Just a few steps below street level on the corner of 23rd and M streets lies West End Cinema, a hidden Mecca for independent film lovers.
And while no marquee or flashing lights draw attention to the theater, the homey space with posters and handwritten “Now Playing” signs covering the walls has carved out its own identity amid higher-profile theaters like Regal Cinemas and AMC Loews.
Josh Levin, West End Cinema’s general manager and one of its co-founders, said he is trying to attract more GW students as the theater’s fourth anniversary approaches. It started accepting GWorld Aug. 25, and Levin said students might be able to buy tickets online using their cards in the future.
“We kept getting asked, ‘Do you take GWorld?’ ‘Do you take GWorld?’ and finally at some point I figured out, ‘I better find out what the hell GWorld is,’” Levin, 46, said. “One of our hopes is that by making it more convenient for GW students to come here, we’ll be able to become more sort of ingrained in students’ campus experiences and that will help us sustain longer.”
West End Cinema’s building was previously occupied by a theater called the Inner Circle Theatre, which closed in 2004, the Washington Post reported. Because it already had the necessary equipment and permits for a movie theater, Levin said it was easy to transform the space back into a functional cinema.
“We were looking for a place in D.C. to bring back the idea of a neighborhood-focused, community-focused, art-house cinema,” Levin said.
The screens are smaller than the standard 22-by-52-foot displays in major theaters across the country, adding to the cozy feel. Instead of shuffling through endless rows of seats, audiences at West End Cinema are tightly packed into the small screening rooms.
And the intimacy is heightened by the theater’s staff of eight employees.
“Because it’s so small, it’s a small staff and people are there for years and years generally, so you really get to know each other,” said Kate Meroski, a GW alumna and former West End Cinema employee.
When it comes to picking films to screen, Levin said there’s little difference between West End Cinema and a 20-screen Megaplex: Staff comb through lists of newly released films every Monday and determine the best ones to show.
But while the process might look the same, the motivation behind film choices is often different. For Levin, the deciding factor is his audience.
“What I consider a popular film is a film that speaks to people who are interested in foreign cultures or who are interested in documentary storytelling or who are interested in non-traditional indie storytelling,” Levin said.
GW film studies professor David Wilt said West End Cinema’s appeal comes from its diverse film selection. The District’s population is largely cosmopolitan, young and foreign, he said, and residents are more likely to appreciate independent and international films.
“D.C. has film festivals and museums which sometimes show this sort of motion picture, and even some other ‘regular’ movie theaters will occasionally program independent films, but it is nice to have a theater which regularly and reliably exhibits this ‘different’ type of movies,” Wilt said.
Show-goers can look forward to more than unique movies and a home-theater feel: The cinema offers beer and wine as well as typical movie-theater fare like candy and signature, award-winning popcorn.
Other popular theaters in the city that offer similar types of films are either closed, like the Biograph and the Key, which shut down in the 1990s, or located farther away from campus, like the Avalon Theatre in Friendship Heights or the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md.
One of West End Cinema’s biggest competitors is E Street Cinema, an independent film theater in the center of the city that also shows documentaries and foreign films. But unlike West End Cinema, E Street Cinema is one of a string of movie theaters across the country owned by Landmark Theaters.
“[West End Cinema is] a different atmosphere, more comfortable. It’s a little bit more fun. It’s a little bit more local and you’re supporting a local theater,” Meroski said.