WHEN VIRGINIA resident Jim Tomashoff wanted to see a good art film playing in Washington, the odds were against making the trip.

Seeing the movie meant a long drive from Fairfax into D.C., finding parking, then sitting in some wretched hellhole like the Cineplex Odeon Janus, which seemed designed to punish moviegoers for havingalternative tastes. He usually stayed home.

Now the 48-year-old former military systems analyst has done something about that frustration. With his partner Mark O'Meara, he took over the Cineplex Odeon Fair City multiplex last August, spent $180,000 on luxury seats, carpeting and an upgraded sound system and opened the Cinema Arts Fairfax (located on Fairfax's Main Street in the Fair City mall). Its mission: to provide independent, experimental or foreign fare for moviegoers who want to see quality films without a hassle.

The theater also offers gourmet food and drink, such as middle eastern dips, warm pita bread, gourmet sandwiches, Smoothies and espresso coffee. And there's a seating area for about 40 people into which the sound system pipes jazz, Celtic and world music. In this theater at least, the lobby is a place to linger rather than barge through.

There are birthing pains, however. Distributors for such companies as Miramax and Lion's Gate Films, who decide which cramped city theater will house their exclusive product, have yet to recognize the Cinema Arts Fairfax as a viable exhibition venue, Tomashoff says.

"It has been very, very frustrating," says Tomashoff, who says he has lobbied unsuccessfully to show such films as "Princess Mononoke" (a big screen experience currently held hostage in the miniature Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3), "Happy, Texas" and "Boys Don't Cry."

"If [distributors] are anticipating people in Fairfax will drive to the District to see [films such as `Princess Mononoke'], they're dead wrong," Tomashoff says. His theater -- like the former Biograph and Key Theatre in Georgetown -- is referred to as a "calendar theater," meaning, a theater with a preprinted schedule of usually arty (another bad expression) films. Such places usually get last dibs, when it comes to theater selection.

But the Cinema Arts is showing "Earth," a beautifully shot Indian movie (see review in Film Capsules on Page 57), which can be found nowhere else and which will continue to run at least through Nov. 23 depending on public demand.

At the six-plex Cinema Arts, says Tomashoff, the original intention was to have one or two mainstream movies, with the remaining four theaters offering alternative, independent films. But thanks to reticent distributors, the Cinema Arts is presently obliged to show more commercial fare, such as "Music of the Heart."

Tomashoff is hoping the big guns will open up their distribution plans to include his venue for such upcoming films as Atom Egoyan's "Felicia's Journey" or the upcoming adaptation of John Irving's "Cider House Rules."

"This is a drought period," he says, adding however that he sees signs of grass-roots support already. Last weekend with limited media support, "Earth" did a respectable $3,600 in business. And the feedback for alternative films has been strong.

"I would say the one good thing so far has been the incredible warmth and good wishes of people, who are absolutely delighted we're here," Tomashoff says. "I've got one customer who comes here once or twice a week; and every time he comes in, he points his finger at me and he says `Don't close!' "

People interested in finding out more about the Cinema Arts Fairfax can check out the Web site at www.cinemaartstheatre.com, where they can also get on the mailing list. For more information, call 703/978-6991 for the theater's recorded schedule or 703/978-6853 for a live voice.