Back in May, when the D.C. film office went before the D.C. Council to make a case for its budget, film czar Crystal Palmer made some familiar arguments for why the office deserved taxpayer funding: Her staff, she said, facilitated Big Hollywood’s frequent pop-ins for location shots, aided the flow of reality television programs, and deserved some credit for the hive of documentary film crews buzzing about—activity that injects out-of-state dollars into the District economy.
But the second-to-last PowerPoint slide in Palmer’s presentation was a new and ambitious proposal: to open a movie theater east of the Anacostia River, where there hasn’t been one in nearly a quarter-century.
Could that change? The area has lately seen new residential and commercial developments sprouting up. Now Palmer’s office is betting that it can support a big, gleaming multiplex with digital projectors, stadium-style auditoriums, and first-run studio releases. There’s some statistical evidence to back that up: Some 80 percent of the 145,945 people living east of the river are black; nationally, African-Americans go to a lot of movies. A 2009 report by the Motion Picture Association of America found that black audiences accounted for 21 percent of the 1.3 billion movie tickets sold in 2010. A study commissioned by BET Networks in May estimated African-Americans spend roughly $6.3 billion on movies each year.
But the economics of movie theaters involve factors that make the proposal riskier: Multiplexes are generally surrounded by other retail. Right now, neighborhoods east of the Anacostia have more construction sites and blueprints than bustling entertainment districts.
The last theater east of the river was the Senator, which shuttered in 1989. Back then, in a particularly rough patch in District history, the mayor was Marion Barry. The head of the film office, though, was none other than Crystal Palmer. Today, the Senator’s art deco façade and azure marquee still stand over Minnesota Avenue NE, but the building houses a Subway sandwich shop and a beauty supply store.
Like the rest of the city, Wards 7 and 8 are changing. Restaurants and galleries are starting to creep in—Uniontown Bar and Grill, Anacostia’s first white-tablecloth tavern since anyone can remember, opened in February. Unemployment east of the river, however, is still more than 20 percent and Metrorail access is limited. With the closest theaters located either across the Anacostia or across the Prince George’s County line, going to the movies isn’t often the most feasible way to spend an evening. But if Palmer can convince one of the major theater chains to build a new multiplex, there are plenty of plausible locations.
Sylvia Brown, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7C, says that when the East River Park Shopping Center at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE—just across from the Senator—was under construction, there was talk about including a small theater in the plaza. It didn’t happen. But when Brown and her neighbors heard about Palmer’s presentation, the buzz picked back up.
“Neighbors and I picked up on that film office announcement and began dreaming of the opportunities at spots I mentioned and [at] Capitol Gateway and Skyland,” she writes in an email.
Stan Voudrie, whose company, Four Points LLC, has developed several tracts in Wards 7 and 8, also mentions Skyland Shopping Center on Good Hope Road SE as a potential site.
“You could put WalMart on one end”—the city hopes the retailer will anchor Skyland—“and a movie theater on the other,” he says. (For more on Skyland, see Housing Complex, page 10.) But Voudrie suggests areas like Fort Lincoln, saying a movie theater anywhere east of the river would appeal beyond just Anacostia, Congress Heights, or Deanwood; it would serve parts of D.C. west of the river, too.
“If you built a movie theater across the street from my office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue it would be the closest theater to Capitol Hill, H Street NE, and Anacostia,” Voudrie says.
Playing guessing games with commercial real estate is just one part of this speculation. Multiplexes with all the latest amenities cost an average of $1 million per screen to build, says Patrick Corcoran, the Los Angeles-based spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO). Corcoran, who says he is unfamiliar with the D.C. film office’s idea, adds that movie theaters can often be seen as drivers of commercial development in previously dormant areas, bringing along shops and restaurants. “If they’re underserved in terms of having a movie theater, other businesses will group around.”
The best-known example of this happened in Los Angeles in 1995. In a partnership with Loews, Magic Johnson, the retired basketball player, built a multiplex in Crenshaw, a rundown district that sits in the shadow of Baldwin Hills, one of the wealthiest majority-black communities in the nation. The 15-screen Magic Johnson Theater was an immediate success, revitalizing the shopping center it anchored and letting nearby residents see new movies without having to slog across town in that notorious L.A. traffic.
Johnson proceeded to open theaters across the country, including one at the Capital Centre in Largo, bringing neglected communities the sleek, amenity-filled experience one expects at an upscale suburban mall. Over the course of their run, the Magic Johnson Theaters hosted repertory series and local film festivals in addition to a normal slate of studio fare.
Though most of the Magic Johnson Theaters, including the original, have since converted to other brands (only the multiplex in Largo and another in Harlem still carry the NBA legend’s name), they offer an obvious example for what the Motion Picture and Television Development Office appears to be thinking. What’s required next is a movie theater company willing to take a gamble.
David Burka, president of Delbe Real Estate Management, is skeptical the film office can pull it off. He’s got some experience in the movie theater business to back up his doubts. Burka once managed both the Senator and the Naylor Theatre at Skyland, which closed in 1970 and now houses a discount warehouse store.
“It’s premature to put a theater there,” he says. “The Senator closed because it wasn’t doing enough business. Union Station killed the Senator.” (The nine-screen Phoenix Theatres in the station’s mezzanine closed with a whimper in 2009, but in its early years it attracted a mix of well-off moviegoers from Northwest and less affluent customers from the city’s eastern quadrants, all of whom could get there via public transit.)
Building a new theater in Anacostia right now is inadvisable, Burka says, because the businesses that often surround multiplexes don’t exist yet. “You’d need restaurants, other activities together,” he says. “Fast food isn’t going to bring in the nightlife.”
Palmer says she’s been discussing the possible venture with NATO President John Fithian, though her office is reticent about what those talks entail. Several calls to Fithian were not returned.
For Ward 7’s part, Brown is intrigued by the prospect of bringing movies back to her part of the city, but wants to see the details. Brown thinks a small or mid-sized movie theater is more reasonable than a multiplex. With some help from the city’s transit and planning bureaucrats, she says, either East River or Capitol Gateway could be viable. But what she wants most of all is a clear blueprint from city administrators, not just some pie-in-the-sky aspiration. “I and other neighbors want and need downtown to quit with the one-off planning,” Brown says. “Strategic and comprehensive implementation is lacking.”
Burka says that if a movie theater can be built east of the Anacostia, it will have to be as part of a larger development that can be supported by the neighborhood. “There needs to be a coordinated plan. You need to have something big. Look at 7th St. [NW] and the Verizon Center,” he says. “It’s not like Field of Dreams.”