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Many movie theater owners probably don’t take a personal hand in cleaning and maintenance, but when I arrived at the otherwise drab 2301 M Street NW this morning for a preview of the new West End Cinema, there was co-owner Josh Levin was outside scrubbing the patio clean of construction-related detritus.
Levin, who partnered with the Georgetown publicity shop PR Collaborative to open the cinema, lamented Washington’s former surfeit of art house theaters while talking about the new venture at the location of the old Inner Circle Theatre, which shuttered eight years ago after Jim and Ted Pedas got out of the business. Although the tour of the venue’s three theaters and bar area nearly suggested otherwise—the screens arrive tonight as do wall coverings, barstools and the concession stand—Levin and PR Collaborative’s Jamie Shor and Renee Tsao are well on track to make their opening Friday.
The debut slate of films includes the James Franco-led Howl (based on the Allen Ginsberg epic poem of the same name); Budrus, a Silverdocs darling about construction of a wall between Israel and the West Bank; Gerrymandering, which looks at the history of Congressional redistricting; and for this weekend the recent vampire hit Let Me In. And the three intimate theaters will be complemented—pending the delivery of the concession stand which as of the walkthrough was in the back of a truck looking for parking—with a full bar and gourmet snacks that Levin says will go beyond standard movie-theater fare.
For Shor and Tsao, the West End Cinema offers a new outlet for the documentaries, foreign films and other independents their group promotes.
“We want to have a diversity of programming,” Tsao said in a multi-tiered theater that was renovated to accommodate receptions and corporate events. Aside from renovating the floor of that theater, West End Cinema is structurally unchanged from its past life as the Inner Circle, including a bulky pillar in the middle of the largest theater which tops out at roughly 90 seats.
A native Washingtonian, Levin grew up patronizing now-shuttered art houses like Dupont Circle’s Janus Theatre and Shaw’s Florida Theater, many of which have either remained vacant or “turned into CVS pharmacies,” he said wryly. Levin, who ran a few restaurants here in the 1990s including Politiki and Red River Grill, has spent most of the past decade as a film distributor in New York, where independent movie theaters still thrive. With West End, he hopes to bring back to Washington a venue for films that do well on the festival circuit but otherwise never make it beyond art houses in New York and Los Angeles.
Pending installment of the wall curtains, screens and concession area, all the West End Cinema needs is some decent signage to attract business to its rather faceless location at the corner of 23rd and M. Levin took multiple questions about signage permissions, the prospect of a marquee with showtimes and whether or not a visit to the local ANC might be warranted.
“We’re working on a permanent solution,” he repeated.