- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

Spring brings with it good news for lovers of independent, foreign and restored classic films in the Washington area.
The Bethesda Row Cinema opens to the public May 3.
"It's going to be great," says Paul Richardson, president and chief executive officer of Landmark Theatres, the national art-house chain behind Bethesda Row Cinema. "Community-wide, moviegoers will now have a much needed and convenient venue for provocative and entertaining art films."
The eight-screen,1,600-seat multiplex at 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, will have its grand opening at 7:30 p.m. May 1 with a special presentation of the Mexican comedy "Y Tu Mama Tambien," directed by Alfonso Cuaron. The director will introduce the film at the event, which is not open to the public.
A private reception will be held at 6 p.m. May 2, and an open house open to the public is set for 9 p.m. Preview screenings and a special screening of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" will be featured.
On May 3, regular screenings will begin with "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "The Cat's Meow," "Enigma," "Nine Queens," "Son of the Bride" and "Some Body."
The opening of Bethesda Row Cinema is receiving mostly a warm welcome from the Washington area's independent film community.
"Obviously, it's competition, but it might offer opportunities, too," says Andrew Mencher, film programmer at Visions Cinema and Bistro Lounge, just north of Dupont Circle in the District. "It just energizes the art film scene altogether."
Mr. Mencher says he expects that Bethesda Row Cinema and Visions will not go head to head because they will focus on different types of independent and foreign films: Visions will be showing the "very small" budget films, while Bethesda will go with bigger budget releases.
However, Mr. Richardson says Bethesda will show a little bit of everything. The theater also will feature an espresso bar and the latest digital sound.
Some critics say small movies should be seen in small, one-screen theaters.
"A new cinema venue is always good but what they are offering is the concrete movie bunker experience," says Eric Sommer, founder and executive director of the Georgetown Independent Film Festival. "It lacks any personality."
Of the advanced technology, Mr. Sommer says, "Why does everything have to be a slave to technology?"
Mr. Richardson, however, says a great deal of thought has gone into the interior design of Bethesda Row Cinema. "We don't have company colors or symbols," he says. "Each of our movie theaters is unique."
While Bethesda Row Cinema is a couple of weeks away from its grand opening, another film theater project, the restoration of Avalon Theater at 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW, has a long road ahead of it. The 80-year-old Avalon closed in March 2001 after Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. pulled out of the lease and took everything in the theater.
The Avalon Theater Project, a local group, is raising funds and working on a business plan to resurrect the theater, which has two screens. The developer of the property, Doug Jemal, has set a June 21 deadline for the business plan and fund raising.
"We're going to have some great theaters in this town, and we hope the Avalon will be one of them," says Bob Zich, chairman of the Avalon Theater Project.
Mr. Richardson says he's confident Bethesda Row Cinema will do well. The reason some other theaters showing independent and foreign films in the Washington area have failed hasn't been for a lack of an audience, he says. Real estate in the District has become so expensive that movie theaters are unable to come up with the rent and keep ticket prices low, Mr. Richardson says.
In the case of Bethesda Row Cinema, Landmark was able to negotiate a deal with the landlord in which the cinema pays less per square footage than other retailers, he says.
As far as getting enough audience interest locally and regionally for the multiplex, Mr. Richardson says he's not worried.
"[The area] looks like the perfect marketplace to go into. You have highly educated people with spendable income. At the same time, the area has substandard movie theaters."
Both landlord and cinema operator hope that Bethesda Row, within walking distance of the Bethesda Metro stop, will draw people from the entire metropolitan area.
"We want it to be a one-stop shopping and entertainment venue," says Chris Weilminster, vice president of anchor leasing at Federal Realty, the landlord.
The project was stalled a couple of years ago, when Landmark's parent company and the subsidiaries filed for Chapter 11 reorganization. Landmark, which has 53 theaters in 12 states, emerged from bankruptcy in May and "picked up the pieces" of the Bethesda Row project, Mr. Richardson says.
A year later, the company's 54th theater is ready to greet the public.

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