The setup is straight out of a classic Western: Two rival gunslingers, at it for years, nervously look over their shoulders to see what's up with the new hotshot in town.
Only the setting is not the Old West but present-day Baltimore. And it's not gunslingers but the city's two extant movie theater owners who are anxious.
The new kid is the Landmark Theatres Harbor East, a seven-screen multiplex opening this weekend in one of the city's highest-profile new subdivisions. The two old rivals are the Senator Theatre, a 68-year-old civic jewel that narrowly escaped foreclosure this year, and the Charles, for more than two decades the destination of choice for Baltimore's arthouse-movie lovers.
A new movie theater that practically doubles the number of screens in a city would be big news anywhere, even if it only increases the number from eight to 15. But in Baltimore, the lone multiplex devoted to mainstream movies - United Artists' nine-screen Harbor Park Cinemas - closed more than seven years ago after several incidents of violence inside.
And Landmark's opening will do more than simply add screens. With its leather stadium-style seats, gourmet concessions and state-of-the-art digital film projection, the theater is aimed at an upscale audience living around the city's renovated waterfront. The new venue will offer a mix of independent and adult-oriented mainstream films.
It's located in the southwest corner of Harbor East, a 35,000- square-foot commercial and residential complex at Aliceanna and President streets. Besides the theaters, the project includes two hotels (a Hilton Homewood Suites and a Hilton Garden Inn), a condominium complex (The Vue), a health club and other shops.
"This is a market that, relatively speaking, does not have a lot of movie screens, which is good for us," Landmark's chief executive officer, Bill Banowsky, said Tuesday at a pre-opening benefit at the Harbor East theaters.
Landmark, which was formed in 1974 in Los Angeles and is now co-owned by sports and technology mogul Mark Cuban, operates 59 theaters in 23 markets.
Both Charles Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack and Senator owner Tom Kiefaber outwardly welcome the competition, insisting that there's enough room in this town for all of them and noting that the real winners should be the city's moviegoers, who will have more venues and more movies to choose from. But beneath the surface, their reaction to Landmark's arrival reflects rivalries that have been simmering for years.
Kiefaber, who also operates the two-screen Rotunda Cinematheque near Hampden, has long contended that the single-screen Senator's future is jeopardized by the Charles' refusal to let movies playing there also play at his theater a few miles north - a practice known in the industry as clearance. With Landmark opening just a few miles south of the Charles and those two theaters jockeying over who gets the choicest films, Kiefaber believes he'll be left alone, to play whatever he wants.
"In all probability, the arrival of the Landmark Theatres will have a positive effect on the choices available to moviegoers in North Baltimore," said Kiefaber, whose family has been operating theaters in Baltimore for more than three-quarters of a century. "It may well change the exhibition landscape and create more of a free market."
Cusack and his ownership partner, John Standiford, have long dismissed Kiefaber's allegation, noting that the two theaters rarely go after the same films. The Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 911 in 2004 was the most notable example of the Charles blocking a film the Senator wanted.
Landmark, on the other hand, will look to play many of the same independent, niche-audience films as the Charles.
"It's competition," Cusack said. "They'll want to play the high-grossing art movies, at least. Our problem is, we depend on the high-grossing art movies to make up for the art movies that don't do so much."
Can all three theater owners survive and prosper? Numbers alone suggest that that shouldn't be a problem. Even with the Landmark opening, Baltimore will be home to only four first-run movie houses, with 15 screens among them. Figures from the National Association of Theater Owners suggest that an area should be able to support one screen for every 10,000 residents. By that estimate, Baltimore, with a population of about 600,000, should have room for 45 more screens or so.
But Baltimore's situation is complicated by having so many of its screens dedicated to arthouse fare, films that don't usually have blockbuster potential and play at a limited number of theaters. The Charles has been dedicated to such fare since Cusack and Standiford bought the theater in 1994. Since expanding from one screen to five in 1999, the Charles occasionally has played more mainstream movies - an Austin Powers here, a Harry Potter there. But smaller films remain the theater's bread and butter - for now.
"We may have to adjust," said Cusack, noting that distributors usually prefer that smaller films play at only one theater in a given area. "If we lose half of the high-grossing movies [to Landmark], that will affect our business a lot."
The Harbor East theaters, with seven small to midsize auditoriums with 121 to 217 seats, will book a mix of arthouse and mainstream fare, Ted Mundorff, Landmark's chief operating officer, said from his Los Angeles office.
Banowsky, the CEO, said the issue of movie clearance is out of his hands.
"The studios determine the clearance," he said. "We don't get involved with that."
At Tuesday's preview, he greeted guests as they wandered between the theaters, drank at the bar and stared at a concessions menu that - in a touch local residents will appreciate - included that most Baltimore of foods, crab cakes.
"I think this theater is going to be a spectacular addition to this market," Banowsky said.