Friday, December 19, 2008

five for the pike: why the cinema 'n' drafthouse didn't work

Each week, JUTP tries to make a list of just about anything or anything. This time, we look at why the Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse in Wheaton was forced to close after two months . . . that is, aside from financial insolvency.

1) Wheaton's never been known as a nightlife spot.

Wheaton's gained a reputation for some of the best ethnic dining in the region. But it's never had much in the way of nightlife outside of the mall - which, of course closes at 10pm, meaning that potential patrons would be less likely to consider an evening in Wheaton. They may have also been scared away by the area's (undeserved) seedy reputation.

2) The place just wasn't visible.

Located on the backside of one of Wheaton Plaza's many out-parcels, The Drafthouse was somewhat secluded, practically invisible from University Boulevard or Veirs Mill Road, or from any part of the mall itself. (It's not surprising why the movie theatre it replaced failed as well.) I'll bet that if you asked ten people inside the mall where it was, they wouldn't be able to tell you.

3) Marketing . . .?

Considering we've been talking about the Drafthouse for longer than it was open, it's surprising how little promotion it's gotten outside of the occasional newspaper ad or blog mention. The burden really rested on Westfield to publicize the venue because despite its location the Drafthouse would've been a boon for the mall, which is still reeling from the loss of Hecht's three years ago. The sooner Westfield realizes that Wheaton's not going to become Montgomery Mall East, the sooner they can embrace more unorthodox establishments that can make the mall into something even better.

4) Montgomery County didn't make a big enough deal of this.

MoCo's thrown a lot of time and money into supporting arts and entertainment venues like the AFI Silver Theatre, Strathmore, the BlackRock Center up in Germantown, not to mention the nascent Fillmore music hall. So you think they'd be tickled pink that a private company would come and build (or renovate) a theatre with their own money. I guess not. I mean, the county's name is on the damn marquee. You'd have thought they would've tried to stop this place from closing by any means necessary.

5) We didn't make a big enough deal of this.

I'll admit: I never went to the Drafthouse. As important as I know it is to Wheaton, I never bothered to see a movie here, electing instead to visit Silver Spring or Bethesda. Those of us who patiently waited for this place to open could've made more of an effort to support it. So, for that, I'm sorry.


Delegate Alfred Carr said...

The closing of the Montgomery Cinema and Drafthouse is a real bummer. It had great potential. I spent a couple of hours there on election night - the place was packed. My six year old son and I also spent a fun afternoon together there watching Wall-E.

I am going to be looking into why this happened and what the state can do to be more supportive of folks like this who want to invest in our community.

Wheaton has some economic development incentives to encourage investment such as the Enterprize Zone (includes Westfield) and the Arts & Entertainment District (does not include Westfield). But for some reason they are underutilized. Perhaps they are difficult to use because the financial benefits flow to the property owner instead of the tenant.

Thomas Hardman said...

I have to agree with Mr Reed that Wheaton is not known as a night-spot, especially since the closing of the Psychedeli or Phantasmagoria (whichever, hard to keep 'em straight), which was a used record store by day, punk rock bar by night. It was replaced by the Gilchrest Multicultural Center, which so far as I know has never hosted a single punk-rock band in its existence.

I am also utterly baffled by Mr Reed's characterization of Wheaton as being undeservedly considered "seedy". Dan, it's been seedy since we moved here in 1963, maybe not in all parts, but let's just say that when the world's largest "alleged" methedrine kingpin fled rival mobsters and international law-enforcement in Mexico, where did he immediately go? Wheaton. I rest my case.

Some parts of Wheaton are as nice as anyplace else in East MoCo, but most of the parts zoned for business are, well, "sketchy" is an understatement. Not that it's any better where I live -- it's not -- but we also roll up the sidewalks at 10PM and are proud to do so as a public service.

Considering the upcoming closure of the Olney 9 theaters, you'd think that Cinema-n-Drafthouse might consider talking to them, I bet they can get the venue for less than in Wheaton, and Olney won't be scaring people away as badly as Wheaton's reputation has done for about 40 years. Ah, PS, "Kemp Mill" is not Wheaton, or at least it's not the scary part, mostly.

