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From outside the site of the former Embassy Theater at 20th and Florida Streets NW, the presence of Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge still seems a bit tentative. Yet company owner and president Andrew Frank says that the theater-cafe will open on Aug. 18. And Aug. 25. And Sept. 14.

That last date marks the grand opening of the two-screen miniplex, Washington’s first independent art cinema—indeed, Washington’s only independent cinema of any kind—since the Key closed almost three years ago. Aug. 25 begins several weeks of programming Frank calls “the catch-up festival,” mostly recent foreign films that screened in local festivals but didn’t get commercial bookings. Aug. 18 is the “soft opening,” a restaurant-industry term for a trial run.

“It’s a practice week, strictly that,” says Frank, who developed the theater with partners Jonathan Zuck, Andrew Mack, and David Crowley. “Which we need. Our manager would love to have more than that week. But we have to be open, because we’ve got the films booked.” During the first week, he notes, prices will be cut and audiences intentionally limited. He won’t even identify the film the theater will show.

On Aug. 25, Visions commences its intensive survey of recent films that got away, including The War Zone, Tim Roth’s dark incest drama; Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September; Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song; Lars Von Trier’s controversial The Idiots; and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, which won a Golden Palm at Cannes in 1999.

Most of these films, which were booked by Key veteran Andy Mencher in his new capacity as film programmer for Visions, will run for only a week. That policy is only temporary, Frank explains, and “sort of came out of necessity. We just didn’t know when we were going to open. This was a way for us to open and have some flexibility with delays in the construction schedule.”

Visions won’t be simply an art-film theater. It will offer a Mediterranean-fare cafe and a bar, as well as special events. Frank compares his concept to that of Politics and Prose, the bookstore-cafe on upper Connecticut Avenue. As the owners of that store did, Visions enlisted potential customers as investors through a membership program. Almost 300 people have signed up, some paying more than $1,000. “When we were going to the bank and trying to prove why they should lend us money, we opened an account there, and every week we’d be coming in with thousands of dollars in membership checks,” Frank says. “That proved to them that there was a demand for this concept.”

Visions will also be available for corporate functions, with high-tech video-projection facilities and T-1 lines to download streaming video from the Internet. For noncorporate filmgoers, Franks touts a hip atmosphere and a large film-inspired mural by local artist Scott Brooks. “We’ve known that we were going to have good programming all along,” says Frank, “but the hardest thing to explain to people, until they can set foot in it, is that this is really going to have a distinctive personality. It’s going to have much more of a downtown, club feel, not the suburban type of feel.”

Ironically, the entrepreneur’s own life is not currently in a clubbing phase. “The thing that’s most depressing for me is, I have twin babies, so it makes it next to impossible for me to go out to a movie,” says Frank. “My wife and I were catching everything several months behind on video. And now, I’m catching everything several months in advance, but still on video. When the babies get a little older, I’ll attend the press screenings myself. That’s about the only way I’m going to get to see these films in the format that I like.” —Mark Jenkins