Since the American Film Institute lost full control of its longtime venue at the Kennedy Center six years ago, movies have come and gone from the space. In recent years, the AFI National Film Theater has done great box office with Akira Kurosawa films, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and the Latin American Film Fest. But the 31-year-old venue has also been periodically pressed into service for plays, lectures, and comedy performances. The next turnover comes Nov. 1, but this one will be different: This time, the AFI isn’t coming back.
In fact, the National Film Theater will be torn out, beginning in early January. According to Kennedy Center Senior Press Representative Rae Bazzarre, the performing-arts complex will replace the movie house with “a Family Theater as part of its mission to promote arts education.” Bazzarre’s terse, e-mailed reply to a series of questions offered no further details about the new venue or its possible uses.
Fans of the theater have been more forthcoming. “I’m very upset about it,” says Peggy Parsons, who runs the National Gallery of Art’s film program. “The national performing-arts complex was a vital place for the theater to be. I’m very sorry to see it go.”
Max Alvarez, a local cinema historian and lecturer, agrees. “As a filmgoer, I think it’s tragic not to have a film theater at the Kennedy Center,” he says. The decision to banish regular movie programming from the center, he argues, is “a little short-sighted.”
Noncommercial repertory-film programs have expanded dramatically in the city since the AFI began screening in the late ’60s using the National Gallery’s old West Building theater. The Library of Congress, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn, the Goethe-Institut, and the National Gallery’s East Building auditorium, among many others, present such movies regularly. “There’s been a renaissance in film in Washington,” notes Tom van der Voort, a retired Congressional staffer who’s been attending local AFI programs since before the National Film Theater opened. “The Kennedy Center will basically have no foot in the cinematic pond. It seems to me that this is sort of a dumb time to pull out.”
Initially funded by the recently created National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Ford Foundation, the AFI was very much a Washington institution. It once had more than 50 employees working at the Kennedy Center and counted the National Film Theater as just one of its local operations, which also included publication of the now-defunct magazine American Film.
But as the AFI’s sources of funding began to shift to Los Angeles, so did its operations, until only the theater remained here. It has shown both revivals and first-run features, including some without U.S. distributors that were acquired directly from overseas, in addition to several annual festivals. These have included the European Union Showcase, a selection of new films whose 2004 edition will be the venue’s final attraction.
Both Bazzarre and AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center Director Murray Horwitz downplay the significance of the cinema’s closing. “If the Kennedy Center’s going to close the theater, we said, ‘Oh, OK,’” declares Horwitz. “I mean, it’s their building. It’s been a multipurpose space, you might say, for quite a long time. And it’s an old space. If they want to reconfigure it—I don’t think we had any particular reaction to it, beyond ‘Oh. Then we have to do things somewhat differently.’”
The relationship between the AFI and the Kennedy Center “will continue,” Horwitz says. “Exactly where and how it will continue I think is still up in the air. We haven’t gotten any signs that we’re not going to continue doing stuff together.”
The Kennedy Center will reportedly show films as part of larger programs, but it’s not clear that the AFI will play any role in that programming. Bazzarre points out that movies will be included in an upcoming festival, “A New America: The 1940s and the Arts,” and notes that “all Kennedy Center venues have the ability to feature film.”
And the National Film Theater, of course, has had the ability to feature nonfilm events since 1998, when it was retrofitted with a small stage whose installation reduced the number of seats from 224 to 200. “It’s laid out as a film theater,” Horwitz allows. “But in terms of programming, it was used for theater, and I think the education department used it a lot during the day. And it was used sometimes for film.”
Regular patrons of the Kennedy Center venue, however, are less dismissive. “It was my favorite screening venue in Washington,” Parsons says. “The sight lines, the screen size, and the presence the films had was second to none. It had a relatively intimate scale, and yet it was not a tiny venue by any means.”
“If you think about it, it was the first stadium-style movie theater in the metropolitan area,” notes one experienced technician who’s worked in all of the Kennedy Center venues, none of which were designed for screening movies. All are fan-shaped, with plenty of seats located off to the side. At the National Film Theater, there are genuinely no bad seats, and the front-and-center relationship to the screen makes it a spectacular venue for widescreen movies.
