Heritage Cinema has its final film showing

Owner eyes cities interested in independent moviehouse

September 22, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Heritage Cinema, a nearly decade-long attempt to operate a movie theater in Baltimore dedicated to African-American films and filmmakers, is pulling up stakes and heading north for what its founder hopes will be more receptive pastures.

Michael Johnson, who has shown films in three different locations over the past eight years, has decided to close the latest incarnation of the Heritage, on Taylor Avenue in Towson. The theater had its final showing last week. Citing sparse attendance and a lack of support from the local business and financial community, Johnson said he is giving up the idea of operating a theater in his native Baltimore. Instead, he says, he is mulling offers from interests in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J., to run moviehouses there, along with a proposed theater in Riverdale, Prince George's County, targeting Hispanic audiences.

"It seems like everyone else appreciates what we're doing, except here at home," Johnson said yesterday, as he and his staff worked on moving out of their current location, once home to the Hillendale Theatres. "We've got a great product here. I just need to go somewhere where there is less overhead and more support."

Johnson, who opened the twin-screen theater in its current location in May 2003, said attendance "has not been great, it's been marginal." With a total capacity around 700, he said, attendance topped out at about half that - not enough to satisfy the major film distributors. "For your first-run films, you need a little bit better than that," Johnson said, noting that some big-studio films attracted even smaller audiences. "We had some cold days, we picked some bad horses. You pick bad horses, you can have a rough time."

This year, Johnson had announced plans to largely abandon major-studio films - saying he was not satisfied with the sort of movies Hollywood was producing, especially those geared to African-American audiences - in favor of smaller-budget independent films. Though reaction to the move was positive, especially from the filmmakers themselves, Johnson said operating the Heritage in its current location had become a losing proposition.

"I've been running this business out of pocket," he said. "I turned 49 this year, I need to get off this."

Keith Mills, Atlantic City's director of planning and development, said Mayor Lorenzo Langford and his staff have met with Johnson about running a theater in the downtown area there. Although the city had 20 operating moviehouses at the time casinos opened there in the early 1970s, the city has none today. After 10 years of trying, with some success, to upgrade housing in the downtown area, he said, city officials are looking at the commercial possibilities. That would include opening a movie theater.

"We've met with [Johnson] several times," Mills said, "and each time we get a little bit closer toward the goal. The administration is very interested in bringing family entertainment to town. We would roll out the red carpet in order to make it happen."

For his part, Johnson said he'd love to stay in Baltimore, but thinks that's unlikely; while declining to go into specifics, he suggested outside support for his theater has been less than he'd expected. "I think the people that knew what we were going through could have helped a little bit more," he said.

One thing that won't change, Johnson promised, is his love of the movies.

"My passion will be just as heavy in the next place," he said, "as it was here."

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