In December, the Key Theater permanently locked the doors to its four Georgetown screens. It was the city’s last independently owned cinema and its last art house; its closure left some of the country’s best-educated and most sophisticated filmgoers without a reliable commercial venue for foreign and independent films. Within a few years, however, this drought should end. By early in the next decade, Washington may have as many as 20 to 30 new art-house screens.

The expected boom reflects three changes in the film exhibition business: the phenomenal growth of “independent” films (which are often distributed by subsidiaries of big media companies), the trend toward multiple-screen cinemas for art film as well as mainstream programming, and the expansion plans of three national art-house chains: Landmark Theaters, Angelika Film Centers, and Sundance. Because of its upscale demographics and lack of local art houses, Washington is a prime potential market for all three chains.

The first new local art theater will be announced shortly: an eight-screen cinema in Lincoln Square, a 13-story, 345,000-square-foot office building that will occupy the western two-thirds of the block bounded by 10th, 11th, E, and F Streets NW. The theater is a joint venture between a national art-film chain and a veteran local film programmer. A lease for the cinema will likely be signed this month, although no one associated with the enterprise will say so on the record.

Construction of the building is supposed to begin this year, with completion in 2000. It will replace a group of decaying small buildings that have been vacant since the Oliver T. Carr Co. (now CarrAmerica Realty) evicted the tenants a decade ago in preparation for construction that never began. The limited partnership led by the Carr Co. went bankrupt; the project is now being developed by New York’s Lawrence Ruben Co.

Formerly the home of Whitlow’s Restaurant and Swing’s Coffee, the site is close to Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Cafe, the MCI Center, and several Metro stations. It’s also on the “E Street Theater Spine,” which stretches from the National Theatre on 14th Street to the Lansburgh Theater on 7th, and which the city’s planners want to bolster with new cinemas and live theaters. Perhaps the principal reason for the moviehouse plan, however, is that it’s required: Under the Carr Co.’s deal with the city’s zoning and historic-preservation authorities, which is still in effect, the building must include a movie theater.

The new cinema would be the first to operate downtown since the last of the grand movie palaces were driven from the neighborhood by redevelopment in the early ’80s. (The Warner alone survives, and it hasn’t been used to show movies for decades.)

One other new D.C. multiplex is almost certain to open: a 12-screen cinema on the upper floors of Mazza Gallerie, the shopping mall at Wisconsin and Western Avenues NW. CCR McCaffery Interests plans a dramatic makeover of the mall: The Chicago-based firm has started terminating or buying out many of the tenants, including the three-screen Cineplex Odeon theater. Although art-house chains are interested in the mall’s new cinema, it’s too soon to say who will run the theater.

A six-to-10-screen arthouse has also been proposed for the Georgetown incinerator at 31st and South Streets NW. Redevelopment plans for this long-unused structure are still tentative, but national art-film chains have been in negotiations with the developers, New York’s Millennium Partners and D.C.’s EastBanc Inc. Angelika Film Centers, a Philadelphia-based chain, is reportedly the most likely to lease the theater.

Developer Herb Miller has also stated his interest in a multiscreen moviehouse in the shopping mall he hopes to build just north of the MCI Center at 7th & H Streets NW. If that theater is built, it will probably be operated by one of the larger mainstream exhibition chains.

Some of these plans could evaporate, as have previous recent schemes for in-town cinemas. The owners of the Pavilion at the Old Post Office announced that a Cineplex Odeon moviehouse would open there, but that deal was later scuttled. The original proposal for a residential project at 23rd and M Streets NW included a cinema, which was later erased from the plans. When his airline started flying to Dulles in 1996, balloonist and rock capitalist Richard Branson announced that he would open a Virgin Megastore in downtown Washington, complete with cinemas as in his Times Square store; he hasn’t been heard from recently. Developers also looked at converting the former home of WUSA-TV, north of Tenleytown, into a theater, but the building was ultimately deemed too small.

Establishing new multiplexes in cities is difficult, because they require a lot of space as well as high ceilings. According to one local real estate industry source, the national chains now seeking D.C. locations for cinemas want 30,000 to 35,000 square feet of space and 20-to-25-foot ceilings. Few existing buildings can meet these requirements.

Low-ceilinged theaters (like the Foundry, Janus, and Dupont Circle) are no longer considered acceptable. And the art-house chains want more screens in a single location for the same reason that other exhibitors do: to save on labor costs. With contemporary technology, a single projectionist and a handful of ticket sellers can run a 10-screen theater as easily as they can a two-screen one.

The new strategy is exemplified by Angelika Film Centers, which is owned by Philadelphia’s Reading Entertainment. The company bought the Angelika Film Center, located in lower Manhattan, in 1996. It recently opened its first new art house, an eight-screen Houston theater with “stadium seating” (the seats steeply raked to improve sight lines). At its annual meeting last fall, the company announced that it expects to sign contracts this year to operate art cinemas in at least eight cities, including Washington.

“With our Angelika Film Centers, we intend to raise the bar for the entire industry,” announced Reading president Robert Smerling at that meeting. “We believe that art patrons have for too long been required to settle for second best in terms of theaters and film availability, and that the time has come to build specifically for this market niche.”

The oldest of the three competitors is Landmark, which began in 1974. From a single West Hollywood repertory theater, the chain has grown to dominate art-film exhibition in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle. It also has theaters in Midwestern and Gulf Coast states; its only East Coast operation is the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, Mass.

Sundance is a recently announced partnership between Robert Redford and General Cinema, a Massachusetts-based exhibition chain. A local real-estate source says the company is looking for a Washington site; a Sundance spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Because Landmark, Angelika, and Sundance are national, they have booking clout that local exhibitors lack. One reason the Key closed was that Cineplex Odeon, which dominates the city’s exhibition business, got most of the more commercial independent and foreign films. A chain with locations in many major cities, however, would be competitive with the major chains in booking art films, which usually don’t play in suburban or small-city venues.

The arrival of as many as three national art-house chains would probably lead to the closure of some of the city’s one-, two-, and three-screen theaters. It also would seem to threaten the financial viability of the American Film Institute’s recently announced plan to program the long-shuttered Silver Theatre in tattered downtown Silver Spring. The Silver, however, will apparently be heavily subsidized by the Montgomery County government.

Even with the opening of new art houses in Washington, noncommercial venues like the AFI, the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, and the Freer will still play an important role. In recent years, independent distributors have been reluctant to handle more challenging films, especially those not in English, leaving them to the film-festival-and-museum circuit. The new art-film chains exist primarily because of the growing audience for upscale costume flicks like Sense and Sensibility and The English Patient. Still, with 20 or more new screens to illuminate, some more challenging fare is sure to slip through.CP