Exactly how the Kennedy Center decided to close the National Film Theater is a matter of some speculation. Several former and current AFI employees would speak about the situation only if they weren’t identified by name. Attempts to clarify exactly what happened with Kennedy Center representatives and AFI officials in Los Angeles were met with refusals to comment or suggestions that information might be provided after press time.
In 1998, after the AFI’s annual grants from the NEA had dropped from $1.5 million or more to as little as $200,000, the institute reduced the National Film Theater to a part-time operation. Control of the space passed to the Kennedy Center, which added the stage and made other alterations. The anonymous employees say that Kennedy Center officials originally encouraged the institute to continue operating the theater, but that current administrators are no longer interested in providing film programming in the arts complex. Several supporters of keeping the AFI theater at the Kennedy Center note what the center’s president, Michael Kaiser, told Washingtonian last year: “I simply do not enjoy movies.” (Asked about Kaiser’s antipathy to film, Bazzarre did not reply.)
“It was generally understood that the Kennedy Center didn’t really like having a movie theater there. They thought it was too common,” says Eddie Cockrell, a local film programmer and critic who did two stints at the AFI between 1977 and 1992, for a total of 11 years there.
“The theater was always considered to be temporary, until the AFI found its stand-alone home in Washington—which never happened,” he explains. That’s always what we understood.” Some AFI veterans remember that the institute was supposed to get the space that became the 500-seat Terrace Theater, but that plan was never implemented. Instead, the institute was offered the three-screen Silver Theatre complex in Silver Spring, built with almost $25 million of Montgomery County’s money and leased to the AFI for $10 a year.
Most people in the local repertory-film community are impressed with the new state-of-the-art venue, which opened last year near the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. But some are still dubious about its location in a suburban shopping district, where the Silver has struggled to find an audience.
“In typical fashion, the AFI has done this and they end up with a half a loaf in two places,” says Cockrell. “The Kennedy Center has the location. Silver Spring is a drop-dead theater for presentation, but they can’t lie about it: They have to say their theater is in Silver Spring, Md. Everybody in the world says, ‘Where the hell’s that?’ Between the two of them they’ve got a nice operation, but no one place gives them everything they need to have.”
Instead of taking the Silver Spring deal, Cockrell suggests, the AFI should have done “some bridge-building to get the Kennedy Center to be on board with the idea of having a film theater, which they never were. It could have been so much more than it was.”
Part of what the National Film Theater could have been was symbolic: an acknowledgement that film is a crucial American art form. The Kennedy Center address is also preferred by many of the foreign directors and stars the AFI brings to town.
“The Kennedy Center is a major performing-arts venue known throughout the world. The Silver is not yet more prestigious than the Kennedy Center,” acknowledges Horwitz. “But I’m less worried about our ability to attract filmmakers to the Silver. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve had John Sayles and Barry Levinson and all these Latin American directors here. Many of the Latin American directors appeared both places. The European Union directors will appear both places. Sure, the Kennedy Center is more prestigious. But it doesn’t seem to hamper our ability to get people out here.”
In addition, the Silver this spring changed its booking policies to increase its showing of first-run art, indie, and documentary films. The change makes the Silver more of a competitor with the two local Landmark theaters and other art houses and less of a repertory cinema like the National Film Theater, but it has made for fewer underattended screenings.
“Beginning in April, we did see a bump,” Horwitz says. “And then in the summer, we had some great pictures, notably Fahrenheit 9/11, which did great business. The summer did even better than we expected. The community support has stayed strong, fundraising support is good, so it’s going well.”
Horwitz says he doesn’t know for sure whether the upturn is due to the new emphasis on first-run films or the explosion of redevelopment in the area near the theater, which now includes a Borders, several chain restaurants, and, as noted on DowntownSilverSpring.com, a “‘paint-it-yourself’ art studio.” “I would guess,” Horwitz ventures, “that it has much more to do with the development of Silver Spring. It’s just a whole different vibe around here.”
Many observers of the local cinema scene, however, are skeptical about the Silver’s long-term chances—not to mention the very vibe Horwitz extols. Parsons, for one, calls the generica-lined trek from the Silver Spring Metro station to the Silver “not exactly an exciting walk.”
Still, downtown Silver Spring has film. Very soon, the Kennedy Center won’t.CP