We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck
Over the next few years, Washington, D.C. will get 40 new movie theater screens, nearly doubling the city’s current number. It’s a renaissance that developers say is a response to the district’s shifting population, and residents say fills gaping holes left by key closures at venues like Union Station. We look at the movie theater resurgence, find out what moviegoers can expect from the new venues and explore how the theaters will impact their surrounding neighborhoods.
- Steve Boyle Managing Director, Edens
- Aaron Wiener Staff Writer, Author of the "Housing Complex" blog, Washington City Paper
- Anthony Gittens Founder and Festival Director, Filmfest DC
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Seeing a movie in Washington used to be easy. Theaters with grand names like The Avalon, The Embassy and the DuPont dotted the landscape from Tenleytown to Union Station. But as Washington's population shifted, so did the theaters. And a wave of consolidation meant movie goers shuffled into multiplexes rather than their neighborhood cinema.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKBut the theater boom is back. Over the next few years, movie screens in the district are set to double with new theaters coming to neighborhoods once thought unmarketable and even uninhabitable. The resurgent means that residents who once traveled to Chinatown, Georgetown or Bethesda to catch the latest Bond flick could go to the Waterfront or near Union Station for date night.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKSo what holes did the theater renaissance fill and what holes remain? And what can movie goers expect from these new venues? Joining us to discuss this are Tony Gittens, founder and director of Filmfest D.C. Thanks for being with us.
MR. ANTHONY GITTENSHow are you, Jen?
GOLBECKVery good. Aaron Wiener, staff writer and author of the Housing Complex blog at the Washington City Paper. Good to have you.
MR. AARON WIENERThanks for having me, Jen.
GOLBECKAnd Steve Boyle, managing director at Edens which is a retail real estate developer. Thanks for being here.
MR. STEVE BOYLEIt's a mouthful.
GOLBECKIt is. Glad to have you. Aaron, can you give us a kind of visual picture of where D.C.'s current movie theaters are and how that's going to change over the next few years?
WIENERSure. So right now basically there's kind of an L shape that stretches down from upper northwest D.C. kind of up Friendship Heights down through Georgetown and then into downtown. And that's basically where all the movie theaters are. We've got 49 screens by my count right now not including the Smithsonian and the various cultural centers around town that do screenings sometimes. And that's about to almost double. We're going to get another 40 screens coming in with new movie theaters in areas that, like you said, are not places that people would've necessarily considered likely candidates just a few years ago.
WIENERSo we're talking about NoMa, Capital River Front. Those are actually both neighborhoods that didn't even have those names a few years ago. And then also right off U Street, four new theaters coming in with a total of 40 screens.
GOLBECKSo that's filling some holes. But what holes are left after those new theaters come in?
WIENERI mean, the obvious hole is obviously, you know, east of the Anacostia River. There are no movie theaters there right now and no plans for them. And that is -- you know, it's unfortunate but it also does fit with the pattern. And the whole neighborhood is just kind of underserved by retail generally because developers don't necessarily see it as a place that has a lot of disposable income. And also -- not just east of the river but also parts of northeast D.C. west of the river too that are a little farther flung from the center.
GOLBECKYou too can join the conversation. Where does the district really need movie theaters? Do you have a convenient place to go to the movies or do you have to travel out of your neighborhood to see a film? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. Tony, in the age of Netflix, VUDU and Hulu, did this urban movie theater boom take you by surprise?
GITTENSNo, not at all. Movies -- people love to go to the movies. It's a very inexpensive date. For $13 or so you can go and catch a really good flick and maybe pick up some popcorn and dinner. So it's inexpensive. And movies have come a long way. Now to go to a movie theater you get the best digital projection, you get the stadium seating, you get restaurants that are incorporated into the movie theater. So people just love to go. Plus movies -- it was a great year last year for movies and they're just going to continue to get better.
GOLBECKSo the quality of films is actually something that's driving the demand for more theaters?
GITTENSAbsolutely, and the fact of who these people are that these new theaters plan to cater to. They're what are called the creative economy folks. They're the creative class, young people moving in. They're still dating, they're still developing their home lives and they want to go out and mingle and social network. And movies provide that opportunity.
