Region's movie theaters staging a comeback

Latest opening in Towson means nearly 60 screens within Beltway

July 09, 2014|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

With today's opening of a 15-screen Cinemark theater in Towson, Baltimore and its immediate area — that is, within the Beltway — is home to nearly 60 movie screens. And 20 of those are in the city itself.

That's not bad when one considers that as recently as 12 years ago, there were exactly two movie theaters, with six screens, operating within city limits.

Industry analysts say that growth suggests big movie chains such as Cinemark, Landmark and Cobb, all of which have or are planning theaters in the area, believe that Baltimore's moviegoers want to see more movies in more modern theaters and that the local economy is strong enough to support the additional screens.

Even existing theaters are getting in on the act. In October, James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon, reopened the grande dame of Baltimore's movie houses, the 75-year-old Senator Theatre, after sinking $3.5 million into a renovation and expansion that included adding three smaller screens. And Friday at the Charles, which the Cusacks operate, the main theater will reopen after a six-week renovation that includes new seats, a new screen and added soundproofing.

"The Baltimore-D.C. area has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade or so," said Jeremy Welman, CEO of Alabama-based Cobb Theatres, which is planning an upscale seven-screen theater adjacent to the Rotunda mall in Hampden. "More and more people are heading back into the city and back into these communities. It just seems like a real natural for us."

At the Pikes Theatre on Reisterstown Road, just outside the city limits, Ira Miller has reopened the 76-year-old neighborhood movie house and added a second screen. And even though he'll soon be losing the Rotunda Cinemas he's operated for the past five years — after Cobb opens, probably in the first quarter of 2016 — Miller remains undaunted. He also operates the Beltway Movies in Fullerton and the Marley Station Movies in Glen Burnie.

Miller, for one, says he welcomes the competition. "I think it's great for Baltimore," he said. "Any theater that opens is a good thing. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens."

The big theater chains aren't into taking unnecessary chances, says Maureen McAvey, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. If they are building theaters in Baltimore, it's because they believe part of the moviegoing audience is not being adequately served.

"They do a lot of market research," she said. "Typically, what you see is that if someone is willing to invest, they believe there is a part of the market that is not being addressed today. ... If there's a new entry into the market, not only does the company believe there's an untapped [segment] there, but their lender does as well. Building a theater is not a cheap endeavor."

Even with movies becoming increasingly available for home and mobile viewing, people keep going to theaters. In 2013, according to the trade website, 1.34 billion tickets were sold in the United States, with revenue reaching an all-time high of $10.9 billion.

"Movie theaters are an enjoyable way to get out of the house and enjoy a social occasion," said Doug Murdoch, executive director of Mid-Atlantic NATO, a regional affiliate of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "I think that you can have a case of beer in the fridge, but you'll still go out to the bar, because you enjoy the social occasion. I think that it's just part of our culture."

Through the 1960s, it seemed as though nearly every Baltimore neighborhood had its own movie theater. By the turn of the century, however, as Baltimore struggled to retain its population, movie theaters had become something of a rarity. In July 2002, only the five-screen Charles and the single-screen Senator were operating within city limits. The Rotunda was between operators. The nine-screen UA Harbor Park on Lombard Street had closed in March 2000. The tiny Orpheum, a repertory cinema in Fells Point, had closed in May 1999. Attempts to establish a movie theater catering to African-Americans never took hold.

Things were only marginally better in the immediate suburbs. The Hollywood in Arbutus, the Eastpoint and the Beltway in Fullerton were operating, and continue. But the AMC Towson Commons was struggling; it closed in May 2011. And a brief revival of Catonsville's Westview Mall cinemas in 2008 lasted less than a year.

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