It was the hippest wake in Washington.
Kegs were wheeled in from the back room, bodies were pressed four deep against the bar, regulars spilled outside to Florida Avenue. Visions - the independently-owned movie theater where everybody knows your name - was dead, and hundreds of people came to pay their respects last Sunday.
“I wish all these people came out over the last four years,” said Liz Matheos, taking a drag on her cigarette outside Visions as dance music pumped inside.
Matheos, operations manager for the theater since it opened in 2000, was taking a break from bartending. Behind her, the glowing marquee read “Now Showing: FINAL FAREWELL PARTY.” The clientele for which Visions had always thirsted was overrunning the place. Too late.
Visions, equal parts art house and restaurant/bar, showed its last movie Sept. 23 and sold its last beer the Sunday after. Its simple, short story might make for a good movie: The theater that revived independent cinema exhibition in D.C. was closing because the market it created got too competitive. It leaves the Avalon on Connecticut Avenue as the only independently-owned movie house in the District.
Visions’ president and founder Andrew Frank - tall, wiry, wearing a suit for the occasion - mingled with friends and patrons, reminiscing about the theater that bridged the Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan and Kalorama neighborhoods.
“Visions was a place to go to, it wasn’t just a place to pass through,” said Frank, citing the theater’s programming efforts and nightspot destination. “The artistic ambition was to get people to come and deconstruct movies, not just watch them.”
Frank said he has received hundreds of letters and e-mails expressing gratitude for Visions’ abbreviated contribution to Washington’s arts scene. The abbreviation was caused by fierce competition with multiplexes.
“It was really the Landmark chain putting us out of business,” said Frank, confirming that the reason for closing was “100 percent financial.” “We’re going out and it’s sad, but we know people liked what we did.”
Small fish in a big pond
Visions opened as the grand, stalwart independent theaters of D.C. were dropping like flies. The MacArthur Theater on MacArthur Boulevard and the Key Theatre in Georgetown closed in 1997, and the Biograph downtown closed in 1996. For a period in the ‘90s, D.C.‘s movie scene was more mainstream than art house.
“That was a period in D.C. when indie movies didn’t have a home here,” said Matt Cowal, marketing manager for Landmark, via e-mail. “If anything, the issue now is that there are more theatres trying to show this kind of film than there are big-business indie films to go around.”
This first became evident to Frank in May 2002, two months after the Foundry in Georgetown closed and soon after Landmark’s Bethesda Row opened. Many films that opened exclusively at Visions were not reviewed by The Washington Post, and while the bar did good business, Frank and company did not have the advertising funds to tout their movies.
Then, the opening of large chain theaters showing indie films resounded like death knells. Georgetown Loews in November 2002. AFI Silver Theatre in April 2003. Then E Street Cinema last January, bringing Landmark’s clout into the downtown pond. Suddenly it was big fish versus small fish.
“If you’re talking to somebody who books Visions, who has two screens on the planet, and you’re talking to the guys at Landmark, who can put your picture in hundreds and hundreds of screens across the country, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Bob Mondello, film critic for National Public Radio. “So the small guys are just getting squeezed out.”
Mondello, who used to work in advertising for the Roth theaters in the suburbs and the Key in Georgetown, said that while the big leaguers-Landmark, AFI Silver and Loews-do cater to the art-house crowd, Visions showed the more obscure fare, from little-known Iranian movies, to documentaries off the radar screen, to work by local filmmakers. It was also a meeting place for the neighborhood, a feature some people believe can’t be duplicated by chains.
“You’re going to get a corporate mentality about independent film,” Mondello said of the dwindling of independent theaters and rise of chains. “I hope something else springs up.”
The corporate mentality might be what is drawing people to places like Landmark, though.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that people opt to see things at Bethesda Row or E Street, which are better maintained theatres with big screens and comfy seats showing the same kind of movies,” Cowal said.
And Mondello said there are positives to the proliferation of theaters like Landmark. Because chain theaters have more screens, they are able to show movies for a longer period of time than small theaters.
“If a movie went to Visions, and they got a new picture, they had to dump it,” Mondello said. “We’ll likely get more movies faster.”
Left alone in the ring against muscled heavyweights, the Avalon Theatre is sprinting to keep up with this faster pace. The oldest operating theater in Washington, the Avalon is now the only operating independently-owned theater.
Close to the Maryland border in Chevy Chase, the Avalon opened in 1923 and underwent many changes in management until it was bought by Cineplex Odeon in 1988. In 2001, Cineplex Odeon filed for bankruptcy and closed the Avalon, stripping the seats and projection equipment. The community responded by organizing the Avalon Theatre Project, a nonprofit dedicated to saving, refurbishing and reopening the neighborhood landmark. In April 2003, the theater reopened and has remained so since, despite Visions’ gradual decline.
“We all regret the passing of Visions,” said Joanne Zich, a coordinator of the Avalon’s fund-raising campaign and wife of Bob Zich, the outgoing chair of the Avalon Theatre Project’s board of directors. “Andrew Frank filled a very special niche.”
Zich said that the Avalon goes through dry periods, and high rent and having only two screens necessitates constant fund-raising. Though the theater boasts of its programming and enjoyed an encouraging run of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” it’s an uphill battle.
“We are struggling to get some films, and our competition has been more with the Landmark chain,” Zich said. “But we’ve always felt there was room for both of us.”
In the face of financial frustrations, the funeral raged on.
In one of the theaters, Visions staff auctioned off pieces of the decor and building to cover the staff’s final payroll. People reminisced about the first time they saw “Donnie Darko” at Visions’ regular midnight screenings.
A young woman sidled up to Andrew Frank, introduced herself as Scheherazade Folley and asked shyly, “Can I give you a hug?” Originally from D.C., Folley drove up from Richmond because she needed “closure,” she explained without a hint of sarcasm.
Others were more broken up about the bar closing than the theater.
“I think this bar had a really great atmosphere,” said regular Neal McClung. “It felt like a lot of bars in D.C. were getting real elitist. And this bar is really one for the community.”
The close-knit staff was upset, according to Visions employee Deysha Rivera, who described the closing as a family breaking apart. And Frank went through a range of emotions himself before reality settled in. Now, he waxes philosophical.
“There’s a hopeful note,” Frank said. “We did raise the bar. Hopefully one of our competitors will pick up the slack. But where they won’t pick up the slack is having this unique nightspot.”
But the bitterness of Visions closing is tempered by the sweetness of its legacy.
“People will continue seeing independent movies,” Matheos said. “I think we kind of started it all.”