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The Silver Theatre and the Avalon Theater have a few things in common. Both are classic prewar neighborhood movie houses, abandoned as obsolete by the major exhibition chains. Both have made remarkable comebacks in a region where only a handful of old movie theaters survive. Both are scheduled to reopen in early April. And both are run by nonprofit organizations.
But the processes of reclaiming the two cinemas could hardly be more different. The Silver, which sits near the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road in central Silver Spring, has been closed since 1986, and it underwent almost seven years of rehabilitation. The Avalon, just south of Chevy Chase Circle on Connecticut Avenue NW, closed in 2001 and has been restored in slightly less than a year.
And then there’s the matter of money. The Avalon rehab is a grass-roots venture that has cost about $750,000 so far, estimates Bob Zich, a longtime neighborhood resident who chairs the all-volunteer Avalon Theater Project. The Silver, which will be operated by the American Film Institute, has consumed almost $25 million, all of it paid by the Montgomery County government.
Of course, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Centerthe venue’s official nameis the more ambitious project. Murray Horwitz, who was hired last year as the complex’s director, calls the Silver “the foremost film-exhibition place in the country.” In addition to the original theater, whose capacity has been reduced from 1,100 seats to 392, the complex features two more auditoriums in a new building that also holds AFI offices. As starkly modern as the remade main hall is ornate, the new spaces hold another 200 and 75 seats, respectively.
Clint Eastwood will formally inaugurate the Silver at an April 4 gala billed as “a little mini-Hollywood” by AFI PR and Marketing Coordinator Joan Kirby. The cinema opens to the public April 11, with the same mix of repertory and festival fare that programmer Michael Jeck has been booking at the AFI National Film Theater in the Kennedy Centerwhich Horwitz says will continue to operate as the Silver’s “fourth screen.” And because the Silver originally opened in 1938, a series showcasing the best cinema of that year is also scheduled.
But the other early attractions include a reissue of Jean Pierre Melville’s 1970 Le Cercle Rouge and Abbas Kiarostami’s latest, Ten. In other words, the Silver will be competing for the same sort of films booked by Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema, and Loews Cineplex’s Dupont Circle and Shirlington theatersand the reopened Avalon.
If the Silver’s potential competitors don’t have the advantage of $25 million in governmental largess, they don’t have that theater’s problems, either. The new AFI complex is essentially located in the middle of a construction site in a dilapidated commercial district that has resisted a renaissance for more than 25 years. The restaurants that will fill out the vintage shopping center next to the Silver aren’t there yet, and they’re mostly strip-mall-style eateriesRed Lobster, Panera, Macaroni Grillthat may not appeal to Melville and Kiarostami fans.
In addition, cash-strapped Montgomery County is about to terminate the Silver’s line of credit. The county spent $24 million on renovation and construction, will charge only $10 a year in rent, and gave the AFI an $800,000 grant for initial operating costs. (In exchange, it received 100,000 tickets to distribute to students and community groups.) The county’s fiscal 2004 budget, which begins July 1, includes a $350,000 loan for additional operating expenses. After that, though, the Silver must survive on box-office revenues and AFI fundraising.
“Beyond this coming year, we are certainly hopeful that the theater will be able to operate on its own,” says Montgomery County information officer Bonnie Joe Ayers.
“The budget is based on our projections of what we can sell at the box office and what we can raise from charitable contributions,” Horwitz says. “I’ve got a lot of fundraising to do.”
If fundraising falls short, he adds, “We can expand and contract operations to stay within budget, and I think that’s what’ll happen. We will be here for a long time.”
But just five years ago, when the AFI cut back its Kennedy Center programming, institute director Jean Picker Firstenberg dismissed repertory film programming. “With video, pay-per-view, and satellite technologies, there’s just not a need to show repertory on a regular basis,” she told the Washington Post.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” Horwitz says when told of the statement. “I agree with her to this extent: That if you do just repertory, I think it would be pretty hard….If all you are is just a movie theater that doesn’t allow concerts and special events, then she may be right. We have much more than that. The business model changes when you have a facility like this. The county has paid for the facility, so it’s not a question of amortizing our investment.”
In fact, as he leads a tour of the Silver complex, Horwitz doesn’t talk all that much about film. The two larger theaters both have modest stages, he notes, allowing panel discussions and director interviews but also small-scale music and dance recitals. He points out a 20- to 30-seat cafe that is “potentially another performance space.” Explaining the Silver’s full name, he says, “If you’re exhibiting art, if you’re going to do readings, if you’re going to be doing music, yeah, it’s a cultural center.”
