Serious movie fans may now throw away their lists of "Great Movies That Never Played in Fairfax County." The renovated Cinema Arts Theatre debuted in Fairfax City last month with new seats, new screens, a greater variety of food and a selection of films that could turn the frustrating journeys into Washington to see foreign or independent movies into a hazy memory.
In three weeks last month, partners Mark O'Meara and Jim Tomashoff plunged more than $250,000 into the Cineplex Odeon Fair City 6, a declining set of screens in the Fair City Mall at Route 236 and Pickett Road in Fairfax. By opening night on Aug. 20, they had installed hundreds of new high-backed rocker seats with cup holders and retractable armrests, several rows of seats in each theater with folding mini-table tops, and Dolby sound systems to complement the new screens.
O'Meara and Tomashoff did their research before opening the Fairfax area's first "art house" movie theater, which shows such films as "Buena Vista Social Club" and "Run Lola Run," which previously were available only in Shirlington or the District. O'Meara's research was firsthand: He owns three second-run budget theaters in Fairfax, Sterling and Manassas, where he regularly chatted with patrons and sensed growing interest in the "Indochines" and "Rashomons" of the film world.
Tomashoff, 48, a former CIA intelligence analyst, was more methodical, investigating the demographics of Fairfax County as well as talking to dozens of friends and colleagues. He found "this pool of people who wanted to see these films. But who wants to drive downtown and deal with the movies in those crummy theaters? I loved the [now-defunct] Key Theater, but I didn't want to deal with Georgetown on a Friday night."
Tomashoff, of Chantilly, also saw a county ranked as the wealthiest in the country, with an adult populace of more than 55 percent college graduates, as an ideal customer base. And as movies such as "Reservoir Dogs" and "Life Is Beautiful" exploded out of the art house circuit into mainstream multiplexes, more customers began to see the value of movies made outside the Hollywood studio system and shown by independent operators such as O'Meara and Tomashoff.
So Tomashoff quit his job, introduced himself to O'Meara, 47, also of Fairfax County, and the two men poured their life savings into Cinema Arts. And they knew that just showing foreign and independent films wasn't going to revive the Fair City multiplex.
In addition to upgrading the individual theaters, Tomashoff and O'Meara wanted to attract Fairfax's upscale crowd with more than popcorn and soft drinks. So they have filled a refrigerator with fresh sandwiches (blackened chicken, roast beef, chicken curry on one recent evening), salads and pastas (chicken penne, fresh vegetables with yogurt dip), hummus with pita chips, fresh sushi, cakes and other sweets (orange mousse, tiramisu, coffee almond fudge truffles). In addition, they offer cappuccino, fruit smoothies, a dozen kinds of fountain soda and popcorn.
In recent years, movies such as "The Sweet Hereafter" (Academy Award-nominated for best director), "When We Were Kings" (Academy Award winner for best documentary) and "Waiting for Guffman" (hilarious mock documentary and art house staple) never made it to Fairfax County. But Tomashoff and O'Meara are moving quickly to snag new, cutting-edge films and mixing them with "good date movies" such as "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Notting Hill," O'Meara said.
"I think there's a market for this in that area," said Jerry Gordon, executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners' Virginia chapter. "You have such a cosmopolitan population there. In the hinterlands, it would be very difficult."
And early reviews from patrons are positive. "They've really spiffed this up," Lisa Anno, of Fairfax, said after watching "Buena Vista Social Club." She said she used to take the Metro to Dupont Circle to see independent films but now has a better alternative. In addition to an improved lobby, Anno said, "it was the first time the ladies room was clean."
Dan Demers, of Alexandria, said the new theater is a "tremendous difference" over its prior incarnation. "I'm a film aficionado," he said, "and I've been dying for something like this in Northern Virginia. This is sort of a mini-milestone out here."