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Region's movie theaters staging a comeback

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 the-numbers.com, 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.

But the area was far from dead, and it soon became clear that with the right movie theater, local audiences would respond. In December 2000, the 24-screen Muvico Egyptian (it has since been taken over by Cinemark) opened at Arundel Mills mall in Hanover; within a few years, it was among the busiest theaters in the country, selling 2.7 million tickets in 2002, according to Entertainment Weekly. In November 2007, the seven-screen Landmark Theatre opened in Harbor East, where it remains a big draw. And within eight months of the Towson Commons theater closing, Cinemark announced plans for a new theater on Joppa Road, less than two blocks to the northeast.

"This is one of the areas that we felt would be a good fit for our theaters," said James Meredith, vice president of marketing and communications for Texas-based Cinemark. His company conducted numerous market studies, he said, "and what we kept hearing over and over again is that people who live in and around this area don't want to have to leave and drive some distance to see a movie. They want the ability to stay close to home."

What's more, the folks at Cinemark decided to build not just a movie theater in Towson, but one with a decidedly upscale slant. In a first for the company, the Cinemark Towson will include a "Reserve" level, on balconies above five of the theater's screens. It will offer a full bar, a wider range of food choices, movable tabletops at the seats and lounge facilities. Customers will pay $5 more for seats on the Reserve level.

General Cinemas, operators of the Owings Mills 17 multiplex, tried a similar venture in February 1999, opening a three-screen "Premium Cinema" that offered big leather chairs, free popcorn and a gourmet bistro. It closed in September 2000, with company officials saying they believed they could make more money with conventional theaters.

Cinemark officials, however, believe the time is right for a more upscale moviegoing experience — even if the ticket price has climbed from $12 (which is what General Cinemas charged in 1999) to $16. And Towson, they believe, is the place for it.

"It's a very educated marketplace, but it's also a market that just loves entertainment," Meredith said. And when the movie's over, "they want to sit down, have a glass of wine and talk about the movie."

Interviewed outside Baltimore's beloved Senator Theatre, a rare surviving showplace from the movies' glory days, filmgoer Kimly Samuel, 40, of Belvedere, sounded ready to give the new Cinemark theaters a try.

"I have heard about it and I'm so excited," said Samuel, who was dropping off her two kids Wednesday afternoon. "I'm so tired of going all the way to Hunt Valley or all the way to White Marsh. It just makes sense to put it there. It's probably out of convenience that I'll go there."

Fellow moviegoer Lee Hartman, 67, who lives in northern Baltimore County, wasn't so sure. "I like theaters that offer alternative movies and feels, like the Charles," he said. "The Landmark is my favorite. To me, smaller is better."

Plans for Cobb's CineBistro theaters at the Rotunda suggest even more of an emphasis on upscale moviegoers. The theaters will be small — seven screens, with a total of 600 seats. There will be valet parking, and an executive chef will be on the staff, with food served at customers' seats before the movie starts. Audiences will be 21 and over, with most movies aimed at the 35-and-older crowd, CEO Welman says.

"Premium theaters with upgraded amenities, these are the things that are happening in the industry," he said. "It's something that doesn't exist in this marketplace."

In addition to a new theater at the Rotunda, plans are on the board for renovations to the 100-year-old Parkway, on North Avenue about three blocks north of the Charles. The $17 million project, which is being undertaken by the Maryland Film Festival and would add two smaller screens to the existing theater, is expected to be completed in 2016.

That would mean an additional 10 movie screens in the city within two years, a marked increase from the six-screen days of a dozen years ago. Fans of some of the existing theaters have worried aloud that the city could be reaching a saturation point, but the Urban Land Institute's McAvey says it is impossible to say for sure until the market announces it has had enough.

"When the next one shows up and it fails," she said, "that was too many."

Baltimore Sun reporter Carly Heideger contributed to this article.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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