In a Sept. 23 Style article about the closing of Visions Bar Noir, the name of the D.C. theater's former film programmer, Andrew Mencher, was misspelled. (Published 9/24/04)
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."
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."
It seemed to signal the beginning of the end when Visions film programmer Andrew Menscher quit the organization Aug. 18, citing the theater's financial problems. "Because of the position the theater was in, it became extremely hard for me to perform my job, to get as good a program as was potentially available for Visions," Menscher said yesterday.
Frank, who owns the theater with partners Andrew Mack and Jonathan Zuck, alerted his staff about the closure two weeks ago but did not announce it to the public until yesterday.
The Visions closing "may help us a little bit," said Paul Sanchez, who operates the Avalon and P&G Montgomery Mall cinemas. "I'm sorry to see it happen. We weren't really playing the same films. If Landmark closes, that would help us a lot."
Bob Zich, outgoing chairman of the board of Avalon Theatre, also expressed regret for Visions' demise. "I think [Frank] was offering something unique to the city that I don't think anyone else could."
As for Avalon's business, he said, "I hope we'll be able to pick up some of the slack."
The future of the Visions theater, a $2 million project in the 6,000-square-foot space owned by the Cafritz Co., and said by some to rent for $14,000 a month, remains in question.
"It wouldn't surprise me if another independent came along and reopened the theater," Sanchez said. "I've seen it happen, with the Avalon and the P&G Montgomery Mall," both of which were bought from Loews Cineplex. "Anything's possible."
In the meantime, Visions has announced a farewell party for the public on Sunday, starting at 8 p.m. The free event, which includes a cash bar, "is a way to bring closure" for everybody, said Frank. "It'll be a celebration of four very fun years. To thank my old staff, new staff and to thank the community for allowing Visions to exist in the first place."