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It’s just a coincidence that the West End and Embassy theaters closed within a few weeks of each other in August and September. Both cinemas stood in the path of redevelopment: A new Ritz-Carlton Hotel will take the place of the former, and the latter was shut for a top-to-bottom renovation of the Universal Building.

Still, the theaters’ operator, Loews Cineplex Odeon, was probably not sorry to give them up. In the age of 16-screen multiplexes featuring steeply raked “stadium seating,” all but a few Washington moviehouses are considered obsolete. As their leases expire, Cineplex will probably close most of the city’s cinemas. The five considered most likely to survive are the Wisconsin Avenue and the Dupont Circle (recently constructed multi-screen venues, although small by contemporary standards), the Uptown and the Avalon (too historic and beloved to abandon), and the Cinema (a large, architecturally undistinguished showcase theater).

Although an independent operator is looking at revamping the Embassy as a multi-screen theater-cafe operation, most of the moviehouses that Cineplex abandons will stay dark. When the shakeout ends, most of today’s D.C. cinemas will probably be gone, replaced by a handful of multiplexes. Still, there could be a net gain of some 20 to 40 screens in town. That’s because the smallest of the city’s proposed new moviehouses will have eight screens. One projected multiplex would have 25.

Andrew Mencher, operations director for the Key Sunday Cinema Club, says that such local cinemas as the Tenley and others won’t survive the multiplex onslaught. “With Landmark coming in, I would say that the Inner Circle and the Janus would be in definite jeopardy. They could switch over [from foreign and independent fare] to commercial booking, but then they’d be vulnerable when a new commercial theater opened.”

Mencher notes, however, that the Janus might survive simply because of its prime Dupont Circle location, especially since “all distributors look at Washington, D.C., as an underscreened market.”

The two theaters now under construction—at 11th & E Streets NW downtown and Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights—will add 16 screens to the city’s supply. Even if those are the only new cinemas built in Washington in the next few years, Cineplex’s monopoly on the in-town market will be shattered.

Cineplex Odeon took control of the D.C. market a decade ago by buying Circle Theaters, the largest operator of in-town cinemas. Later, it also bought most of the theaters operated by Circle’s principal competitor, K-B. The closing of the city’s last two independent theaters, the Biograph and the Key, in 1996 and 1997, respectively, left only one non-Cineplex moviehouse in Washington: AMC’s Union Station, which, with nine screens, is the city’s largest.

Since becoming the dominant force in local film exhibition, Cineplex has opened only one new theater, the Wisconsin Avenue. Meanwhile, it’s been shuttering theaters as their leases have expired or as retailers—in two cases, CVS—have bought the leases. In recent years, Cineplex has closed (or been forced to close) the Ontario, the MacArthur, the Jenifer, the Fine Arts, and the Mazza Gallerie. It also closed the West End 5-7, but later reopened it as the Inner Circle when the Key’s closing made more art films available.

Cineplex recently merged with Sony-owned Loews, creating what was anticipated to be the powerhouse local exhibitor. Yet the new chain is being challenged in the suburbs by two relatively recent arrivals, Hoyts and Regal. On Nov. 6, Hoyts opened a 16-screen cinema in Alexandria’s Potomac Yards, and Regal has inaugurated a 13-screen house in central Rockville. On Nov. 20, Hoyts will open a 14-screen multiplex in Bowie; Regal will follow with a similarly sized project in Ballston. Cineplex has investigated new D.C. sites for theaters but has not announced any expansion plans.

Ten- to 30-screen multiplexes are difficult to build in downtowns, where land is expensive and large parcels of it are hard to assemble. Still, one proposed downtown movie complex would dwarf Hoyts’ and Regal’s suburban projects. Developer Herb Miller, one of the leading advocates of an “interactive” downtown, wants to build a 25-screen cinema to anchor a shopping mall directly north of the MCI Center. Such a project would make the purported arts and entertainment district bustle on nights when basketball and hockey teams are not playing, but it could not be built without a development subsidy. Miller got some downtown-planning money from the massive D.C. spending bill approved by Congress last month, but that is no guarantee that he’ll be able to assemble the financing necessary to build the complex.

The first new multiplex to open in D.C. will be at Mazza Gallerie, the Friendship Heights shopping mall currently being redone by CCR McCaffery Interests. The Chicago-based firm plans a 1,550-seat complex that will open next year. It will probably be divided into eight auditoriums, and the likely operator is Massachusetts-based General Cinema.

General Cinema is experimenting with upscale theaters that offer such perquisites as valet parking, reserved seats, and free snacks. It also is the operating partner in Sundance Cinemas, a joint venture with Robert Redford. Sundance is currently developing art-house multiplexes in Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia.

Next in line is an eight-screen cinema in Lincoln Square, the office building now under construction along 11th Street between E and F Streets NW. This multiplex, scheduled to open in 2000, will be operated by Landmark, a Los Angeles-based art-house chain that operates mostly on the West Coast. Because it is still negotiating an agreement with a local film programmer to book several of the screens, Landmark declines to comment on the project. Those negotiations are expected to be concluded next month, at which point more details should be announced.

Kelly Gordon, who programs films for the Hirshhorn Museum, thinks the downtown art house will complement the screenings at nearby museums. “I’m completely of the opinion that more is more,” she says. “I don’t think that anyone will have trouble getting product.”

One other multiplex has been proposed for an in-town site: the old Georgetown incinerator at 31st and South Streets NW. This scheme has recently grown with the acquisition of the Bayou, which will close next month to make way for a residential/retail project. The complex will reportedly include a six- to 10-screen cinema, possibly operated by Angelika Film Centers, which runs art houses in New York and Houston. Anthony Lanier, local representative of incinerator-site developer Millennium Partners/ EastBanc, did not return a phone call about the project; neither did Angelika’s Richard Einiger.

The construction of 12- to 20-screen moviehouses in close-in suburbs like Arlington and Alexandria could deliver a mortal blow to Washington’s mainstream cinemas. Moviegoing, like department-store shopping, may become a largely suburban activity.

Still, places like downtown Washington and Georgetown are just where such growing specialty chains as Landmark, Sundance, and Angelika want to be. Their fare appeals to an older, wealthier, better educated audience, one that probably doesn’t spend a lot of time in Potomac Yards. For those who live within Washington’s city limits, it will someday be easier to see the latest Merchant-Ivory or Zhang Yimou film than the current Hollywood hit. But then, who wanted to see The Waterboy, anyway?CP