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After midnight on most weekends in the District, you can do almost anything.
You can drink. You can dance. You can shop at the 24-hour CVS in Dupont Circle. You can even buy a stamp, if you want to, at the National Capital Post Office near Union Station. But one thing you increasingly cannot do in the nation’s capital is see a movie. Sometimes, you can’t even see one after 11.
Beginning this past December, at the height of the holiday movie season, many D.C.-area theaters, including AMC Union Station, began scaling back on film screenings after 11 p.m. Midnight showings of first-run movies, which theater employees say were often sold-out, were canceled. So were the occasional late-night screenings of older movies such as Animal House and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which theaters marketed to area college students.
Night owls haven’t found much relief in the ‘burbs, either, where desperate filmgoers could until recently at least have caught a late-night showing of, say, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Yet Arlington’s AMC Courthouse and other theaters just outside D.C. have also cut back on movies after midnight, with little or no notice. In fact, only two theaters in the District and in nearby Virginia and Maryland played movies at midnight or later last weekend: Loews Theatres Georgetown and Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, which regularly shows second-run films at midnight on Friday and Saturday.
It isn’t like this in other cities of D.C.’s size and stature. Though Washington will probably never be a New York or Chicagowhere you can see a movie as late as 3 a.m. on the weekendsthe District isn’t even on par with some smaller U.S. cities.
When Spike Lee’s latest opus, 25th Hour, premiered on Jan. 10, the latest showing of the film in D.C. was at 10:30 p.m.a slot that used to offer the second-to-last, sometimes even the third-to-last screening of the evening. But that night, it was one of the last showings for any film in the District. In Orlando, Fla., 25th Hour played at midnight; in Omaha, Neb., at 12:30 a.m.; in Oklahoma City, at 1 a.m. The last showing in New York was at 2:30 a.m.
“When I moved here, five years ago, I came to D.C. to escape a small, crappy town where late-night entertainment was pretty limited,” says Michael Fisher, 22, a political economist and self-described movie fiend who used to frequent midnight shows at Union Station. “One of the great things about the city was being able to catch a late movie. But now, if I want to see a movie after midnight, it’s a race to get to the Blockbuster before it closes.”
So what gives? Representatives for the big theater chains have offered a lot of excuses for the change, all of them boiling down to one basic reason: People in D.C. just don’t like movies enough.
Long before filmgoers were spoiled with perks such as stadium seating or the fancy leather seats at AMC Mazza Gallerie’s Club Cinema, Union Station was one of the best movie theaters in townthat is, if you were among those who could appreciate the venue’s special charms.
Opened in the late ’80s, the theater never marketed itself to the highbrow audience that attended art films at the now-defunct Janus, in Dupont Circle, or the Avalon, in Upper Northwest. It billed itself as the theater of the mainstreamoffering more choices when it came to commercial releases, more seating than its art-house competitors, and some of the biggest screens in the city. Until recently, Union Station was also one of the few places in the District where you could see a movie after midnight.
Midnight films at Union Station virtually always attracted rowdy crowdsa factor that sometimes raised security concerns among staff, says one theater employee who wishes to remain anonymous. Yet, according to AMC, there have been no major incidents of violence at the venue. Aside from a time in the late ’90s when District police regularly staked out the theater to catch underage kids breaking curfew, AMC Union Station has been quiet in terms of crimeif not in terms of audience participation.
A late-November midnight screening of the Eminem rap epic 8 Mile at Union Station lived up to the cinema’s reputation as D.C.’s noisiest: The show was as interactive as a late-’70s screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. People danced, people rapped, and one woman even fell out of her seat during the movie’s grand finale.
Crystal City resident Fisher, who is originally from St. Petersburg, Fla., and was in the audience that night, says he attended midnight shows at Union Station not only out of convenience, but also out of choice.
“You haven’t really experienced D.C. if you haven’t seen a midnight show at Union Station,” he says. “I caught a late-night show of Shaft there once, which was great mainly because of the crowd. Midnight shows there were always nuts, just full of so much energy.”
