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For films that are really underground
The building at 2301 M Street does not look like a haven for culture. It’s big, gray, and industrial looking, and flanked by two equally bland office buildings. But if you venture past the United Bank branch and Panera-style breakfast-and-coffee place it houses, and head down a set of concrete stairs to the sub-sidewalk level, you’ll stumble upon a temple to the art of motion picture: the West End Cinema.
Just a few weeks ago, this space hiding beneath the sidewalk was little more than a crypt for the small D.C. multiplexes of yesteryear. It used to be home to the Inner Circle Theater, an independent film cinema owned by the local Circle Theater chain. After a series of buy-outs, the theater was gobbled up by AMC and subsequently shut down in 2003. But it remained untouched. Behind its boarded-up windows, its projection rooms and concession stand lay dormant for seven years, waiting for a revival. On Oct. 29, the staff of the West End Cinema fired up the projectors and got the Stella Artois tap flowing for the grand opening of the only independent and art house theater in this cinematically-challenged corner of the District.
“The Washington I grew up in had four movie theaters in Georgetown and three movie theaters in DuPont Circle, and they’re all gone,” Josh Lavin, a film producer for Gallant Films and one of West End’s managers, said. “There is a huge need in Washington for a small, responsive, art house theater.”
Although there’s no marquee on the concrete outside, on the inside, West End looks like an actual, somewhat old-timey movie theater. The lobby is clean and simple, free from the obnoxious lights and giant movie posters of larger multiplexes. After buying a ticket, normally $11 but $8 for students, the concession stand is the next stop. The stand has your typical offering of candy and popcorn, but also boasts a fridge full of sandwiches and baked desserts. For those who don’t think it right to see Howl without a glass of whiskey in hand, there is a small but serviceable bar behind the counter.
Past the popcorn-stand-cum-watering-hole lie the small, cozy screening rooms where West End lives up to its self-proclaimed “art house, off-the-beaten-path” credentials. A team of movie-loving bookers and programmers selects the films screened there, which rotate weekly according to the audiences’ responses. The movies are of the type you find at E Street Cinema—a lot of foreign, documentary, and indie films. What sets West End apart from its larger downtown competitor, however, is its focus on personalizing the relationship between audience and film.
“It is a definite emphasis of the West End Cinema to have directors, producers, and experts come and talk after we show their films,” Lavin said.
Indeed, in the week-and-a-half it has been open, the cinema has already hosted numerous directors and producers, including Frederick Wiseman, creator of Boxing Gym, and Alex Gibney, the acclaimed director of the documentary about former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Client 9.
That’s not to say that the opening of West End has been without its kinks. During a special screening of Client 9, the film inexplicably started up twice without any sound.
“This is an experimental film,” Gibney joked as the staff addressed the technical difficulty.
At Loews, a glitch like that would be frustrating. But when you’re sitting in a tiny theater, baklava in hand, arm’s length from the movie’s director, it is just a part of the art house charm that you came for.