Olney might have its own aspects dissuading a lot of people from outside of Olney from coming, but generally speaking the perception of widespread violent street crime isn't one of those problems. Heck, they don't even allow me up there much.

Sligo said...

1) Unfortunately, nowhere in MoCo is known as a nightlife spot, with the possible exception of a few bars in Bethesda. Blame the draconian county liquor laws for this.

2) I don't think the location is what prevented it from drawing a crowd. Many years ago when that theater was relatively new, it was packed every weekend. I watched a lot of movies there during the period between the closure of the old Silver Spring theaters and the opening of the AMC City Place 10. Compared to the old theater inside Wheaton Plaza, this place was a movie palace. I also think the opening of the Majestic had a lot to do with this theater's decline.

The theater did occasionally show Bollywood movies towards the end, and I give them credit for that. I don't know of any other theaters that did that.

3) How is the mall "still reeling from the loss of Hecht's" when it got a brand new (albeit B-level) Macy's (and a whole new level!) at the same time? The net change in number of anchor stores was zero.

4) I wonder how much the county is really to blame for this. I'm sure they didn't make it easy, but for the drafthouse to give up so quickly after just a couple months leads me to believe that they realized that the venture was not financially viable in the long term, even if they were able to clear any impediments caused by the bureaucracy.

5) I never went either...

Dan Reed said...

1) I think Silver Spring and Rockville are gaining a reputation as places for nightlife - if not for clubs and bars, than maybe (gasp!) for more family-friendly things, neither of which Wheaton enjoys.

2) No one can see it from the road. People were aware of the old P&G, yes, but how many could tell just from driving by that a new theatre had opened? There weren't even any signs for it at the mall entrance.

3) Have you seen the old Hecht's wing? It's dead and has been since Hecht's closed. The new DSW Shoe Warehouse will help draw people to that part of the mall, but until Kohl's/Steve and Barry's/whoever was supposed to take over the old spot does so, it hurts the other retailers that still occupy that wing: the Starbucks (which is closing), that sketchy "Foreign Flix" place (that used to be the sketchy "Black People Art" place), American Eagle (which is doing okay), the jewelers (which already closed).

4) If they can do it in Arlington, they'll do it here, and the County should help, given this is in line with their whole Wheaton revitalization plan.

5) See?

Dumbek said...

I admit I never went there, but that's primarily because I wasn't aware that it had officially opened. If it wasn't for a few Silver Spring-based blogs and a mention on DCist, I wouldn't have even known it was there in the first place. They did a terrible job of marketing this.

I like the direction the mall was heading, but it seems to have stalled. I'd love to see a Kohl's in there.

Sligo said...


The common use of the word nightlife does not generally encompass so-called 'family-friendly' fare.

From Wikipedia:

Nightlife is the collective term for any entertainment that is available and more popular from the late evening into the early hours of the morning. It includes the pubs, nightclubs, bars, live music, cabaret, small theatres, small cinemas, shows, and sometimes restaurants a specific area may have. Nightlife encompasses entertainment from the fairly tame to the risque to the seedy. Nightlife entertainment is inherently edgier than daytime amusements, and usually more oriented to young adults. Under some rubrics, Nightlife also encompasses such "adult entertainment" as a red-light district.

Yes, there are things to do in the evening, but as far as nightlife goes, downtown Silver Spring lags well behind other places. (See Clarendon, Adams Morgan, etc.)

As far as the Hecht's wing, it may be dead but the number of visitors to the mall is probably way up since the addition of Target, Macy's and all the other stores.

Wheaton Plaza is now an odd mixture of somewhat-nice stores mixed in with some Shitty Place-calibre ones. I still think it's odd that the mall doesn't have a Gap.

Angela said...

It used to have a Gap, but now that you mention it, it has been gone for quite awhile. It's true, Wheaton Plaza ( yes, I will always call it that since I grew up walking there in the 70's) keeps trying to 'revitalize' but with the combination of good and 'crappy' stores and a mixed bag of clientele, revitalization is a challenge.
I am really sad about the drafthouse, I found out about it too late!

