In the face of mounting debt and increasing competition from other movie theaters, Visions Bar Noir will show its final films tonight. The decision to close left the future of the theater's site unclear.
"It's sad," said Visions president Andrew Frank, who opened the theater in May 2000. "We tried for a long time."
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When Visions redesigned the old Embassy Theater on Florida Avenue four years ago, Frank said, "we entered a marketplace when there wasn't anything going on. We filled that specialty niche and revived it for a while at a time when the city was underscreened."
But two years later, the humble two-screen theater -- at the crossroads of Washington's Dupont Circle, Kalorama and Adams Morgan neighborhoods -- faced competition from a confluence of new venues, all of them dedicated to Visions' niche of independent and art house movies. Those included Landmark Theatres' multiscreen Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema, Regal Theaters in Rockville, Loews Cineplex Georgetown, the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and the Avalon -- all of them supported by deeper pockets or public money.
"It wasn't a level playing field," said Frank, who (along with the Avalon theater) has complained that chains such as Landmark and Loews often used their national clout to keep distributors from showing films at the small theaters. Denied access to bigger releases, Frank offered more specialized fare, including political documentaries and midnight movies. Visions also opened its two screens to local filmmakers and specialty festivals. Last year Frank revamped the theater's bar, renamed it Bar Noir, and built up a coterie of night patrons. But ultimately his efforts weren't enough.
"We really tried to give the theater a personality and individuality, which you don't usually get in theaters," said Frank, who also owns Sirius Coffee Co. at the Van Ness Metro station. "Bar Noir was a source of revenue. But admissions were dropping off at such a pace we were never able to break even. We had a deficit that was insurmountable." He declined to give specific figures.
The number of screens within a six-mile radius of Visions in 2002 was 89. This year, he said, the total had risen to 139. And since then, the average number of movies opening in Washington on any given weekend has almost doubled to between 10 and 12 releases. This competition for reviews in the print media also affected Visions, which had no advertising budget, Frank said.
Visions' debt made some distributors balk, which occasionally hamstrung its ability to secure films. ThinkFilm, for example, had scheduled to show the movie "Festival Express" recently at Visions, but canceled at the last minute.
"It's a shame to see it go," ThinkFilm's Michael Tuchman said of the theater. "I think it's a great location."
"I feel bad for them," said Ryan Werner, head of acquisitions at Wellspring, an independent distributor in New York, whose "Brown Bunny" became the theater's final film. When he worked for Magnolia Pictures, Werner said, Visions had extremely good ticket sales for such films as "Late Marriage" and "Read My Lips."