Show & Tell

Downtown Digs

Visions Bar Noir President Andrew Frank is a worried man. Long gone is la dolce vita of three years ago, when his two-screen cinema was one of the few art-film games in town and Landmark Theatres, the country's largest art-house chain, was in bankruptcy instead of moving on its plans to come to D.C. "That was wonderful luck for us," he says. "It gave us an opportunity to make a go of it."

But now heeeeeere's Landmark. The newly solvent chain opened the eight-screen Bethesda Row Cinema 18 months ago, and it unveils another eight-screener, E Street Cinema, at 555 11th St. NW, on Jan. 9. That might sound like good news to local filmgoers, but Frank suggests that more is ultimately less.

For one thing, Frank says, Landmark has been squeezing art-film distributors to send their product to E Street rather than smaller theaters. "Visions had two films [contracted] to show at the theater in January," he says. "And because of the opening of the E Street Cinema, we lost them both." Frank declines to name the films, but he says that Visions re-snagged one of them only by sending a letter to both Landmark and the film distributor, alleging contract violations.

Paul Sanchez, operations manager at the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, says that Landmark has played hardball with his venue, too. "We asked [distributors] for pictures and didn't get them—they were all going to Landmark," he says. "[Landmark was] trying to exclude us from getting the product." According to Sanchez, only a letter from the Avalon's lawyer solved the problem.

"This is not an isolated thing," says Frank. "This is the modus operandi of the [Landmark] chain....They like to bully people."

One distributor who has worked with both Landmark and Frank says he has received "very pressuring phone calls" from Landmark to give the chain his films—a notion Landmark Executive Vice President Bert Manzari dismisses. "At the end of the day," he says, "it's the distributor's decision as to where his film will play to its best advantage in a market."

Frank's also been complaining that there are too many films opening in D.C.—and too many screens. With the recent openings of E Street, Silver Spring's AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, and Loews Theatres Georgetown, as well as the reopening of the Avalon, the number of movie screens within a 6-mile radius of Visions has increased by better than 40 percent since Bethesda Row opened, in May 2002. Perhaps not coincidentally, Visions admissions have dropped by 25 percent during the same period.

"Clearly, having more theaters playing specialty films is just slicing the pie up," says Sanchez. "We're not creating new moviegoers."

But Matt Cowal, E Street's marketing manager, scoffs at the saturation idea. "We're criminally underscreened in the city," says Cowal. "There are not that many venues [for art films], and most are in the suburbs."

Alleged deals with distributors aside, Landmark does have one major advantage over its competitors: economy of scale. With 57 theaters and 204 screens in 18 markets, the 30-year-old chain has the clout to snare the few specialty films that do well and the capacity to hold on to them longer.

If Visions and others were to go out of business, Frank suggests, Landmark would then play only the most lucrative of art flicks—which would force more unusual fare back into the museums and film festivals. "People complained and moaned about the Key and the Biograph closing," he says. "But where were they when [those] theaters were open?...If you don't have the films that people want to see, you can't survive."

YOUR ART HERE

Like all car makers, Toyota can't seem to catch on with the young'uns. (Average age of a new Toyota customer? 47.) But the corporation's latest run at Generations Y and Z, "Installation: Scion Art Series," has penetrated at least one market: the D.C. art gallery.

For "Installation," which closes at Georgetown's Museum of Contemporary Art DC this weekend, Toyota trotted out a few cars from its new youth-targeted line, the Scion, and stuck on some vinyl wrap. Then it paid hipster-baiting artists such as David Choe and Dez Einswell to paint 'em up.

Now 50 of the vinyl pieces, peeled off and mounted on foam core, are on a nationwide tour of contemporary-art galleries, complete with Scion merchandise and playing cards. None of the art is for sale—it'll all be auctioned off for charity at tour's end.

Over the sound of a Scion-ad video loop running in a nook of the gallery, MOCA DC Co-Director Clark says he's not worried about the heavy hand of corporate intrusion. "It's not like it's Camel cigarettes," he argues. "I'm into the green thing, but if you have a car that's only $12,500, real tiny, that gets good gas mileage, and a corporation that's sponsoring supertalented artists, that's more appealing than a Hummer or an SUV."

Clark says "Installation" is his first real dance with the corporate devil. ("I talked to AOL people," he says, "but they were givin' it all to the Corcoran.") But at Objex Art Space in Miami, where the "Installation" tour kicked off, CEO and Director Dustin Orlando says Scion is just one of several brands—including Levi's, Altoids, and Red Bull—that he's cut deals with for show sponsorship.

"I don't give a shit if it comes from McDonald's or some local businessman," says Orlando. "There's a level of integrity I won't drop below, but it's not a sellout, because it's the kind of art I want to show."

Stephanie Kalinowski, project manager for the Urb magazine-owned PR firm that put "Installation" together, deflects questions of what demographic gains the show might be giving Toyota. "Obviously, [the motivation is] to align with young and creative people," she says. "Toyota's giving back to artists, giving them a chance to get their names out there."

Clark, who's worried about falling sales since Sept. 11 as well as rising rent, says he can't afford to pass up shows like "Installation." "I gave 'em a figure, and they gave me twice what I asked," he says of Toyota.

But both he and Orlando say they felt a little misled when they got the exhibition and discovered it didn't contain actual car parts. "A car door on the wall," says Orlando, "that would really make the show solid."

THE MOUSE THAT SCORED

In 2002, Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer was busy masterminding the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration—a multiproduction, monthslong looks at the work of Stephen Sondheim, the reigning genius of sophisticated musical theater.

This year, Schaeffer's busy masterminding for...Kathie Lee Gifford? And...Disney?

Yes: Schaeffer has agreed to direct Hurricane Aimee, a new musical with songs and book by Gifford that's based on the life of the American evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. "[Kathie Lee is] a great collaborator—she's really great opening up to suggestion," says Schaeffer. "I loved the score, loved the story. I dove right into it."

Aimee is slated to debut in regional theater this autumn, and Schaeffer says Amadeus' Christine Ebersole is interested in playing the lead. First, though, Schaeffer will be directing the new 28-minute Disneyland stage musical Snow White, slated to kick off in late February and run, as the director puts it, "for a very long time."

"It's a sassier, more contemporary Snow White," Schaeffer says, noting that the production will feature Gershwinesque music and a lush visual palette inspired by Maxfield Parrish illustrations. Disney, Schaeffer says, is now "letting real, legit folks produce their musicals." The prospect of 10,000 people watching his handiwork every day didn't hurt, either.

And because this is the Magic Kingdom, many of Schaeffer's dreams did come true. "I wanted to have a real horse for Prince Charming to come in on," he says, giggling. "So we auditioned horses until we found one I liked." —Robert Lalasz

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