While the District loses art movie theaters at an alarming pace, a six-screen independent cineplex is scheduled to open in a Fairfax City strip mall late next month, complete with meaning-of-life foreign films and a cafe serving plump sushi and skinny cappuccinos.
"I know the stereotype of the suburbs is that it's a sort of cultural wasteland," says Jim Tomashoff, 48, who with his partner Mark O'Meara will soon start renovating the theater not far from George Mason University now occupied by Cineplex Odeon Fair City 6. "But I think there are more art movie fans out here than in Washington, D.C."
Indeed, the new frontier for independent art theaters may be the shopping malls of suburban America. "One of the things that happened was we started losing all of our independent art theaters in the city and nobody seemed to step into the niche. The new niche may be in the suburbs," says Robert Headley, a University Park resident and author of "Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C.: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997."
Once home to a lavish list of art movie houses, the District in the last decade has lost the Biograph movie theater (famous for movies such as "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story"; now a CVS store), the MacArthur Theater (with a classy lounge serving tea and chocolate; now a CVS store) and the Key (home to "Rocky Horror Picture Show"; not yet a CVS store, only a Restoration Hardware).
In the District, some chain multiplexes--like Cineplex Odeon--show art house movies. Those would be films more concerned with coming of age or overcoming great odds than blowing up cars. They frequently are filmed abroad, and have a devoted but decidedly small audience in the States. But the District theaters, says Tomashoff, have tiny screens, which "to see you have to look at them from an angle," and parking that he calls "incredibly frustrating."
So the former CIA intelligence analyst--in the throes of a midlife crisis--decided to follow his bliss. He introduced himself to O'Meara, who owns and operates the independent second-run University Mall Theater in Fairfax. They had informal focus groups: Would people rather see "Central Station" or "The Mummy"?
They looked at the county's high income levels and large number of college graduates: "Not all college graduates are going to be fans of independent and foreign films, but most fans of independent and foreign films are probably college students or people with a college degree," Tomashoff says.
There are skeptics who know from experience that art houses anywhere have marginal profits. Paul Sanchez, owner of the P&G Old Greenbelt, an art house, says he wouldn't want to try to live off the profits, "unless I lived in a tent with no water." He operates two mainstream theaters to pay the bills.
But Tomashoff heard that Cineplex Odeon was giving up its lease in the Fair City Mall (it is leaving the location by Aug. 1), and he thought it could be one of the main places in the suburbs offering art house movies. So far they plan on investing $250,000 in renovations.
"I've always been interested in these types of movies," says Tomashoff, who also studied the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction for nine years at Science Applications International Corp. "My favorite films in college were 'The 400 Blows' and 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.' "
Tomashoff--whose early memories include watching 1920s silent films with his parents in California--pictured his ideal movie theater and started planning. The seats would be comfy: He is tearing out seats in five of the six theaters and replacing them with high-backs, some with fold-out wooden tables.
The snacks would be more glamorous than stale popcorn and fountain soda. He plans on offering baba ghanouj, chocolate mousse cakes, fruity teas and chicken and sprout sandwiches.
The atmosphere would be evocative. They are commandering 300 to 400 square feet in the mall for cafe space so people can sip cappuccino and chat about the movie over raspberry chocolate cake. Once a month the theater would also invite a guest speaker for dinner and a movie.
And most important, the movies would be smart, thoughtful and emotional. A sample list of what Tomashoff would like to see: "The Red Violin," "The Buena Vista Social Club" and "An Ideal Husband."
This week's offerings from Cineplex Odeon: "Big Daddy," "Wild Wild West" and "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace."