Opportunity, adjustment in the air for Md. Film Festival

Kevin Brown knows opportunity when it shows up at his front door.

When news broke this year that the annual Maryland Film Festival would be leaving its home at the Charles Theatre for a series of venues, including several near the restaurant he runs on North Avenue, he leapt into action — extending cafe hours, coming up with food specials, hiring a DJ to spin tunes outside his door.


"We're going to make a million dollars here," predicted a thrilled (if perhaps a bit hyperbolic) Brown, whose Nancy by SNAC cafe operates out of the Maryland Institute College of Art's Lazarus Graduate Studio Center, one of seven venues being used by the festival this year. "They promised us 25,000 people would pass by our door over the course of five days."

Those numbers may be high; last year's festival attracted an estimated 20,000 movie lovers to the Charles, which sits two blocks south of North Avenue. Still, Brown's excitement is understandable, as he and fellow merchants in the Station North Arts District prepare to welcome thousands of first-time visitors to the area.


For a gathering that's usually all about the movies, this week's 16th Maryland Film Festival, which runs through Sunday, seems to be as much about economics and adaptation as about anything cinematic. The festival, one of the few film festivals that have been able to concentrate events in one location, has found itself scrambling to find new venues. Cinephiles used to doing almost all their movie-going in one place will find themselves spread out over a considerably wider area. Businesses that had counted on festivalgoers to provide one of their busiest weeks of the year find themselves hoping loyalties will remain strong.

And Station North merchants who suddenly find themselves preparing for a few thousand first-time visitors ... well, they're doing anything but complaining

"It's good to get people comfortable with this stretch of North Avenue," said Ben Stone, executive director of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., which represents about 50 businesses in the area. "The 1700 block of Charles St. [where the Charles Theatre sits] is kind of a known territory, so it's great that they're going to be venturing a bit further into the district."

For the first time since its inaugural edition in 1999, the festival won't be unspooling at the Charles. Believing that they could make more money with their regular film schedule than by renting the five-screen theater out for the festival's duration, operators James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Cusack Lyon, notified festival organizers this year that they would have to relocate.

After some scrambling, officials settled on seven venues. Two served as ancillary sites for festival screenings in 2013: MICA's Brown Center on Mount Royal Avenue and the Windup Space on North Avenue. The others are MICA's Lazarus Center on North Avenue and its Gateway Building on Mount Royal, the University of Baltimore's Langsdale Auditorium on Maryland Avenue and its William H. Thumel Sr. Business Center on Mount Royal, and the Walters Art Museum.

In addition, the festival's Tent Village, which serves at its base of operations, will be on North Avenue, adjacent to the Lazarus Center. Free shuttles will be available to transport moviegoers between the seven venues.

"A change is a change, and that always throws people," said festival director Jed Dietz. "But I think there's also some excitement in this particular instance."

Ticket sales are down about 10 percent from last year's record pace, but up about 10 percent from 2012, he said. Last year set a record because of an expansion from four to five days and a number of significant films with local connections.

Dietz did not provide budget specifics but said that moving from the Charles increased festival expenses by about 10 percent. While the overall venue rental cost decreased by about 15 percent, he said, the festival had to pick up the cost of the shuttles, which will run about every 10 minutes for the duration of the festival, and of renting state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment for the new venues.

There's certainly excitement on the part of Station North vendors. "I love the Charles, but there are some great businesses on North Avenue," says Jessica Beil, co-owner of Liam Flynn's Ale House. "I think it's great that North Avenue is starting to get some of that business."

Restaurants closer to the Charles, meanwhile, are hoping for the best. Even though the festival won't be right next door, it is only moving a few blocks away.

"We don't know what to expect this year," said Helmand Karzai, manager of Tapas Teatro, which shares a building with the Charles and until this year had been the unofficial gathering spot for festival guests and attendees. "It's usually the kickoff to the summer. But we're hoping that people will stick to their routine between movies."


Festival patrons seem to be taking the change in stride. When the move from the Charles was announced, there was grumbling; one reader on The Baltimore Sun's website predicted that the festival would be out of business within a few years. But as the steady ticket sales suggest, many fans seem to have accepted the change.

"It doesn't bother me at all that it's not going to be at the Charles," said Taylor DeBoer, a Mount Vernon resident and communications professional who plans to see at least three movies this year. "It's a slight inconvenience, but to me, it doesn't really make a difference. It's all about the films."

Others noted that moving to Station North this year should help pave the way for 2016, when festival officials hope to set up shop in a restored Parkway Theatre. Situated on North Avenue west of Charles Street, it's less than three blocks from the Charles. Plans call for movies to be run year-round at the three-screen, 600-seat Parkway after its $17 million renovation and expansion. The annual festival would run at the Parkway and other venues.

"I'm excited about the campus change," said Charisse Nichols, an events planner and veteran of eight festivals. "It only makes sense, with the festival moving to North Avenue in the future. Station North Arts District is vibrant, and I'm excited to see the wealth of entertainment not just concentrated in one particular block."

It's true that some may have been spoiled by the convenience of screening most films at the same venue. But such an arrangement is the exception when it comes to film festivals. Just about all of the major North American films festivals — Sundance, Toronto, Seattle, Los Angeles — play out in venues throughout their home cities. In Maryland, festivals in Annapolis, Easton and Hagerstown have multiple venues.


Said Dietz, "I think there's a general disappointment, including from us, that we're not going to be at the Charles. We wish we were there. It's been a wonderful relationship for 15 years. We're sorry it won't be part of 16."

Cusack, who opened his expanded five-screen theater with the inaugural Maryland Film Festival in April 1999, said he was sorry he could no longer make the Charles available.

"It's unfortunate we can't afford to do it anymore," he said. "The fact is, we really can't afford to keep it up. ... I think we're going to go our separate ways now."

Adam Birnbaum, who has handled bookings for the Charles for four years, said renting out the theater for the festival affects more than the movies that would have played there during those four days. The ripple effect, with distributors hesitant to play their films in a theater that won't be available for an entire May weekend, could last for weeks, he said.

"You don't want to be in a position to say, 'I'm sorry, there's a film festival going on,'" said Birnbaum, who works out of Connecticut and books movies for 30 theaters along the East Coast. "We're always fighting the uphill fight of trying to get the movies that people want to see into our theaters. You don't want to do anything that would endanger that relationship or engender bad will."

Dietz said he is unaware of any instance in which renting out the Charles for the festival had any serious effect on bookings. But he also sees a bright side to the move, believing it could help the festival and its audience get ready for 2016.

"We didn't come up with this idea," he said, "but it is really helping prepare us and our audience for the additional moviegoing that is going to be made possible by the Parkway. ... We're bringing audiences now further into Station North. And that is going to help us."

Baltimore Sun dining critic Richard Gorelick contributed to this article.

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