I just love the Cinema Arts Theatre. I love it not just because it is an arts theater showing lesser-known films. I love it because it is mostly everything the modern movie theater experience is not.
The theater is located in Fairfax, Virginia about ten miles from my house. It is not at all convenient for me to patronize. I have to cross through dense Fairfax City and wade through a lot of traffic lights to get there. It has no easy on ramp to an expressway. At best it is about a 25-minute car ride for me to get to the theater. And exactly where is it? It’s tucked into a corner of the Fair City Mall, near the intersection of Little River Turnpike and Blake Lane. It sits next to a Marshalls, perhaps the tackiest and most ugly store on the face of the planet. (Marshalls makes a K-Mart look upscale.) Parking can be problematic and usually involves walking at least a thousand plus feet.
So why do I patronize the place? First of all they have the smaller movies that only sporadically show up at the local megaplexes. Movies like The Motorcycle Diaries or What the Bleep Do We Know? are typical fare for Cinema Arts patrons. The movies I have enjoyed at the Cinema Arts Theatre include My Big Fat Greek Wedding (long before it became a hit), Fahrenheit 9/11, Whale Rider and Secretary. Every one of these movies was worth the cost of admission. I can’t say that about movies at my local megaplex. In general it seems that the more the movie costs to make the less likely I am to enjoy it. Van Helsing, which we saw at the Fairfax Town Center Theater, was a case in point. So far the movies at the Cinema Arts Theatre have never failed to disappoint me.
In fact the new Fairfax Town Center Theater is exactly the sort of megaplex I now avoid when possible. On the surface it would seem to be a great place to see a movie. It has a dozen screens, each with stadium seating. There is a Ben & Jerry’s right across the street. Its concession area is huge. It even offers a “Director’s Hall” that offers reserved seating for certain popular shows (at a premium, of course).
But I hate it. Not only do they boost up the ticket and concession prices, their movies typically pander to the lowest common denominator. It is a megaplex focused on teenagers and young adults. Like many theaters these days if you arrive early to get a good seat you will be relentlessly assaulted with twenty minutes or more of commercials. And that’s before the trailers. I feel marketed, manipulated and forced to endure advertising against my will. And if that weren’t enough they charge premium ticket prices.
The Cinema Arts Theatre though has six screens. It has a single concession stand, not one stretching for city blocks. It does sell popcorn and drinks, but there are other things behind the concession counters including cookies, brownies, blondies, Italian mini cakes, gourmet sandwiches, smoothies, ice cream bars, and bottled drinks including Snapple and Nantucket Nectar. Clearly it markets to more refined tastes.
All its theaters are of modest size but there is still ample legroom and places to put your drinks. You do get advertising before the show, but it is the less obnoxious type done with slide projectors that are easily tuned out. And as for the trailers, chances are you won’t be seeing these trailers at your local multiplex. Months ago they were showing trailers for A Very Long Engagement. I am already sold. Even if it shows at my local multiplex, which seems unlikely, I plan on seeing it at the Cinema Arts Theatre.
At the local multiplex you have no idea who is running the place. You have the usual number of minimum wage teens behind the concessions stand and collecting tickets. Not so at the Cinema Arts Theatre. For better or for worse the owners Jim and Mark are often in theatergoers’ faces. Before the first screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 they were in front of the screen asking theatergoers their political preferences. (Not surprising it was a pure Democratic crowd.) Recently when I went to see The Motorcycle Diaries I was not surprised to find Mark, one of the owners, asking us our opinions on the trailers. He would poll us after each trailer. Should we get this movie or not? We let him know.
Would this ever happen at a multiplex? Not on your life. But Jim and Mark care intimately about their customers. They are always getting feedback and trying to tune their movies toward their customer’s preferences. They even have their own film club. If you go to their web site it’s a snap to get added to their weekly newsletter.
The bad news for fans of avant-garde and lesser-known films is that with so many new screens out there they are feeling some serious competition. The controversial film Kinsey, for example, currently being picketed by conservative Christians, made its local debut at the Cinema Arts Theatre. But since the reviews have been relatively positive it’s showing up at places I usually shy away from like the Fairfax Town Center multiplex. As a result the long-term viability of the Cinema Arts Theatre is in doubt. I will do my part by patronizing it regularly and encouraging my friends to see movies there.
The Cinema Arts Theatre offers not quite the small town theater experience of my youth, but it is certainly a different sort of place to see lesser known and quality films. I hope it can find a profitable niche. But I worry that the ravenous maws of American capitalism will at some point consume it and spit it out. For those of us who want a little something different at the theater this would be a travesty.