When the folks from ArcLight Cinemas talk about the new Bethesda branch of their boutique movie theater chain, the one word they all use, over and over again, is "journey." And no, it's not a reference to the 25 miles I put on my car getting to and from a sneak preview at the Westfield Montgomery shopping mall, where a 16-screen outpost of the California chain will open Nov. 5. (An unofficial, "soft" opening kicks things off Thursday night with a screening of the new Keanu Reeves action thriller "John Wick." A Q&A with the star, live-streamed from Hollywood, will follow the screening. Only six screens will be operational during the run-up to the Nov. 5 grand opening.)
The allusion to travel is intentional, and ties in with the physical design of the Bethesda space. Step inside the theater on the upper level of the mall, which has also been undergoing a major face-lift recently, and you might think you're in a train station. An overhead departure board, resembling one you might see at an Amtrak station, announces film offerings and showtimes. Off to the side is an upscale cafe and bar, like the ones that an air traveler might kill time at between flights. The menu is light, offering such dishes as pizzas, wings and salads, along with beer, wine, cocktails and other non-alcoholic fare. At the concession stand, you'll find more traditional snacks, along with baguette sandwiches, artisanal chocolate bars from Glarus Chocolatier of Maryland, and the theater's signature caramel corn.
One thing you won't see: a ticket window. ArcLight's all-reserved seating is sold online, or at kiosks in the theater lobby. Adult admission is $13.75 ($11.75 for matinees, with an upcharge for 3D screenings, and discounts for children and seniors). Theater memberships are also available, offering discounts and access to special events. Normally available for a $15 annual fee, these memberships will be offered free to new Bethesda customers on a six-month trial basis.
The thematic notion of a voyage continues all the way to the screen, where conductor-like greeters (note: not ushers) will help you find your numbered seat and announce the film's running time and whether it will be followed by one of ArcLight's "Wait and See" featurettes (in-house videos incorporating film clips and exclusive interviews with actors and directors). The focus on the screen — the site of your metaphorical trip — is meant to be enhanced by each theater's minimalist black-box decor and ad-free preview policy. Trailers for upcoming films are restricted to three previews per screening, so that your flight of the imagination won't be unduly delayed. Theater sizes range from 85 to 295 seats, with the largest screen at 45 feet tall and 65 feet wide. The Atmos Dolby 360-degree surround-sound system — touted as state of the art — actually sounded quite impressive at a preview screening, even to this critic's jaded ears.
The ArcLight is the first branch of the chain to open outside California, where its parent company, Pacific Theatres, opened its flagship Hollywood theater in 2002. A Chicago branch is planned to open late next year. The Westfield Montgomery theater joins such other high-concept moviehouses in this region as the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, the Angelika Mosaic and the new iPic, making it now easier — if slightly more expensive — than ever to escape from the workaday world.
ArcLight Cinemas, 7101 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda. www.arclightcinemas.com.