GOLBECKSteve, your company Edens has already developed theater complexes in the D.C. metro area. And now you're planning an eight-screen theater at Union Market. Before we talk about the site, tell us why Edens and other developers feel D.C. is right for this kind of expansion.
BOYLEWell, D.C. is going through its own population explosion. Tony mentioned the creative class. We've studied that quite a bit here. And in looking at doing a development that has a theater in it, we really took a step back and evaluate the existing demographics, where they're going. And from our perspective, theaters provide a wonderful, fundamental community draw. And if you can get people's time then everything else can be successful around it.
GOLBECKEdens developed Union Market in northeast Washington out of a rundown wholesaling district. It's not a beautiful food hub, though a lot of people would still call the neighborhood up and coming. What are your plans for the theater at Union Market and what amenities will it have?
BOYLEWell, it will be state of the art, the best in class theater, probably one of the best in the country. We've already been told by Angelica that it will supersede in terms of bells and whistles what we've done out in Fairfax. So the theater-going public in D.C. can expect a movie theater experience unlike any other they've been to.
GOLBECKLandmark Theaters plans to open a ten-screen theater close by in NoMa, which is the neighborhood behind Union Station. Like the Angelica, your project, Landmark is also known for its art offerings. Is there any worry about over-saturating the market in this neighborhood?
BOYLEWell, in our minds, you know, think about that from a consumer perspective, an oversaturation in terms of how many theaters we're underserved right now. So I think D.C.'s catching up to a preexisting demand that's been in place for a while. So from that standpoint I don't think of oversaturation as a concern. But what I think is a more important topic of discussion is how the film gets into these theaters because there's a way film gets distributed that to me feels a bit archaic. And at the end of the day both theaters should have the ability to show whatever film they want. And the public should make the decision as to which theater they want to go to.
GOLBECKAaron, oh sorry. Go ahead, Tony.
GITTENSYeah, I was just going to just make a little distinction here that Angelica shows a lot of first run, in other words things out of studios in Hollywood. Landmark shows what is called art foreign films with subtitles and American independent films. So the market that they're catering to are quite different.
GOLBECKAaron, want to interject...
BOYLELet me just interject one quick thing. Angelica is known as an art house with a premier art house in the country. So the diversification of their offerings from a first run to an art house boutique perspective, it runs the gamut.
GOLBECKSo can you give us some ideas of what are some kinds of movies in Angelica now, what are some kinds of things that you would call more art house? Can you give us some examples of a film that might appear in one place and not another?
GITTENSI'd have to think about it because I haven't looked -- but at Landmark you would not be surprised to go in and find a French film with English subtitles or a film from Italy or Poland with English subtitles. That might have a run for a week, maybe two weeks, hopefully longer. But they -- you will not find Batman. You will not find Superman. You will not find those films there. You won't find 3D there.
WIENERI will say though that the Landmark Theaters are planning for kind of their own internal diversification. I was talking to the Landmark CEO recently and he said that, you know, while the E Street theater is known for its foreign films and it's kind of more arty films, the NoMa Theater that they're planning, the one that's going to be really close to Steve's project is going to be a little bit more mainstream. So you might see films like American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street kings of films that might be technically considered independent but are kind of big mainstream films.
WIENERAnd so he actually was telling me that he's a little concerned that there might be some oversaturation just being kind of right next to the Angelica one. We're just going to have a similar sort of market, although there might not be an oversaturation in the city overall.
GOLBECKSo there really is a continuum here of these foreign films that are subtitled that kind of reach a small market to these independent films that you may actually see at some multiplexes to things like Batman, which are real blockbusters. And hopefully we'll have access to all of those things as these theaters start opening?
GOLBECKLet's take a caller. We have Michael calling from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead.
MICHAELThanks. I was going to ask about, you know, what changed in the business model? I actually -- I lived in D.C. many years ago and remember all those small theaters. And I'm curious now why the -- how the business model can be changing so that this kind of thing will work in the metropolitan area. My second question is not related to the district but my own area. I live near Winchester and we've got two of these big multi-screen kind of things. And they all show the same movies. And it's just kind of frustrating. The distribution seems to be very bizarre and doesn't -- I guess the economy doesn't allow it to show, you know, a variety of films. But I was curious if your guests had any comment about that. Thank you.
