FilmFest D.C. Follow-Up: It's the Venues

One night while volunteering for FilmFest D.C. I observed a full house for a showing of The Last Kiss at Pentagon City. While this might not seem noteworthy, let me add that this was a 531-seat theater, substantially larger than those at most FilmFest venues. Earlier in the festival I had seen two other films at Pentagon City, both of which were also near sellouts. Later, I observed people who had bought tickets for a showing of Thirteen Conversations About One Thing being turned away because the screening was oversold. Let me add that this showing was at a 150-seat theater at the Outer Circle.

The message is clear. D.C. area filmgoers want to see FilmFest films and will fill large theaters. But all too often they don't get the chance because all too often they are crammed into small cramped theaters that are unworthy of the festival offerings shown there. And that assumes people can buy a ticket in the first place. The tiny theaters often lead to premature sellouts and many frustrated would-be customers.

As I noted in my last column, FilmFest has improved. Gone are the run-down Tenley and the Foundry, neither of which should have been FilmFest venues in the first place. The D.C. Jewish Community Center and the National Geographic are both solid additions, as is Pentagon City. The same can't be said for the Janus and the Outer Circle. The Janus is not only too small but also too uncomfortable, while the #2 theater at the Outer Circle is smaller than some of the ones at the Foundry.

Sometimes it feels as though FilmFest's priority is showing all the films in D.C. proper, when its priority should be showing them in the best venues possible, be they in D.C., suburban Maryland, or northern Virginia. FilmFest may claim that its primary responsibility is to the District. Fine. Common sense dictates that D.C. filmgoers would be better served by a northern Virginia venue that can hold 400+ than by a D.C. cinema that holds less than 200. That is assuming that the northern Virginia venues are easily accessible by both car and Metro, which is true of the Pentagon City, Courthouse and Ballston cinemas (just to name a few). Common sense would also dictate that screening films at some of these cinemas might also attract northern Virginia filmgoers, without adding a substantial burden to those in the District. (You can probably make the same case for some suburban Maryland venues as well; I focused on northern Virginia cinemas because I'm more familiar with them.)

Now let's say for the sake of argument that FilmFest can't or won't go outside D.C. proper more than it already has. Even that shortsighted philosophy would still leave room for improvement. Admittedly, D.C. is woefully lacking in suitable screening space. Nevertheless, FilmFest has not made full use on what is (or at least should be) available. The 4000 Wisconsin Avenue Cinema has six screens but only provides one for the FilmFest. Loews Cineplex Odeon, which owns the Wisconsin Avenue Cinema, is listed as a FilmFest sponsor; let it step up to the plate. If FilmFest can't get all six of the Wisconsin Avenue screens, why not three or four? This would ease logistical issues and allow more people to see FilmFest offerings in relative comfort. FilmFest must also utilize the Mazza Gallery, which has arguably the most space per theater and the most comfort of any D.C. venue. FilmFest had opening night at Mazza in 2000, but since then has only used it sparingly.

This last paragraph might have sounded a bit naive. After all, FilmFest cannot unilaterally select what venue it uses and how many theaters it controls. FilmFest must work with the companies that control the D.C. area cinemas, primarily Loews Cineplex Odeon. True enough. But devoting more screens to FilmFest would benefit the theater chains as well as the festival. It's common knowledge that cinemas make money primarily through concessions (popcorn, soda, candy, etc.), not ticket sales. April is not a peak month for filmgoing, as most studios wait until at least May to release big blockbusters. FilmFest offerings often pack theaters, and at the very least these films are more likely to attract big crowds than April Hollywood fare. This means much more people buying concessions. So even though Loews Cineplex Odeon and other theater chains would not get a dime from ticket sales, they would still make plenty of money. Everybody wins.

When I reflect on the Toronto International Film Festival, I remember fondly not only the films, but the city's total commitment. Most of Toronto's major cinemas participated in the festival, and gave over all of their theaters. Now I realize that FilmFest DC is not playing at Toronto's level, and I'm not foolish enough to expect it to try right now. But FilmFest can and must grow. I've been involved with FilmFest as both a customer and a volunteer, and am grateful for the many wonderful films it has shown. That's why I so fiercely want the festival to move forward. Substantially improving the venue quality, either by partially moving into Virginia and Maryland, or by making better use of D.C. resources, would enable more people to enjoy what FilmFest has to offer. It would also send a powerful message; that FilmFest DC is a viable showcase for the best in world cinema. Who knows what might be possible -- Exclusive premieres? More appearances by the films' directors? Media coverage beyond D.C.? It's fun to dream, but now it's time to take the next step.

Adam Spector
May 3, 2002

A reader responds:

This Film Society member appreciated your critique of Washington movie theaters in your latest Adam's Rib column. My strong feelings about this issue reached a boiling point upon visiting the splendid new art house theater in Bethesda last weekend. As delighted as I was to discover such a palace for independent and foreign film, it bothered me having to go to the suburbs for that elusive privilege. And it reminded me the extent to which the multinational Loews chain has used its virtual stranglehold on the District theater market not to invest in Washington, but to close everything from the venerable Avalon to the quirky but useful second run Foundry, all while shoehorning frustrated moviegoers of the self proclaimed capital of the free world into overglorified water closets like the dismal Dupont Circle 5 and terminally awkward Janus. Here's hoping for a brighter future for film WITHIN Washington...


Joe Schwartz

Joe, thank you for the feedback. You make some strong and valid points about the destructive role of Loews Cineplex Odeon. Rather than build new theaters, they buy up all the existing ones, and close them in times of trouble. Loews Cineplex Odeon also completely stripped the Avalon, making it more difficult for anyone else to reopen the theater in the future. Most of the theaters opened recently have been by other companies, such as AMC and Hoyts. Also all of the these new theaters have opened in Maryland or Virginia, not D.C.

In fact, many D.C. neighborhoods have no theaters at all. Rumors abound about new cinemas - a 14-screen theater in Georgetown, a new multiplex in Chinatown, a Magic Johnson theater in Southeast D.C., but there's nothing substantial. As you wrote, we can only hope for the future.

Adam Spector
May 14, 2002

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