The popcorn is hot, the Diet Coke fizzy and the kids are happily devouring Skittles when the movie lights dim at the Regal Cinemas at Potomac Yard in Alexandria. But instead of previews of upcoming releases, up pops an image of a burning pile of money.
A deep male voice commands, "Repeal the movie tax."
By the time patrons are comfortably seated, they have already been inundated by that message, which is part of a one-theater campaign against the city of Alexandria's new 50-cent-per-ticket entertainment tax.
Outside, the doors to the theater's entrance are plastered with bright red, yellow, green and black signs with anti-tax messages. Movie posters for "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "Waiting" and Jim Carrey's new flick, "Fun With Dick and Jane," are hung next to anti-tax posters featuring pictures of burning money and urging patrons to call city leaders to complain. Inside, petition cards and business cards listing city leaders' e-mail addresses line the counter next to the cash registers.
And it's hard to miss the red phones.
The bank of numberless telephones sits on two tables in the lobby. All one has to do is pick up a red receiver. The phone automatically dials the city manager's office, sort of like the Batphone that Commissioner Gordon used for emergencies.
How effective the strategy is, however, remains to be seen.
"A majority of calls we got were prank calls," said Brandi Galloway, who works in the clerk's office at City Hall and has been answering calls from the auto-dial phones. "Usually they just say something crazy and hang up."
To the Regal Cinema managers, the campaign is no joke. They fear that the tax, which went into effect July 1, will drive customers away. The cinema's managers raised ticket prices by 50 cents July 29, the same day that they began their aggressive campaign against the tax.
"We think the tax is unfair," said Dick Westerling, a spokesman at Regal Cinemas' corporate office in Knoxville, Tenn. "We currently pay real estate taxes, property taxes, food and beverage taxes and employment taxes. It's not a situation where we don't support the community, we just don't want movie theaters to be unfairly singled out."
The company has even created a Web site where moviegoers can learn how to contact city officials and make their views known, at www.repealthemovietax.com.
Alexandria city officials have been considering an entertainment tax for years. The state of Virginia has long allowed local governments to levy such a tax, and 22 other jurisdictions, primarily in the Tidewater and Norfolk areas, already have them.
What finally forced a decision, explained city officials, were soaring real estate values, which in turn meant higher tax bills for property owners. In one of the most contentious budget cycles in recent memory, City Council members voted to cut the property tax rate to give relief to homeowners. The council approved a budget that increased spending by 8.1 percent while cutting the property tax rate to 91.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. And to create new revenue streams, the council approved new taxes on cellular telephone use, a 20-cent-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax and a 50-cent tax on admissions to movies and other entertainment events.
The entertainment tax, which will bring the city an estimated $1.3 million this fiscal year, is aimed primarily at the three movie theaters in the city, the Regal Potomac Yard, the AMC Hoffman Center 22 and the Old Town Theater, which bring in large numbers of patrons from outside the city.
"The concept behind the tax was, if you could target the tax primarily at movies, you would be primarily targeting people who live outside the city and come in and use city resources and roads," said City Council member Rob Krupicka (D), who voted against the tax in a 4 to 3 vote last spring. "It was a way to support the city and also take pressure off homeowners."
Krupicka said he opposed the tax for three reasons: it was too high, it would unduly burden family moviegoers and it was unnecessary. "I just wasn't convinced that there weren't other opportunities for us to raise revenue or curtail spending," he said.
Krupicka said he knew some businesses were unhappy with the tax, especially smaller ones such as those that give ghost tours in Old Town. But he said angry calls and e-mails have primarily come from people who live outside the city.
At the Regal theaters Tuesday afternoon, a young man named Jason, who refused to give his last name, was busy scribbling on paper by the red phones.
But he wasn't signing the anti-tax petition -- he said he didn't want to get involved. Instead, the Arlington resident was applying for a Regal card to get discounts on movies and popcorn before catching the 4:55 showing of "Red Eye."
Would the tax stop him from coming to the movies in Alexandria?
"Nah. I mean, it's only 50 cents," he said, concentrating on his application. "Now, if it were something like five dollars, then I'd be mad."