Formerly National Public Radio’s vice president for cultural programminga division the radio network cut back dramatically last yearHorwitz admits to being a newcomer to the film-exhibition business. He’s careful to credit the Silver’s nifty design features to longtime AFI employee Ray Barry, who’s now billed as the Silver’s deputy director.
“Certainly if somebody wants to book the place to do a concert, that’s possible,” Horwitz says. “But I would like everything to be film- or video-related, at least to get going. I mean, we’re the American Film Institute. Eventually, will there be some Sunday-morning concert series? I can see that happening. But that’s not on the agenda right now.”
What is on the agenda is a new structure, linked by a passageway to the Silver complex, that promises a Borders Books and a 20-screen multiplex. That means one Silver Spring block will contain 33 movie screens, including the 10 at the nearby City Place mall.
Some observers assume that the AMC multiplex is doomed, but whatever happens with the commercial multiplexes, the Silver’s most important neighbor is the new Discovery Channel headquarters looming across Georgia Avenue. Discovery is funding a documentary festival, Silverdocs, that the AFI will present in June.
Before that deal was made, however, there was a more important connection: Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan used the Silver complex as bait to lure Discovery away from occupying leased space in Bethesda and toward building its own flagship headquarters in Silver Spring. “Doug Duncan told me that the Silver is already a success because it attracted Discovery to Silver Spring,” Horwitz says.
Whereas the remade Silver was conceived as leverage in a multi-million-dollar redevelopment deal, the Avalon Theater Project began as a simple effort to keep Loews Cineplex from trashing the place when the then-bankrupt exhibition company abandoned it in March 2001.
“We felt violated to have this happen to our theater,” says Zich, who joined an effort to try to persuade a bankruptcy-court judge to stop Loews from removing seats, screens, projection and sound equipment, and vintage architectural detailing from the 1922 theater, the area’s oldest surviving movie house. “We all knew they were going to take the stuff and throw it right in the trash.”
The judge ultimately let the company do its worst, although the building’s owner, John Kyle, balked at one of Loews’ standard exit demands: that he agree not to rent the space to another movie exhibitor. “John just outright refused to sign the no-theater clause,” Zich says.
Still, without seats or equipment, the two-screen Avalon was unlikely to interest any other operator. So Kyle rented the building to local developer Douglas Jemal, who was expected to transform the theater into retail space. Neighbors still hoped to attract an exhibitor to the Avalon, but at a $35,000 monthly rent, none were interested. Reducing the amount to $20,000 wasn’t enough to change any exhibitor’s mind, either. But one potential tenant thought it might be able to handle the lesser rent: the Avalon Theater Project.
Reclamation of the Avalon began less than a year ago, at a community meeting in April 2002. The organizers put a jug in the back of the room, and when the conclave broke up, they checked its contents. “Without asking for money,” Zich recalls, “we’d raised more than $2,000.”
After that, things moved remarkably quickly: Jemal agreed to fix the roof and the façade and to replaster. When he got a glimpse of the long-hidden original lobby, he decided to restore that as well. The developer hasn’t divulged the cost of this work, but Zich estimates it will cost between $300,000 and $400,000. “And he doesn’t even own the building,” he marvels.
The Avalon Theater Project is paying for seats, wall fabric, carpentry, and projection and sound equipment. It’s also hired Paul Sanchezwho runs the Old Greenbelt Theatre, one of the area’s few other remaining prewar movie housesto operate the venue. Booking will be done by Doug Freed of Los Angeles’ Laemmle Theaters, who’s supposed to procure Hollywood films for the 428-seat main house, and foreign and independent movies for the 165-seat upstairs theater, which is nestled in a space left for a never-constructed balcony.
Although the date has not been set, Zich expects the Avalon to open in early April. The programming will probably begin with some classic films, before the theater hosts Filmfest DC screenings from April 24 to May 3. After that will come the initial bookings of first-run movies.
After talking with other small-cinema operators, Zich estimates that the refurbished Avalon could gross up to $1.5 million a year. “We’ll see if we can break even,” Zich says. “But we’re willing to keep the tin cup out in perpetuity.”
Zich, who retired from the Library of Congress in 1999, admits to starting “from before scratch.” But with the help of “1,500 people who have given something,” he’s successfully supervised the Avalon’s rebirth. He now has bigger plans: He’s thinking of “a sort of cooperative” with other nonprofit theaters, such as the Atlas, an art-deco cinema on H Street NE, which is now being rehabilitated as a multi-use venue.
Whether alone or as part of a co-op, the Avalon Theater Project does reveal one potential strength: It was intended simply to preserve its neighborhood, not to take on the burden of transforming it. “All I really wanted to do,” says Zich, “was go to the movies.” CP