The view improves for movie fans

This weekend's Maryland Film Festival is emblematic of Baltimore's burgeoning cinema scene.


April 29, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

As recently as 1998, Baltimore's film-going landscape was looking decidedly dark. The Baltimore Film Forum and its annual festival had been relegated to the history books; the owners of the single-screen Charles were searching for a way to re-establish its reputation as Baltimore's premier arthouse; and the local underground film community consisted of a few people who screened each other's videos in a decaying former funeral parlor on York Road.

What a difference three years can make. The Charles, now expanded to five screens, has weathered some shaky finances (and road closings) to see both its reputation and its audience grow. Microcinefest, the city's annual celebration of underground film, plays to SRO crowds at a Falls Road art gallery. And the months of April and May have become a filmgoer's dream, as three cinematic showcases -- the Maryland, Jewish and Johns Hopkins film festivals -- unspool in Baltimore each year.

It may not rival New York or Los Angeles yet, but there's no denying that Baltimore in recent years has become a much more rewarding place to be a movie fan. With four festivals every year devoted to showing films that would otherwise never make it to Baltimore except on cable TV or hard-to-find videocassettes, Charm City is becoming downright movie-friendly. A fifth festival, devoted to African-American films, is set to launch this summer.

"All of a sudden, it seems there are more films and more desire to watch them," says Microcinefest founder Skizz Cyzyk.

"Maybe Baltimore is getting what it deserves, a reputation as a cultural hub," says Claudine Davison, organizer and founder of the Jewish Film Festival. "There is a real need here, a hunger for films that don't usually get a chance to be seen."

Deciding how and when this film-going renaissance started is difficult. The Jewish Film Festival, for instance, has been up and running for 13 years, and the Hopkins festival, in one form or another, has been around nearly as long.

'On the cultural map'

Gabe Wardell, who programs cultural events for the Johns Hopkins medical campus, thinks it's no accident that the increasing film savvy shown by Baltimore audiences coincides with the area's growing reputation as a place where major studio films are made. In the past six years, such films as "Home for the Holidays," "The Replacements," "12 Monkeys," "Runaway Bride" and "The Blair Witch Project" have been shot in and around Baltimore.

"Before that, I don't think Baltimore was considered much of anything movie-related," he says.

It doesn't hurt, he adds, that the city boasts two favorite-son film directors who do much of their work right here in town.

"Just look at Barry Levinson and John Waters," Wardell notes. "Those two guys couldn't have less in common if they tried, and yet they're both unequivocally Baltimore. They focus a lot of attention on the city."

But it was the 1999 arrival of the Maryland Film Festival, which kicks off its third edition Thursday night, that brought things into focus. That festival didn't single-handedly turn Baltimore into a film town -- of the city's four festivals, it's the youngest, and the late George Udell had already started Cinema Sundays, a weekly opportunity for local cinephiles to meet, watch and talk film -- but its scope and success has helped bring together the local film community.

"I do think that the timing of this festival, of having the first one at the same time as the opening of the expanded Charles and all that stuff, was such a good event that it sort of lifted the whole interest level in that kind of thing," says festival founder Jed Dietz. "I thought there was this tremendous curiosity in this community about all kinds of movies, and I'd seen all kinds of different people be extremely helpful to production crews when they were in town. I thought for sure a festival like this could be done."

In just two years, the Maryland Film Festival has assumed the prime position among Baltimore's festivals, both in terms of attendance -- nearly 8,000 tickets were sold for each of the first two festivals, nearly double what Dietz says were his initial projections -- and scope. Unlike the other, more niche-oriented festivals, which program a specific type of film and target a specific audience, the Maryland Festival wants to be all- inclusive. Thus, you get a mix of everything: repertory films, underground films, independent films, studio releases, foreign films, documentaries.

"The Maryland Film Festival has a difficult mission, because its mission is to essentially catch a little bit of everything [that didn't play the major movie houses]," Wardell says. "It's the 500-pound gorilla, the one that carries the weight, that has the most riding on it. Already, it has the look and feel of an older festival."

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