Art-film house unlikely for lakefront theater

September 16, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

No one knows how it got started, but a rumor sprang up a few years ago that Columbia's first movie theater -- the small, 25-year-old, three-screen General Cinema Columbia City 3 on Lake Kittamaqundi -- would soon be turned into a cinema house showing art films.

Instead of delivering the latest Hollywood blockbusters, the aging movie house would present independent and foreign films, more intimate artistic fare that would appeal to an older, more refined crowd that hungered for an alternative cinematic experience.

Unfortunately for art-house aficionados, their wish won't be coming true anytime soon.

Despite calls and letters to General Cinema's headquarters in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and to the Rouse Co. (which owns the waterfront property on which the theater stands) urging the theater company to change the programming format, Howard County residents will have to drive to Baltimore or Washington to see the latest foreign or small film.

Many say it would have been the perfect time to convert the theater. With a megaplex movie theater (another General Cinema/Rouse Co. partnership) coming to the newly renovated Mall in Columbia within the next few years, a small art-house cinema across the street would have been a solution.

The theater "is still getting a fair number of hit films, and is still going strong," said Brian Callaghan, communications director for General Cinema Theatres Inc. "We showed `The Sixth Sense' there, and it did really well."

As long as popular, mainstream movies continue to do well at the lakefront theater, the likelihood that it will be converted into an artsy cinema house is small despite public pressure to do so, Callaghan said.

"The Columbia theater has a lot of options," he said. "I think of the design, and it's a bit of a throwback to the '70s style -- it has a real retro-cool thing going on," referring to the theater's exterior design.

However, Callaghan declined to give details about the theater's options, and the future remains uncertain for the movie house.

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

Megaplexes -- theaters with 12 or more screens -- offer such amenities as stadium-style seating, coffee bars and an ever-expanding variety of films.

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

Columbia Palace 9 experimented last year with showing an art film on one of its nine screens usually reserved for big-ticket studio blockbusters.

Academy Award-nominated films such as "Shakespeare in Love," "Life Is Beautiful" and "Hilary and Jackie" played for a short time, but were unable to attract a large audience, according to a Columbia Palace 9 manager who asked that his name not be used.

"A lot of people have requested art films here over the years, but it's never really panned out," the manager said. "Movies like that do well one week, then don't do well the next. They might do well on a Saturday night, but two or three people might be in the theater during the week -- if you're lucky."

Although requests came from a number of Howard residents that the theater devote a single screen to foreign, art or independent films year-round, simple economics won out.

"The reality is, if you take a screen away from the big studios, they won't give you the next big film that they put out a few months down the road," the manager said. "They really call the shots. Sometimes, you've almost got to take what they give you. The idea of having an art film on one screen will never work unless you have the film companies behind the idea."

Until then, the bottom line is drawn in the same place.

"Listen to the big guys," the manager said. "That's the only solution."

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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