Value Added: Pondering the choices at a thinking-person’s movie theater


Bill Oberdorfer, left, executive director, and Andrew Mencher, director of programming of the Avalon Theatre pose for a portrait photographs inside their cinema. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Thomas Heath
Reporter May 26, 2013

When is “Silver Linings Playbook” more popular than “Star Trek?”

When it’s playing at the Avalon Theater in Northwest Washington, where the ticket sales for “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the hot film this Memorial Day weekend, are not exactly hitting the box office at warp speed.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Last fall’s “Silver Linings,” on the other hand, is the theater’s second-biggest hit since the Avalon become a nonprofit organization 10 years ago.

“ ‘Star Trek’ is doing okay for us,” said Andrew Mencher, the programmer who selects the movies for the Avalon, the 90-year-old neighborhood theater that is a throwback to the pre-multiplex days. “It’s not our strength. I never thought it would be a big hit for us.”

The two-screen Avalon is a relic, part of a dying breed of cinemas whose economics offer a glimpse into the modern movie-theater industry dominated by 20-plex movie malls that look nothing like their ornate ancestors of a century ago.

Memorial Day weekend marks the launch of the summer blockbuster season, when the big studios release the mega-hits so crucial to their bottom lines. Think of the “Indiana Jones,” “Terminator,” “Transformers,” “Die Hard” and “Star Wars” franchises.

But while blockbusters have their place, the Avalon’s mission is to present thought-provoking films that appeal to its passionate customer base, the majority of whom are over-50, highly educated, upper-income women.

“Meryl Streep and Judy Dench are box-office gold for any cinema like ours,” said Mencher, 46, who has been programming films for independent theaters around Washington for more than two decades. “Our strength is smarter, commercial or specialty films that play to an older audience . . . stronger with the female demographic than male demographic.”

Consider the theater’s 10 most popular films since 2003, when it turned nonprofit, and how much the flicks grossed in ticket revenue before taxes and payments to the studios:

1. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” 2004, $199,601

2. “Silver Linings Playbook,” 2012, $164,991

3. “L’Auberge Espagnole,” 2003, $146,280

4. “Ladies in Lavender,” 2005, $135,578

5. “Argo,” 2012, $133,818

6. “Julie & Julia,” 2009, $124,715

7. “Avenue Montaigne,” 2007, $111,818

8. “Sideways,” 2004, $107,333

9. “I’ve Loved You So Long,” 2008, $104,380

10. “The Devil Wears Prada,” 2006, $94,444

Mencher walks a fine line booking films for his two-screen theater. The downstairs main theater, which seats 425, generally is home to the bigger-drawing films, whether it be a commercial movie or an independent hit.

The upstairs theater, formerly a dance studio, seats 150 and generally shows specialized or foreign films, which have a decent Washington audience because of the embassies located here.

“You need the big films in order to take the risk on the small ones,” Mencher said.

Take last year’s “Argo.” Although it didn’t have Streep or Dench, it had action, a good story, a strong Washington connection (it involved the Central Intelligence Agency), star power with Ben Affleck and the prestige of the Academy Award for best film.

With the one-two punch of “Silver Linings” and “Argo,” plus some help from “Les Misérables,” the Avalon last year had a strong financial performance.

The Avalon was part of the Loew’s chain when it closed in March 2001. A neighborhood group formed a nonprofit organization and persuaded owner and real estate developer Douglas Jemal to allow them to reopen the theater in April 2003. The group later bought the building with city help for
$3.5 million.

The group grossed $1.4 million in 2012. About $1.19 million of that came from movie tickets, concessions, memberships and renting the theater out for events. The rest came from fundraising, said Bill Oberdorfer, the executive director of the Avalon Theater Project, the nonprofit group that operates the theater.

To close its deficit, every December the Avalon sends out more than 20,000 direct-mail requests for donations to people who live in the surrounding Zip codes. The mailing list includes 5,000 names in the group’s database and more names from lists that it purchases.

On the expense side, film rentals and the food and beverages that the Avalon sells at its concession stand cost around $450,000. The staff of 25, most of whom are part-time, costs another $450,000. Other expenses are payments on a $950,000 mortgage and bills for insurance, utilities and upkeep.

The theater last year finished a five-year, $2 million capital campaign. The money was used to convert both theaters to digital projection, install new heating and air conditioning and upgrade the electrical system, and is going to pay for an elevator.

The money was also used to upgrade the concession stand, known as the Avalon Cafe, where the swells can buy a glass of merlot to go with the latest French film import, which happens to be “Renoir.” The cafe alone brings in nearly a quarter of the theater’s revenue. Because studios can demand as much as 65 percent of the income from ticket sales, concessions are a major profit center for most theaters.

Mencher must perform a careful and complicated dance to acquire his movies. First of all, most of the artsy, small films produced by the big studios and the independent houses are booked by the Landmark Bethesda Row theater about two miles away. The Avalon has to wait for those films to finish their run in Bethesda before Mencher gets a crack at them.

The bigger, commercial studio films such as “Star Trek” are fair game for the Avalon. But even if Mencher thinks they might work for his discerning clientele, he faces competition from the likes of the 850-seat Uptown Theater two miles down Connecticut Avenue. With its giant screen and state-of-the-art sound system, the Uptown is the go-to Washington theater for the blockbusters. “Star Trek” is playing at the Uptown, which is probably hurting the Avalon’s attendance.

Mencher must also contend with the AMC multiplex at Mazza Gallerie in nearby Friendship Heights and with the Regal Cinemas in Bethesda.

The Avalon’s other disadvantage is having only two screens, which flies in the face of the multiplex model that dominates the industry. Most multiplexes have many theaters of different sizes, most of which do not exceed 300 seats. With so many screens, these businesses can pack in an array of films that appeal to every age and taste. Multiple theaters also allow them to run blockbusters — known in the theater industry as “tent poles” — around the clock on several screens, maximizing attendance.

“That’s the concept, moving through as many people as quickly as possible before the next summer tent pole arrives,” Mencher said. “If the Avalon was not a nonprofit, I think as large as it is, it would have a very hard time staying in existence against all these multiplex theaters. Someone would take that first theater and carve it into four.”

But the place has character. Many of its customers, including myself, walk over from nearby neighborhoods.

Mencher last week moved “Star Trek” into the smaller theater and put the French-made “Renoir,” subtitles and all, into the main theater.

But he still has some faith in blockbusters. He and Oberdorfer are going to a screening of “Man of Steel,” the latest iteration of the Superman series, at the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters in downtown Washington pretty soon.

They think it may be a thinking person’s “Superman.”

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