GOLBECKSo I'd like all of you to comment on this but, Steve, maybe we can start with you just talking about the business model and why you think this is a viable project for your company.
BOYLESure. From a business model perspective, the theaters, as Tony mentioned at the outset, have evolved their presentations where they're incorporated gourmet food and beverage, whether it's red wine, white wine, full bar service, recliners that are as comfortable as any in your own bedroom. So they can not only capture the movie theater ticket and the popcorn, but they can take it a step further and maybe capture a little bit more from the food side or a cocktail or two.
BOYLESecondly, going back to the existing models that have been in place, what you're seeing now is the theaters are actually producing less seats in the newer formats because the per-seat revenue has gone up because of these other offerings. So the evolving business of the theaters is always, like retail, going to continue to reinvent itself in order to make sure that for the public there's always something new to offer.
GOLBECKSo, Aaron, your thoughts either on the business model or on some of the duplication that we see in theaters, like Michael raised.
WIENERSure. If I can just go briefly kind of into the history.
WIENERAnd basically, you know, D.C. -- the Washington post actually had a great story recently by Jonathan O'Connell that went through some of this history. In the early 1900s there were 55 theaters that opened in D.C. -- movie theaters in the silent era. Then there was kind of another boom in the talkie era of the late 1920s. And, you know, what we started to see was a move toward these big suburban multiplexes at the same time that the population was kind of doing the same and fleeing the city and going to the suburbs.
WIENERAnd so I think what you're seeing now in the city is kind of a reflection of, you know, the changing ideas of what a city is and should do. And there is this idea of urban concentration of diversity, the frustrations that our caller has about all these multiplexes showing the same thing. I think you are seeing that the new theaters coming to D.C. really focusing on kind of, you know, a more urban movie experience where you get -- it caters a little bit more to your needs. You get the dining experience, you get the comfort experience. And it's not just about packing as many people into the seats as possible.
GOLBECKYeah, so Aaron just gave us a little bit of history. Tony, can you talk a little bit more, because I think a lot of Washingtonians remember some of the smaller theaters and art houses and places like DuPont Circle and Georgetown. Can you talk a little bit about the contraction and then the expansion we're seeing now?
GITTENSYeah, the -- to follow up on the history comment, that around in the '50s up until around the late '60s, going to the movies in Washington was pretty much a segregated kind of experience. The films would open downtown at theaters there and then they would wind up on U Street at theaters like the Lincoln, the Booker T or the Republic. It was towards the late '60s, early '70s when the race riots began to drive people out of downtown and into the suburbs that you began to see the establishment of these multiplexes, primarily in shopping malls.
GITTENSBecause folks out there did not want to come downtown to see films. So the movie companies opened up theaters there. Now there are some companies that did stay in the district. Primarily Ted and Jim Pettus started the Circle Releasing Company. And that's a whole story unto itself. And they're great, great people. They're a great family. They own the Circle Theaters (word?) theaters downtown along U Street and Wisconsin Avenue. They eventually sold out to a company -- Cineplex Odeon in Canada. And then there was decay along the way.
GITTENSBut the folks who own these movie theaters, the Pettuses, David Levy who owned the Key, Alan Rubin who owned the Biograph, the KB Theaters were owned by a local -- they were all local guys. There were movie guys. They lived here. They sent their kids to school here. You would see them on the street. You could meet with them. Once those theaters began to decay for all kinds of reasons, then you begin to see AMC and Regal and folks coming in and you begin to see the shift.
GITTENSJust one last comment on this, that the -- what's happening now, the folks that you see, the young people coming into the district, a lot of those folks are the sons and daughters of the people who fled the district in the '80s. They don't want to live in the suburbs. Suburbs can be very boring, so they want to move here and they provide this audience for this new influx of movie theaters that are coming in.
GOLBECKYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about movie theaters in the district in a moment. Stay with us.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Tony Gittens, Aaron Wiener and Steve Boyle about D.C.'s movie theater boom. If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. We have a lot of emails and calls coming in about this. And so I'd like to start with some of those. For Steve, we have an email from Andy, in Fairfax, who says, "Will the Edens development at Union Market take the deaf community nearby into account? I'd imagine you'd get a big crowd from Gallaudet University excited about going to the movies."
BOYLEWithout question. It's a major topic of conversation and the folks at Angelika are really excited to address the needs of the Gallaudet community. We already, at our existing market at Union Market, have many folks from the deaf community either working there or patronizing the market. And so it's an interesting and unique aspect of this particular area that we have embraced. And we really look forward to partnering with Gallaudet going forward.
GOLBECKAaron, the bustling U Street area will be benefitting from this theater boom with another landmark installation. What will this development look like?
WIENERWell, the theater that's coming there is actually going into the old Atlantic Plumbing building, which is being built up by the developer JBG. And it's going to be one of the kind of more interesting buildings coming to D.C. It's an architect who's done a lot of work in New York, who's opening this up with a lot of recycled materials. So it's kind of a funky, local vibe that they're going for there. But the movie theater, I think, is also trying to take advantage of the booming nightlife in the U Street area, with the idea that people come out there for dinner, go to a movie, go out to a bar or a concert or whatever afterwards and take advantage of the full cycle of that.
WIENERAnd I think you're seeing that as well in places like Capitol Riverfront, where there's a similar restaurant boom kind of trying to integrate the experience and make it so that people can have multiple destinations in one trip.
GOLBECKWe have an email from Matt, who says, "Is an Indy mainstream blend possible? As a D.C. cynophile still mourning the Outer Circle and barely stomaching the West End, I remember finding solace in the claims made by some larger theaters moving in, that they thought they would combine independent/low budget films. That didn't quite pan out. Will these new theaters go down the landmark route or the "Iron Man 8" route? Is it actually possible to maintain a mix of Hollywood blockbusters and flicks like "The Past" or "Nebraska" or is it not economically viable?" Tony, I'll take your thoughts first.
GITTENSYeah, I think that the point that a lot of folks around the table have been making is that these new theaters coming in do provide an incredible diversity and a number of options for people who want to go to movies. I do think that there will be room for art as well as the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
GOLBECKAnd we have a call from Tazmin (sic) on a similar point, from White Post, Va. Tazmin, you're on the air. Go ahead.
TAMZINTamzin, that's all right.
TAMZINNo problem. I just wanted to respond and let people know -- and I think his name was Michael, who said he lived near Winchester -- that we have a very vibrant film club. Film Club 3.0 can be found on Facebook, administrated by Andy Gyurisin. And at our local multiplex, Alamo, we are seeing -- last night I saw "Blue is the Warmest Color" for $5. And we are getting independent films. We saw "Francis Ha." We saw "American Hustle" before it was mass distributed. We just saw "City Lights," a Charlie Chaplin film. So it's a wonderful thing and they're working hard to bring that stuff here and it needs support.
GOLBECKThanks for your all Tamzin. So, Tony, this sort of goes along with your last answer. Here we have the idea of movie clubs and independent films coming to multiplexes. It sounds like it's working. Is that a trend you're seeing?
GITTENSYes, it's a trend. Not everyone wants to go to see "Batman 12." And there are folks who do want to go see independent films and more quality, interesting, thought-provoking kinds of cinema. And this also leads me into the importance of film festivals that the commercial folks do a great wonderful job, that special kind of art film that might not have a huge audience that is filled by projects like the person that just called, as well as all of the film festivals in Washington. Washington is rich with film festivals.
GOLBECKAbsolutely. We have Bruce on the line, from Washington. Bruce, you're on the air. Go ahead.
BRUCEI'm hearing an emphasis on quantity and the very important issue of where the new films are. And although we've been talking about quality, to a very limited extent, in terms of independent films, what really bothers me -- and of course this was mentioned -- was we don't have the Circle. We don't have the Biograph where we had some American, but what about the really best films of the European directors, the Bergmans, the Bertolucci, the Vunwell (sp?), the Tufos (sp?), the Kieslowski? There's no theater that's showing them. So the quality may be increasing in small increments, but young people don't know these films.
