With new third screen, Rotunda Cinemas flourishes

Owner/operator Ira Miller might add fourth screen, beer and wine sales

  • The Rotunda's new third screen has been so succesful, owner/operator Ira Miller plans to add a fourth.
The Rotunda's new third screen has been so succesful,… (Gabe Dinsmoor, Baltimore…)
November 04, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

It's Tuesday afternoon, and the Rotunda Cinemas' owner-operator, Ira Miller, waits for "Secretariat" to let out so he can show off his new third theater.

He hasn't peeked in yet to see how big a crowd has come for the inspirational saga of the champion racehorse. But as the closing credits rise, a steady flow of satisfied customers stream into the lobby. Many sport "I Voted" stickers, as if they left home that morning to cast their ballot and decided to make a real holiday of Election Day.

Miller beams like a Triple Crown winner. In a way, with his new third screen, he is one.

The Rotunda Cinemas had been struggling for two decades under several different owners, beset by the Rotunda mall's changing fortunes and the city's faltering economy. But the cinemas have thrived under Miller's stewardship since he reopened them May 15, 2009. About a month ago, he added the third screen, and he has more surprises in mind, including a beer and wine section for the concessions bar and, if he can find the right space, a fourth screen.

"We did business the first day we came in here," he said on Tuesday.

A 43-year veteran of the movie business, Miller is an attentive managing partner who knows what special offers audiences want — like "$5 Tuesdays" (every seat on Tuesday goes for a fin). He's also an unabashed movie fan avid to see new releases and guess how his clientele will respond to them.

A year ago, "The Blind Side" and "Twilight: New Moon" filled his two original houses (they boast a combined 150 seats). "The theater really took off after that," Miller said, "and we did well in the summer with 'Inception,' 'Iron Man 2,' 'Toy Story 3' and 'The Karate Kid.'"

With the new 80-seat theater, he said he has "more flexibility to bring in more diverse films." This new theater makes it easier for him to juggle holdovers and fresh movies. It also enables him to serve additional pockets of his "age 8 to eighty" clientele — and to bet on "sleepers" like "The Blind Side," which became an unexpected blockbuster.

The theater itself is swell — small but well-proportioned. Settle in to see a film that depends on sweep, like "Secretariat," and you will get caught up in the action. "All we wanted to do is give you another comfortable place to see a movie," Miller said.

Miller speaks of setting up an ideal Rotunda bill like a gambler betting the trifecta — or a gamer playing 3-D chess. (And yes, one Rotunda screen can now show 3-D.) He knows the Rotunda draws on two key audiences: from colleges like Johns Hopkins, Towson, Loyola, Notre Dame and Goucher; and from residential sections like Hampden, Guilford, Roland Park, Cross Keys and Mount Washington.

"With a third screen," he said, "I can try to get everyone in the neighborhood."

In October, "The Social Network" drew student throngs. "Red," a sweeping action film based on a graphic novel, attracted both young adults and mature audiences eager to see its parade of older stars. And "Secretariat" pulled in everyone. By counter-programming within the same theater — and satisfying the overlapping audiences who simply like quality films — Miller keeps his cinemas humming.

He hopes to conjure the same chemistry with Friday's three openings. "Due Date" is an "adult" (or at least R-rated) comedy with Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis. "Megamind" is a family cartoon comedy with Will Ferrell. And "For Colored Girls" is Tyler Perry's star-studded version of Ntozake Shange's award-winning play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf."

Miller doesn't program merely according to demographics. "If there are three adult films out there that are better than anything else, we'll try to show all three of them."

He also wants to take his programming beyond current releases. "No one else in town is really doing the classics right now." He's considering putting together a "four-pack" early next year: "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago."

"I'll do it for a month, play each one for a week, and see what happens," he said. He knows that times have changed. "But I think you could really get a difference audience for each of them," Miller said. "And if you market it, and get the word out, and people know that these films are coming, I think that they can do very well here."

With a gleam in his eyes, he said, "The third screen gives you that reach. It's almost as if you're going up to the casino at Perryville and gambling with house money."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

If you go

The Rotunda is at 711 W 40th St. Call 410-235-8771.

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