Thomas Hardman said...

Sligo: In the opinion of Montgomery County, there is no need whatsoever for "nightlife" as you define it. College people will meet their eventual lifemate while they are in college. They will settle down, make and spend lots of money, and the county will be rolling in the taxes. Nobody except "low rent" people need "nightlife", because they don't go to college. And since the county can't profit from low-rents, except as votes, they don't want to encourage them to breed, which they likely would if they met anyone out in the "nightlife". Thus, you might find gay bars or lesbian bars out here, but nothing that is meant to attract PWT. (I can say "PWT"; everyone who's seen me declares that that's what I am.)

Besides, as everyone knows, "nightlife" attracts zombies, child molesters, police stings on leading Democrats, and barflies named "Angel" or "Suzy". Furthermore, almost anyone who isn't used to Monkey County tends to walk into a bar here and run out screaming/muttering about "den of bloodsuckers" or somesuch and that just doesn't do any good for the reputation of either the County or the establishment. (Did I mention that I don't drink in MoCo bars, nor eat in the restaurants?) So, all in all, it's better for everyone to not have "nightlife" here, though you'd think more upcounty-East-County theaters might be a good idea.

BTW, am I the only one who saw the Sign Jugglers touting the Cinema-and-Drafthouse? They were definitely advertising it that way, to everyone stuck in traffic at the interminably long signals.

Speaking of sign jugglers, Westfield Office Depot is having a "clear out the inventory" sale. I expect it will be swirling down the tubes right around December 31. They're advertising something like "everything is 20-50 percent off" which generally is a sign of imminent bankruptcy or a non-bankruptcy closure while still nominally solvent.

chippy said...

I think what may have happened here is not because of any of the things that have been mentioned here. While all of these points are valid about doing business in Wheaton, I think my theory about what happened is more about the current business situation in the whole country whether it is a large business or a small business.

I think what happened is that lines of credit dried up on either party's end or perhaps both parties. No one would open a business like this, do the major renovations and then say "Well, I'll give it two months, and if doesn't go well I'll close up". It just doesn't make sense.

My theory is that when both parties, Westfield and Cinema Draft House entered into this they each had plans for financing this project. Westfield for their portion of the build out and Cinema Draft House for their expenses until things became profitable.

BUT what has since happened to many businesses in this county capital has dried up. I suspect that either of these parties had their lines of credit or whatever other plans for financing this en devour dry up and go away just many businesses large and small have now had over the last few months.

If I had a twenty in my wallet that is what my bet would be.

Or maybe not.

Chip Py

Mortis Olaf said...

Perhaps the Fillmore, Purple line, library, civic center, silver place, transit center, and every other development that's been given hell will enhance the nightlife of Silver Spring.

The Wheaton Metro is rather seedy. I saw some old pictures of a redeveloped Wheaton metro that actually looked really good. However, newer renderings have been made, which look like crap. That's all I got.

Sligo said...

10 years or so ago, a 14-year-old was raped in a closet at the Wheaton Metro station. Nice.

Scenic Wheaton said...

Well, I guess we can all blame Wheaton for being seedy. But I think this is just a reflection of a much larger problem - the economy - which tanked a long time ago. It's not just the sad movie theater - the rest of the mall parking lot is empty. I am an experienced Christmas Eve shopper and it is never like this. I was at White Flint yesterday and it was a ghost town as well.
Happy Holidays!

kathy.settles said...

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE open up a nice theatre for the youth of Olney, Brookeville and Sandy Spring even one that shows classics would do because there are no roller rinks, movies, etc. for the kids to call their own. If the draft house wants a crowd on the weekends, OLNEY is a booming metropolis come Friday Night. If it is possible to move, I would. Come any weekend and just look.

Dan Reed said...

I was so jealous of my friends in high school who lived in Olney because they could walk to the Olney 9. Sure, the Olney 9 wasn't that nice, but you're right: it was a place for kids to go and call their own. Only the heroic parent would chauffeur their kids to and from Wheaton/Silver Spring/Rockville/Gaithersburg/Columbia every weekend for some social action.