BRUCEThis is the equivalent of going to an art museum to seeing something that has really passed the test of time, rather than going to see art at someone's local gallery or at a studio that hasn't really made it. Why aren't we into the classics that have so much more depth than 90 percent of the films that we're seeing that are primarily entertaining?
GOLBECKFirst, thanks for your call. You'll be pleased to know that I know those movies that you brought up and I am a relatively young person. But I'll let Tony comment first on some of the specifics and then turn to Aaron about the bigger idea of these kind of theaters.
GITTENSWell, I think the classics are available at screening opportunities like the American Film Institute, in Silver Spring. I mean they show a lot of the classics that Bruce mentioned. They're also available -- they're so available via the internet and Netflix and such. Then also the National Gallery of Art. For the up and coming classics, the modern classics, look to film festivals for that. I mean that's what we do. We search the globe for the best of the art films. And your film festivals are not in it to make money. We're not in it to meet a bottom line. We do want to break even, but our job and our devotional commitment is around the quality and the art of film itself.
GOLBECKAaron, I'll turn to you. I live in Silver Spring and love going to AFI. Being able to walk there was part of my housing choice. So that really gives us these options for some of these really classic films. Also independent films of varying levels, lots of film festivals coming in there with short -- you see this kind of demand and also Washingtonians not being able to see those films and not necessarily forsaking one theater because it's showing at another.
WIENERSure. I mean I think when the developers who are bringing these movie theaters into town are looking at their options. They are looking at it kind of on a basis of not necessarily looking at the whole city at one time, but looking neighborhood by neighborhood and saying, you know, Capitol Hill is not served by a movie theater right now, since the Union Station theater closed, and so down in the Capitol Riverfront area they're actually bringing in the biggest cinema we'll have in town, a 16 screen multiplex.
WIENERAnd that'll be serving one kind of audience, but off of U Street, the V Street Theater, it is on the Green Line, relatively close to the big multiplex in Gallery Place, for example. And so it's serving a different kind of audience who might want a little bit more choice in independent film.
GOLBECKAnd you mentioned Capitol Hill. We have Carol on the line, from Washington. Carol, you're on the air, go ahead.
CAROLOh, yes. I am resident of Capitol Hill and I left the country for a few years. When I came back I was really surprised to see that the cinema at Union Station had disappeared. And Capitol Hill is moving along nicely with new activities on H Street, on 8th Street and I'm just wondering when is a cinema coming back to this neighborhood?
GOLBECKThanks for the call, Carol. Aaron, go ahead.
WIENERYou know, different people look at neighborhoods in different ways, but the developers of both the Capitol Riverfront and the NoMa theaters are very much looking at them as theaters that are going to serve Capitol Hill. They're not maybe directly in the heart of the Hill, but for most folks they're a short trip or even a walk away from home. So I do think that this is very much being perceived as a way to serve people just like you.
BOYLEYeah, without question. I would say that the Angelika Film Center at Union Market is easily accessible to the Capitol Hill crowd. It's certainly within a five-minute walk of the Red Line at the new Gallaudet Metro, for folks just like you that moved to places for entertainment-related reasons.
GOLBECKAbsolutely. Aaron, talking about the good old days, which have come up a lot, it makes me wonder if you've heard of any plans about reviving some of the old movie houses that our callers and Tony have mentioned?
WIENERThat's a good question. I mean I live in Columbia Heights where I pass by the Tivoli Theater every day, an old theater. And it is now a Z-Burger and it does seem like kind of a shame sometimes.
WIENERAnd you see this in other places, right? The old Dupont movie theater on Connecticut Avenue is an office building that has a Cosi and CVS there. And so are there plans in the works to revive them immediately? Not that I am aware of, but I think if the trend continues and developers and theater companies see that all these new theaters coming in are successful, we may start to see that.
