A big battle over `Pearl Harbor'

May 11, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

With "Pearl Harbor" set to open in theaters May 25, Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber is waging a war of his own.

The immediate issue is whether the potential summer blockbuster will play at Baltimore's premier movie house. But the bigger question may be whether independent owners can continue operating in a business climate that favors mammoth theater chains. "`Pearl Harbor' is a film that should definitely play here," Kiefaber said.

Although Kiefaber had been negotiating with Disney to play "Pearl Harbor," and although the studio has said it wants to play the film at the country's best theaters, the studio has opted to run the movie at the General Cinemas Towson Commons, an eight-screen multiplex on York Road. Apparently, General Cinemas officials - who have sought to broker a deal that would give them control of the Senator - have asked that the film not be allowed to play at Kiefaber's theater on York Road about three miles to the south.

"There are plenty of blockbusters out there for everybody," said Brian Callaghan, director of film marketing and communication for the Massachusetts-based chain. "It's frustrating to hear that General Cinemas is mean for not letting [the Senator] show the film. This is a business, and everyone wants `Pearl Harbor.' We have nothing against the Senator. We try to get the best movies we can for Towson, because it's a very good theater and a very good place to see movies."

Kiefaber has no problem with "Pearl Harbor" showing at Towson, and says he has never sought to block a film from being shown there. What's unfair, he said, is General using its influence, as a chain with more than 1,000 screens, to prevent the film from also being shown at the Senator. The 900-seat art deco movie palace holds more people than any one screen at the Commons, has a state-of-the-art sound system and, by most measures, is one of the six best places in the country to watch a movie.

A recent survey by the THX Theater Alignment Program, which rates theaters according to sound quality and overall presentation, ranked the Senator No. 1, along with the El Capitan on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Over the past few weeks, Kiefaber has sent letters to Disney, contacted local and national media and solicited testimonials from such influential friends as Tom Clancy, Barry Levinson, John Waters and even Hollywood super agent Michael Ovitz to try and persuade Disney to change its mind. Not only is "Pearl Harbor" the sort of big-screen blockbuster that would look great at the Senator, it's the type of film that should bring in the large audiences the theater needs to keep running.

Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" had one of its most successful national runs at his theater. "Pearl Harbor," he suspects, would do just as well.

Rod Rodriguez, senior vice president for Disney's distribution arm, declined comment. "I do not discuss internal matters with outside sources," he said.

But Kiefaber said Disney shows no signs of relenting. He said Rodriguez wrote a letter to Disney officials saying he thinks the film will do better at Towson Commons, and that the theaters are similar in their ability to present a movie properly.

That last assertion really bewilders Kiefaber, who has sent Disney two letters outlining the quality of film presentation at the Senator. In addition, his theater is about to be placed on a list of the nation's most endangered historic sites. He thinks he and other independent theater owners are endangered in part because of the sort of booking practices being used for "Pearl Harbor."

"We can't let this sort of thing continue," he said. "It's a question of survival."

Et cetera

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant's adaptation of Henry James' "The Golden Bowl," starring Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale, Uma Thurman and Jeremy Northam, is this weekend's scheduled Cinema Sundays offering. The movie begins at 10:30 a.m. at the Charles; tickets cost $15. Information: 410-727-3464.

Buster Keaton's silent comedy, "Steamboat Bill, Jr.," complete with a live original score performed by Anne Watts and Boister, has been set for 8 p.m. Friday, May 18, at Creative Alliance headquarters, 413 S. Conkling St. Admission is $10, $5 for Creative Alliance members. Information: 410-276-1651.

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