- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Gwyneth Butler lets out a high-pitched wail that lets her mother know her diaper needs changing, just as the trailers roll at the 11 a.m. showing of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

“Well, we’re the first ones to make noise,” a slightly sheepish Amy Butler says as she lays 9-month-old Gwyneth on the Rio cinema floor and goes to work on the diaper.

Not that anyone else in the Gaithersburg theater minds, or probably even notices.

Mrs. Butler, 36, was among three dozen mothers and two fathers who recently brought their babies to a screening specifically for stir-crazy parents, many of whom gave up on going to the movies when the baby came along.

Loews Cineplex Entertainment is expanding its test run of “Reel Moms,” started in New York in the fall, to several other locations this summer, including the Washington area. Loews and partner UrbanBaby.com, a Web site geared toward mothers in cities, plan eventually to run the program in at least 15 cities nationwide.

“The feedback we got was that mothers were feeling a sense of isolation,” said John McCauley, Loews’ senior vice president of marketing. “The program was fulfilling an emotional need, and also a fun need. It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s get to the movies.’”

The Tuesday morning program is designed to let new parents go to a place traditionally off-limits to babies. In a hushed theater, even whispers can irritate someone in the next aisle. With babies all around, the theory goes, parents won’t have to feel self-conscious if their child belts out a cry in the middle of an important scene.

“She can scream her lungs out,” said Charles Sheeler, 42, holding Jennie. “When one kid screams in a movie theater, everybody hears it. When every kid screams, nobody hears it.”

Though crying babies and fussy infants are annoyances to most moviegoers, Reel Moms was not developed with the problem in mind, said Mr. McCauley, who came up with the idea after his daughter was born.

Loews hopes to tap into the market of new parents, formerly loyal moviegoers who are tired of being stuck at home with a new baby. For most, it’s their first movie since they gave birth, and their baby’s first time to the theater.

Lori Anderson, 29, of Baltimore used to go to the movies almost once a week but has been able to see just one movie with her husband since 6-month-old Ethan was born. The family hasn’t had luck finding good baby sitters, so she hasn’t seen a film in the theater since.

“I came for the movie and to get out of the house,” Mrs. Anderson, an acknowledged Johnny Depp fan, said while spooning mushy cereal into Ethan’s mouth.

Reel Moms is aimed at entertaining the parents, not the children, who are admitted free if they are younger than 1. Parents can expect to see current releases without having to wait for them to come out on digital video disc or videotape.

Loews has offered new parents “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle,” at its Manhattan location. “How to Deal,” “Seabiscuit” and “Gigli” are scheduled for the program in the coming weeks at its Gaithersburg location.

“Whatever the latest release is, that is what we mean to make available,” Mr. McCauley said.

Because of the adult fare, the program is intended for parents with infants who are too young to recognize what they are seeing on the screen.

The parents may bring — and pay for — children older than 1, Mr. McCauley said, but the program is designed with babies in mind.

“The program is intended for 12 months and under because we’re showing adult films, and if there’s a program that doesn’t seem appropriate it’s mostly self-policing,” Mr. McCauley said. “We hope that mothers will respect that, and down the road we hopefully will have other programs for toddlers.”

Parents at the Gaithersburg screening agreed, saying their children were too young to be frightened by any scary action on the screen and similarly didn’t react at home to TV programming for adults.

The moviegoing experience is altered at the Reel Moms screenings to accommodate the youngsters and their parents.

Lights are dimmed, not darkened, and the volume of the soundtrack is reduced. Strollers can be checked at the door, and space is provided for diaper changing.

Theater 13 at Rio became even more baby-friendly when parents took it over for “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Drink holders usually used for supersized sodas held bottles filled with milk and juice. Crawling babies scooted across the floor, while others slept in their mothers’ laps or cooed at each other.

Women breast-fed in their seats and changed diapers in the aisles. Some came with mothers’ groups, while others swapped baby advice with women they just met.

Parents are allowed to bring their toddlers to any Loews movie, Mr. McCauley said, but they should remember to respect other viewers’ rights while in the theater.

“We hope that people who come to the theater are courteous. If they bring a baby who is crying, we hope they would be respectful of other moviegoers and take them out of the theater.”

Loews’ management handles complaints about noisy patrons on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Even with the success of the Reel Moms premiere in Gaithersburg, other local theaters are not ready to start similar programs.

The Muvico Egyptian 24 theater in Arundel Mills has no plans to start a similar program, said Jim Lee, director of marketing for Muvico. The 5,000-seat megaplex has a supervised playroom for 3- to 8-year-olds, a party room and a Saturday morning movie program geared toward families, he said.

AMC Theaters, a national chain that owns 14 Washington-area theaters, also has no plans to start such a program, spokesman Rick King said.

The company is offering its Summer Movie Camp for children in 30 cities nationwide, but not in the Washington area. A movie is shown each Wednesday morning, with popcorn and drinks.

Jamie Braun contributed to this report.

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