The last picture show at Baltimore's venerable Charles Theater may very well come in January.
The repertory and art film house in the 1700 block of North Charles Street, a staple in city film culture for nearly 15 years, has fallen victim to a 25 percent decline in attendance from two years ago that threatens its existence.
And although its owner won't say if the Charles is definitely closing, signs point to that ending. The theater hasn't paid rent in nine months. As of today, the Charles no longer will sell the discount ticket books that reduce prices for steady goers. And its owner has no plans to publish a January schedule, which could make "Farewell to My Concubine," the Chinese movie that opens Dec. 22, the Charles' swan song.
"Right now, the picture looks very bleak," said David Levy, the Washingtonian who has leased and run the theater since June of 1979.
According to Alan Shecter, the operating partner of Bowling Inc., the real estate firm that owns the building occupied by the Charles and much of the nearby property, "We've tried to carry it. We don't want to close it because for so long it was such a jewel. I keep hoping he can pull it out."
But Mr. Levy is pessimistic.
"It's just become too big a drain," said Mr. Levy, who also operates an art house complex in Georgetown, the four-screen Key Theater.
"I think it would be a great loss for downtown Baltimore," said Ben Ryland, the Area Advertising and Promotions Director of the Loew's Theater chain, which has risen to dominance in the Baltimore market during the past five years. "Nobody else has been able to book art films consistently except for the Baltimore Film Forum. David brings a lot of small films in for two or three days that wouldn't otherwise play here."
Creating a void
Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theater, a single-screen movie house on York Road that has cultivated a following for its art film presentations, said, "It's distressing to hear of yet another example of how the large circuits may be pushing another independent exhibitor out of theatrical film exhibition. . . . For the sake of filmgoers interested in more than 'mall-movies,' I hope he is able to stay the course."
The loss of the Charles, which plays a steady diet of "specialty films" from European or independent American sources, "would be a big void in the community," said Sharon Cohen. As president of Cohen-Johnston Advertising, a firm that represents several art film studios and distributors, she works closely with the Charles.
"Eventually, I suppose, the marketplace would restructure and maybe some other theater would emerge to offer an outlet for such product," said Ms. Cohen. "We certainly have enough population to support this kind of theater."
Nationally, the picture is bleak for art film houses.
"Today the art market is just as hit driven as the mainstream market. There's a certain number of hits -- 'The Crying Game,' 'Howards End' -- that everybody wants to see," said George Mansour, a nationally known consultant and specialty-film booker based in Boston.
"The chains have gotten into the game, and with their buying power, they're able to get the big pictures, even if in a particular city their outlet isn't as prestigious or established as the local house."
The specialty houses that survive, says Mr. Mansour, are ones that have been in place for years and that have access to huge student populations.
"It's traditional that art films play in the urban core," says Martin Zeidman, senior executive in charge of distribution for Miramax Films, a key art film distributor. "But it's a very difficult shot as far as profitability -- even in areas of greater population density."
According to Mr. Levy, three trends have contributed to the Charles' demise.
"Crime has had a big impact," he says. "The block started to go downhill when the Chesapeake, a seafood restaurant, closed and now people just won't go where they don't feel safe. Ironically, the crime picture around the theater has improved recently. Our worst period was two years ago when a nightclub in the same block drew a rough crowd and there were several shootings. But the perception of the crime is much more a factor than the reality."
Gary Lambert, once the theater's assistant manager and projectionist and now a consultant, also ascribed the theater's decline to crime.
"It started in 1988, when the nightclub Godfrey's opened up just down the block. There was an awful situation on the street, a real sense of menace. In that year within one block of the theater, there were seven murders. Since Godfrey's closed, there hasn't been a single shooting," said Mr. Lambert. "But the perception was established."
The second factor, Mr. Levy said, was the impact of the VCR.
"It's not really that the kind of films we tend to show are available on the video format. But the videos completely wiped out the repertory business because they provide such a nourishment of films so easily that people seem no longer interested in making the effort to go downtown to see a movie."
Third is competition.
"We knew when we started that we had to control the market," Mr. Levy said. "And for a long time we did. We ran all the big art films in Baltimore and we did very well. But two years ago it started to slide. Big companies like Loew's got into the specialty market, and even a house like the Senator began grabbing off our kinds of films. We had to work harder and harder to get movies, and it's no longer worth the effort.
"If you can't get the really big ones, you're just not going to survive."
Competition for art house hits from the larger venues is especially evident this week when Loew's Rotunda will exclusively open Jane Campion's "The Piano," the co-Palme D'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Starring Holly Hunter, it is one of the most vividly anticipated art films of the year.
Meanwhile the Charles is opening "Ruby in Paradise," a highly regarded but much lower-profile American independent film. And "Remains of the Day," the acclaimed James Ivory-Ismail Merchant film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, plays at the Senator, a far cry from the days in 1989 when "sex, lies and videotape" set house records at the Charles or in 1985 when "Kiss of the Spider Woman" played for 11 weeks.
Mr. Levy started operating the Charles in 1979 after working in film distribution in New York.
"I saw that no one in Baltimore was showing the movies, and I felt there was a niche in the market I could exploit," he said.
"We had a great run in Baltimore, and built up a loyal following -- but it's not enough," said Mr. Levy.
Mr. Shecter recalled the great days of the Charles, when the new schedules disappeared as soon as they were published and art house fever so gripped the film-going public that it even made the personal ads.
"I remember," he says, "when all the 'In Search of' ads in the City Paper and Baltimore magazine used to say, 'ISO someone who loves to go to the movies at the Charles.' "
Right now, the Charles is ISO another chance.