Union Station’s midnight shows were almost always filled to capacity, theater employees say. But in December, AMC Theaters, based in Kansas City, Mo., pulled the plug on the
theater’s late-night screeningsalong with late shows at the chain’s other local theaters.
Rick King, a company spokesperson, offered up plenty of reasons for the change in format, ranging from dubious assumptions about Metro’s limited hours (“It closes at midnight, right?”) to economics. Despite the popularity of late shows, King says, the chain’s research found that District residents just weren’t going to the movies enough to make the screenings profitable.
“What we have found is that D.C. is not a filmgoing town, especially late at night,” King says. “Washington is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise town, so it’s just not economically feasible for us to continue down that path.”
Is D.C. not a movie-friendly town? It’s hard to say for sure. The enthusiastic crowds at Union Station would seem to indicate otherwise. And figures on Washington’s filmgoing habits are a closely guarded trade secret: AMC, Loews Cineplex, and Allied Advertising, Public Relations, which handles the majority of film publicity in the area, will not reveal exact numbers. But Tony Gittens, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and head of Filmfest DC, says he’s heard similar rumblings for years.
“Washington is a town where people work incredibly hard, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for social events, like movies,” Gittens says. “At the same time, movies have always done very well here, and the theaters clearly know thisotherwise they wouldn’t be building new screens. It’s really a mixed signal.”
Indeed, at the new Loews Cineplex in Georgetown, midnight shows have been increased in recent weeks because of their popularity. The screenings have mostly included fare aimed at college kids, who have made up the bulk of the theater’s audience thus far. However, last Friday, the theater also included a post-midnight showing of the Oscar-nominated political drama The Quiet American, which sold out early in the evening.
There’s no guarantee that Loews will keep it up, though. As soon as those college kids have to cram for exams or head home for the summer, the later screenings might stop. That’s because theater representatives worry a lot about demographics when it comes to movies in the Districtespecially when it comes to the failure or success of late-night movies.
“Washington, demographically, is not a young city, and that’s what makes it harder to sell late-night shows,” says Bob Jones, a regional manager for Loews. “You really have to have a target audience to make it work. It also depends on the films you are playing. A 45-year-old, for instance, is not going to come out to see a show of Old School.”
Yet according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age in D.C. is 35just slightly older than in metro areas such as Atlanta (31) and Seattle (34), where midnight movies have flourished.
But the failure of late-night movies in D.C.if they
have indeed failedmay have less to do with the lack of people in the seats than with the chains’ inability to market midnight shows toward their core audience, which is largely younger moviegoers. Visions, which launched its weekend midnight shows more than a year ago, has attracted near-capacityand mostly youngcrowds for its late shows.
“It’s all about economics,” says Andrew Mencher, Visions’ director of programming. “For the big chainsfor anyoneto make late shows work, you have to have a healthy profit margin, and that’s the awful truth. It’s a shame to disguise the economics of it behind an excuse that people aren’t willing to come out for late movies. They have, they do, and they will in the future. It’s a fact.”
Mencher points to the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which anchored midnight shows every weekend for nine years at the arty Key Theater in Georgetown, where he was programming director. But the Key closed in 1997a loss that many local filmgoers still lament.
“Midnight shows are an important part of the culture of film,” Mencher says. “They will always have an audience, and they will be successful if they are marketed right.”
For just over a month, Visions has been featuring weekend midnight shows of Donnie Darko, a 2001 cult hit starring Drew Barrymore and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film has been playing for more than a year at some theaters around the country, including the Two Boots Pioneer Theater on New York’s Lower East Side. Screenings at Visions have been near-capacity over the past few weekends, and, according to Mencher, will remain on the schedule for the time being.
Yet that’s of little solace to Fisher, who misses having a wider choice of late-night movies. “I’m grateful for Visions,” he says. “But honestly, how many times can I see Donnie Darko?” CP