Independent film buffs lobby theater for more

Cinema: Enthusiasts hope to persuade the owner of a Columbia movie complex for a home among the 14 screens.

February 05, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Though AMC's new, 14-screen movie complex at The Mall in Columbia is state of the art, it is not complete for people who like their films small even when their theater is big.

"There are a number of people who are particularly interested in having independent and art films come to Columbia," said Maggie Greif of Columbia, who hopes that independent film enthusiasts can persuade AMC to start showing more nonmainstream fare.

Greif and several other Columbia residents have spoken to theater management about their concerns, sent e-mails to corporate headquarters and encouraged fellow film buffs to speak up.

The lobbying efforts for AMC Theatres Columbia 14 have caught the attention of AMC's corporate offices in Kansas City, Mo.

"We are aware there is some appetite for upscale films, art and independent titles," said Rick King, a company spokesman.

But issues of economics and availability make it difficult to show those films, including most documentaries and foreign films, he said.

"The theater is proving very successful with mainstream attractions," King said, while the more artistic films shown so far - including House of Sand and Fog, Big Fish and Lost in Translation - were "moderately successful."

King said the theater is not likely to embrace even smaller films in the future. "We have to keep all of our screens working at productive levels," he said.

Also, art and independent films have more limited distribution, so copies are harder to obtain, he said. And the theater makes arrangements with the distributors of mainstream films.

"Very often we will commit screens to those films and see what else we can weave in," King said.

Helen Ruther, one of the directors of the Columbia Film Society, thinks there is an audience for art films in Howard County and surrounding areas.

"We're sold out all the time," she said of the group's 36-year- old film series, which screens mostly foreign films six to eight months after they are shown in theaters.

The society draws about 1,000 people to three showings in a weekend and has a mailing list of 1,400, she said.

"I would like to see [AMC] use one of their theaters to show foreign films or what they call art films," said Ruther, a retired teacher who lives in Columbia. She enjoys those kinds of movies because "they show a slice of life in other places."

She added: "I think it would be nice if they would accommodate the community. ... If they did it once in a while, that would be nice."

Greif, who runs a research business out of her home, said she and her husband have to go to the Charles Theatre in Baltimore or art house in Bethesda or Washington to see movies such as Monster, starring Oscar nominee Charlize Theron, or the documentary My Architect.

Theater managers have been receptive to her comments, Greif said. But so far, she said, "they're not bringing enough of what I want to see."

The art theater issue has been raised before. In 1999, more than 55 people responded to a query in The Sun in support of such a venue in Columbia.

The three-screen Columbia City Arts Cinema, operated by General Cinema, switched from mainstream to art films for about eight months in 2000. But it did not draw enough business to avoid shutting down for good in October that year.

The lakefront venue was torn down recently to make room for condominiums.

Ruther said the City Arts Cinema did not advertise very well. She also said AMC might be able to successfully show art films if the 13 other screens are used for more popular fare.

Snowden Square Stadium 14, operated by United Artists, was the only theater in Columbia for two years. That theater appears to follow a similar formula to AMC, sometimes showing better-known independent films, such as In America and Big Fish.

"When one of these art films gets big enough or has enough exposure, they bring it in," said Sylvia Bloch, a Columbia resident and chairwoman of the Jewish Film Series. "They don't do it in the beginning, which is what we're going to advocate for."

The Jewish Film Series shows movies four times a year at the Oakland Mills Meeting House for 175 to 200 people.

Bloch, a retired editor, said she and her husband would go to the movies more frequently if there were a theater nearby showing the films she enjoys. Now she waits for many movies to be released on digital video discs.

"The main thing," she said, "is to try to get the theater to understand if they give art films a chance ... it could work out and make the community feel very good will toward them."

The national guest services toll-free phone number to comment on an AMC theater is 877-262-4450. Online comment forms are available at www.amctheatres.com.

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