With this Friday's scheduled opening of his new Sun Valley 6 movie theater in Glen Burnie, in a revitalized shopping center at the corner of Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard and Jumpers Hole Road, Ira Miller firms up his position as Baltimore's pre-eminent independent theater owner.
The addition of Sun Valley means Miller (under his Horizon Cinemas banner) now operates five area theaters. They include Beltway Movies in Fullerton, Pikes Theatre in Pikesville, Marley Station Movies in Glen Burnie and the Rotunda Cinemas in Hampden (which will be closing once Cobb Theatres opens its new upscale cinema across the parking lot in 2016).
"His heart and soul is in this location and in this theater," says developer Leonard J. Attman, who approached Miller two years ago about opening a theater in Sun Valley. "He's believed in it from the beginning."
Miller's connection to the local movie-theater scene goes back to the late 1960s, when he was managing the now-closed Uptown in Pimlico. Miller worked for several movie studios, including MGM, beginning in 1985, but returned to his hometown in 2005.
Three years later, he managed a brief revival of the Westview Mall cinemas. Since then, he's become something of a specialist in taking over older theaters and breathing new life into them; Sun Valley is the first new theater building his Horizon Cinemas has operated.
We sat down with Miller, 67, inside the Sun Valley building, just down the road from the site of the old Jumpers Cinemas, which closed in 2005, and less than a mile from his Marley Station operation. (Like the Jumpers, Sun Valley will be a second-run house, exhibiting movies at reduced prices after they've been shown at the first-run houses.) We asked him about running a theater in Baltimore, whether there's room in the area for more and why he opted for operating a second in Glen Burnie.
Why this location?
We thought the Glen Burnie area was under-screened. We were looking to do a theater which would be like a second-run theater. We were negotiating for the theater before we took over Marley, and we figured that it would be a good move-over house [with movies shifting from Marley to Sun Valley after their initial, higher-priced runs].
Jumpers was always one of the best discount theaters in town. It was always the Beltway and Jumpers. When Leonard came to me, I saw how close it was and we just decided, why not? It made sense.
A lot of people can't afford to go to the first-run theaters. ... Hopefully, we've found our niche down here.
Are there any special challenges to running a second-run theater?
The key thing with the second-run theater is, you've got to keep them up. You've got to keep them like they're new. We put a lot of money into the Beltway to make it like brand-new. [Sun Valley] is brand-new, and we're going to have to keep it brand-new.
And it's just a different mindset in booking. You try to get a good compilation of pictures, so you don't have six kids' movies, or six horror movies — you don't want to overload. You try to mix and match, so everybody can come here, from 8 to 80, to see a movie.
Is the Baltimore area a good place right now to be running a movie theater?
It's a good business when you find the right location. The key with the theater business is finding the right location, pricing it right, and parking is key. If you don't have the right parking, you've got a problem.
I was born and raised here, I love Baltimore. I think there's a niche if you can find the right location in the city. It's still under-screened, in my opinion. There's not a lot of growth left, but there's probably room for four or five more theaters. There's room still.
You're always looking to expand. Any area you have an eye on?
I don't know. Something will come out of the blue, like this came out of the blue. I wasn't looking. We were always thinking about it, looking for a way into Glen Burnie. Then we made a deal with Leonard, and then Marley Station came along, and we decided to do that, too.
It's sporadic. Somebody could call me tomorrow and, if they've got the right location and the right deal, sure.