' biggest success of the summer. When a little $35,000 movie called "The Blair Witch Project" opened for an exclusive two-week run at the Charles on July 16, the theater turned a corner. The film grossed $81,000 the first week, more than tripling the theater's house record; the following week, "The Blair Witch Project," which had generated enormous buzz on the Internet and had local appeal because it was filmed in Maryland, grossed $100,000 at the theater.

For two weeks straight, lines in front of the Charles snaked around the corner, the block between Lafayette and Lanvale streets was abuzz from noon until after midnight, and Standiford was forced to add weekday matinees, which quickly sold out along with the evening engagements.

Even though the theater only retained a percentage of the box- office receipts (Artisan Entertainment, the movie's distributor, keeps most of the money), what the theater made in concession sales, and the fact that a new, younger audience was introduced to a theater that had heretofore catered to older filmgoers, made "Blair Witch" a pivotal development for the theater.

"I think it's going to be our turning point," Mansour said. "It really put [the theater] on the map. Now we've got to restrain ourselves. We've got to keep the image of what we want to project, which is essentially art films and independent films, but also keep a mixture of interesting or offbeat Hollywood films that may be going wide or may not be going wide."

Steve Rothenberg, executive vice president of distribution for Artisan, agreed that the Charles' performance this summer has heightened its profile in the film world. "When a theater like the Charles grosses $81,000 the first week and $100,000 the second week, more than tripling house records since it's been in existence, it [should] prove to distributors that the Charles after the renovation is truly a specialized theater to be reckoned with," he said.

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