Senator takes on Charles over screening rights

Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber, never one to turn shy when there's an opportunity to plead his theater's case, is turning documentary filmmaker.

His topic: the ongoing fight between the Senator and the Charles over the right to show Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. The Charles is showing the film, and has used its right of clearance - that is, the right to prevent a film it is showing from also screening at a rival theater within a certain distance - to prevent it from being shown at the Senator.


Kiefaber, who has long fought against clearance, has been complaining about the Charles' decision for weeks, in a story that's been covered by both local and national media. Now, he's preparing to film a documentary detailing the squabble between Baltimore's two independent moviehouses. The title: Charles & Me, 4/11.

"After years of unsuccessful behind-the-scenes efforts to engender a more equitable and cooperative relationship with those who operate The Charles Theatre," Kiefaber wrote in an e-mail to The Sun, "it recently became painfully obvious that we must change our approach altogether."


While Kiefaber is serious in his opposition to clearance, which he claims both hurts him financially and prevents him from showing films that deserve to be showcased at the Senator, he promises to keep his documentary from being too inflammatory or confrontational, employing what he calls "a purposefully ironic and lighthearted touch."

To make the movie, Kiefaber will close the theater this Sunday. He says he is unsure when it will re-open.

Says Charles co-owner John Standiford, "For the Senator to be making a movie, an expose about the Charles' booking tactics, is like Home Depot exposing the anti-competitive tactics of Schneider's Hardware Store. ... He's going to have to accept the fact that every three years or so, the Charles is going to play something he wants to play, and he won't be able to."

Heritage cinemas

Don't go looking for major studio releases to play at Towson's Heritage cinemas anymore, despite its traditional emphasis on African-American cinema.

"I'm really not excited by the sort of films Hollywood is putting out," says Heritage founder Michael Johnson. "If White Chicks is a barometer of what's coming out with African-American actors, I'm really sad."

Instead, Johnson says, Heritage will go back to its original plan of concentrating on smaller, less commercial independent films and documentaries. "Our main objective is to offer up quality performances in quality shows," he says. "The independent films are so many, it's just a matter of us marketing them properly."

Johnson, who has been operating Heritage at its Taylor Avenue location since May 2003 (inside the old Hillendale Theatre building), has also scheduled a trio of film programs to run every week. On Tuesday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., films suitable for younger audiences will be scheduled; next week, for instance, will feature Chris Rock in the PG-13-rated Down to Earth. Classic American films will be screened at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thursdays. And at 7 p.m. Thursdays, the Heritage's list of the 100 greatest African-American films will continue unspooling; next week's feature will be Elia Kazan's 1949 film about a light-skinned young black woman passing for white, Pinky.


In addition, the Heritage is considering an expansion into Prince George's County, Johnson says. Negotiations are continuing on opening a theater geared to a Hispanic audience. The new theater could open as early as January, he says.

Johnson, who admits attendance at Heritage in its first year in Towson has not met expectations, is hopeful that fine-tuning the theater's offerings will help bring bigger crowds. "We have a road map now, where we want to go," he says.