A small, unassuming three-screen movie theater is transforming itself into an art film house.
The Columbia City 3 Cinema seeks to fill a niche for those in Howard County who want quality films but not the trek to Baltimore or Washington to see them. The cinema, which is more than a quarter-century old, changed from blockbuster showings to smaller venue films last month.
Despite not being heavily publicized, the switch in format has brought success, the theater's manager said.
"Our customers had requested it," said Debra McClellan, whose company, General Cinema Theaters, runs Columbia City 3. "Our attendance has doubled since we changed."
When the movie house opened to fanfare on Wincopin Circle near Lake Kittamaqundi in 1973, it was the first commercial theater in Columbia.
Over the years, restaurants sprang up around the theater, and it quickly became a hub of the community as families and couples turned out to enjoy dinner and a show.
But with the emergence of more modern theaters with comfortable seating and megascreens, Columbia City 3 struggled to stay afloat.
"For us to be running first-run, mainstream films just wasn't profitable because of the competition from the United Artists and Sony theaters," McClellan said. "We had been running a mix of regular and art films, and our art films were doing a lot better."
The theater features second-run releases such as "Boys Don't Cry" and "The Cider House Rules," which generated a lot of attention at last month's Academy Awards. McClellan said it also will focus on smaller, independent and foreign films.
With its three auditoriums, 700 seats and one concession stand, the theater remains pretty much as it has been since it opened. One recent sunny afternoon, customers drifted in as teen-agers skateboarded past the theater's plate-glass windows.
Friends Michelle Bennett of Ellicott City and Rhonda Best of Columbia ducked into the theater to see "The Cider House Rules." Bennett said she appreciates not having to venture out of Howard County for independent films.
"This is the only theater that's showing this movie," Bennett said. "I have three kids and I have to be close by."
Bennett suggested to McClellan that the theater could be more successful if it showed films earlier than its first showing at 4 p.m.
"There are so many moms," Bennett said. "You should really cater to them because a lot of times we go to Snowden [United Artists Snowden Square Stadium 14] just because they have a 12 o'clock showing and we can go while our kids are in school."
Howard County needs such a film format change, said Bernice Kish, founder of Marvelous Movies & More, a Columbia-based film series that shows classic and silent movies once a month at Slayton House. Kish said she believes that the art film house complements her organization and the Columbia Film Society, a group of about 900 subscribers who pay to watch art films at Smith Theatre at Howard Community College.
"I think we are mature enough in this community to support a business like this, and it shows a real coming-of-age for us here to have a theater where we can go see quality films," Kish said.