Knowing Your Movie Theater

A Longtime Veteran Of The Film Business Likes What He's Seen At The Rotunda

December 04, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow , michael.sragow@baltsun.com

"Now I know the theater definitely works," says Ira Miller, with a smile. As the owner, managing partner and film buyer of The Rotunda Cinemas (711 W. 40th St.), Miller has been basking in the box-office success of his two current attractions, "New Moon" and "The Blind Side."

Tom Kiefaber ceased operating the Rotunda Cinematheque in late March to concentrate on his efforts to save the Senator Theatre. Ever since Miller reopened the twin theater on May 15 as The Rotunda Cinemas, he's done well with many of his selections, including his debut attraction, "Angels & Demons," and the Michael Jackson performance documentary, "This Is It."

But, Miller says, "the thing about this theater is we usually only did good with one side. Both sides never clicked until we played 'New Moon' and 'The Blind Side.' "

A 43-year veteran of the film business, Miller says, "You've got to know your theater." And he practices what he preaches: "I come here every Friday and Saturday night, and watch the people come in. I have to see my audience." He's found that this audience hasn't changed since his first stint at the Rotunda, which he helped open in 1974 with the cult anti-war comedy "King of Hearts" and the blockbuster of blockbusters, "Gone With the Wind."

Then as now, he drew students from Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Notre Dame and Towson, and older crowds and family audiences "from Roland Park, Guilford, Mount Washington, Cross Keys and Hampden, though not as much as I expected from Hampden."

The with-it audience might gravitate to "New Moon," the parents and kids to "The Blind Side." But hits of this size generate crossover attendance. "Look at 'New Moon,' " Miller says. "The want-to-see on that movie was great. Let's see what happens the third week, or if there's a fourth or fifth week to that picture. With the word of mouth on 'The Blind Side,' that movie could have 'legs.' We always used to look at whether a picture had 'legs.' "

When seasoned theater operators like Miller use the word "legs," they're not referring to Sandra Bullock's gams but to a film's ability to stand up to the competition week after week. The concept of "legs" has come close to extinction in the era of super-broad openings and megaplexes. But it was all-important during Miller's tenure as advertising chief and head film buyer for the old JF Theaters chain, the jobs he had when he cut the ribbon for the Rotunda theaters 35 years ago.

Exhibitors then had to gauge the entertainment value of a picture and how it fit the personality of a theater. "I always thought I had the advantage over people from General Cinema and AMC and UA, the big chains in New York, because I was in Baltimore." says Miller. So he knew to play "The Exorcist" exclusively at a showplace like the Tower and cutting-edge 1960s-'70s films such as "Midnight Cowboy" or "Dog Day Afternoon" at the artsier Charles.

Before megaplexes conquered the theatrical landscape and movie studios morphed "audience tracking" into a computerized science, exhibitors could experience a creative thrill from bringing the right film to the ideal viewership. Before saturation booking and advertising made opening-weekend grosses dominate a film's theatrical life, exhibitors could earn a sense of satisfaction from holding a film like "King of Hearts" for weeks at a cozy spot like the Rotunda - and still turning a profit.

"It was a mecca here," Miller says. "And the mall at the Rotunda - it was filled with stores." Miller says it can be that way again, for the shopping center and the cinemas. "I'm very pro-Rotunda mall. And we're going to make a lot of improvements to the Rotunda Cinemas. We hope before May of next year we'll be adding a third screen. We're possibly going to put a coffee bar in here; we're going to try to get a wine and beer license. We're thinking of putting 3D and digital in here. We'll probably put a room for events and parties behind that third screen. When Tom [Kiefaber] took over in 2001 or 2002, he made the rows wider and deeper. People really like it here for comfort. They come here, they feel at home. It's a very nice, great experience. People thank me for reopening the theater."

Miller, who grew up in Pimlico, started out with JF Theaters in 1967. He also worked as the D.C. sales manager for American International Pictures, and for the Maryland-based World Fare and Durkees chains, before becoming a vice president of marketing, operations and exhibitor relations for MGM.

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