GITTENSJen, at Union Market we, this past summer, did a drive-in Friday night movie series, where folks could come to Union Market, see the film projected on the side of the building, either picnic out front or get car service from roller girls. And it was a real sort of tap into the history of the theater business. And I think that Angelika, who sponsored the film series, is looking for ways like that to continue to blend the old and the new and really stay at the forefront of that theater-going experience.
GOLBECKSo are there any plans, Steve, to take back some of the old Washington theaters revive them, instead of allowing Z-Burgers or CVS's -- we have an email about a CVS moving in where the Ontario was. Are there plans -- do you know of other people who have plans to revive some of those old theaters?
BOYLEI do not, but I can tell you the way a decision is made and where a film goes has multiple components associated with it. From a developer's perspective, you're trying to build community around that experience, whether it's through the compliment of food and fashion, etcetera. From a theater's perspective there's the film buying distribution rights and finding the right partners in order to make these deals work. And so it's not an easy prospect to build a new theater. These are difficult developments to pull off. And so I think the public will be the beneficiary of this process.
GITTENSI think the closest that one can come to now in Washington, about revitalizing a theater is the Lincoln. The Lincoln is just a beautiful building. Our festival has shown films there and it's a marvelous experience. But it's not going to be a regular movie theater. You can't make it one screen. I mean Steve knows that you can't make it on one screen. And you have to have the latest equipment, you've got to have stadium seating. You're talking about an investment of millions and millions of dollars. Well, you know, Steve has the answers to that one, but I think that's what you're dealing with.
GOLBECKTony, is the movie theater boom good news for Filmfest D.C., which is coming up in April?
GITTENSYeah, I'm glad you asked. Filmfest D.C. will take place April 17th through 27th. Just let me give our website, filmfestdc.org. And yeah, the boom will help us, but, you know, it just means so much and this boom of new film theaters is an indication of how much this city has grown, what a great place it is to be. Movie theater companies they think hard and long before they invest their money into a community. And it shows that, you know, they have a lot of confidence in Washington. As does our organization. You know, we've been doing it for a while. So I think it's just such a wonderful good thing.
GOLBECKI know Filmfest D.C. was having some financial difficulties last year. And you predicted it might not survive, but you're on the calendar for this year. Have you found new sources of funding?
GITTENSWe have taken the sharpest of pencils to our budget and figured out that we can go. We've had some help. But, you know, I've got to say that unless some miracle happens and someone does step up with a substantial amount of money, this will be our last festival. But we want to go forward. You know, we're going to do this and we want to say thank you and to celebrate our almost decades of doing a film festival. So we're going to happen. It's going to take everything we have, but we look forward to it.
GOLBECKHopefully we'll have some partners listening today who see how valuable this is for D.C.
GITTENSThat'd be wonderful.
GOLBECKI have one last email that I that I'd like to get a quick comment from anyone on, from Rachel, in Silver Spring, who says, "I'm pleased to hear about these new theaters, but as an old fogey who regularly took busses from the burbs to the city as a teen in the pre-Metro '70s to see the eclectic film programming around town, it doesn't sound like there will ever again be anything like the old Circle or the Biograph and the Key. AFI in the '90s, when it was at the Kennedy Center, at a much more cinematically diverse and interesting program than it does at the Silver. Oh, well, times change." Tony, do you want to comment?
GITTENSTimes do change and in some cases they get better. I think that the kinds of theaters that Steve is going to build there and Aaron is talking about coming into the District, is going to be a good thing.
GOLBECKI'd like to thank our guests for joining us. We had Tony Gittens, founder and director of Filmfest D.C. Thanks for being here.
GITTENSAlways a pleasure.
GOLBECKAaron Wiener, staff writer and author of "The Housing Complex" blog at the Washington City Paper. Great to talk with you.
WIENERThanks very much.
GOLBECKAnd Steve Boyle, managing director at Eden's, which is a retail real estate developer.
GOLBECKGood to have all of you. I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks very much for listening. Coming up next hour, we'll be talking about doctors in private practice, whether or not that's something that's still manageable for them and how we see them moving in to work with larger hospital systems. We'll have physicians and office managers joining us in the office. So stay tuned for us with that conversation. Talk to you then.
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