Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Wheaton pub, grub to mix for reel entertainment

Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse to open this summer in Wheaton with six screens, food, alcohol and first-run films

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The Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, a film and live event theater that offers sit-down food and alcohol service, will open a location in Westfield Wheaton late this summer.

The Wheaton location will have six screening rooms, as compared to the company’s original Arlington, Va., location, a one-screen theater with similar but less expansive entertainment options, said Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse President Greg Godbout, a Kensington resident.

Godbout said the multiple theaters will allow film festivals, parties and family-friendly attractions without the limitations of the day-to-day screenings of a regular theater.

‘‘Nothing about our model fits a regular movie theater,” Godbout said. ‘‘Throw all those pre-conceived notions about movie theaters out of the window.”

Godbout said the new location will feature movies, stand-up comedy, live sporting events and possibly live music, with the Wheaton Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse offering first-run films in addition to the special screenings and indie-centric film events that the Arlington location offers.

Rooms will vary in size with the capacity ranging from 130 customers to 200.

The site will replace the P&G Wheaton Plaza Theater, with remodeling to begin later this month. The theater will function much like a regular restaurant, Godbout said, with food and alcohol being served during all hours. He estimates the theater will begin by opening at 4 p.m. during the week and 11 a.m. on the weekends, eventually moving to a uniform 11 a.m. opening time.

The Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse will be eligible for corporate income tax breaks because it will create jobs in a state-designated Arts and Entertainment District, said Natalie Cantor, director of the Mid-County Services Center. Godbout estimates the Drafthouse’s staff will be around 80 employees.

Cantor said the Drafthouse will add to the ongoing redevelopment program in downtown Wheaton.

‘‘The reason I’ve been told that the newer residents of Wheaton are coming here — and these are residents in pretty upscale places — as well as people like me who have lived here 38 years, is because it’s an eclectic area,” she said. ‘‘Having a venue like a Drafthouse is a perfect niche for an eclectic area.”

A similar business, the Bethesda Theatre Café, operated for years in the old Boro Theatre on Wisconsin Avenue. That business closed in 2001, and it has been converted to a live performance venue after a lengthy restoration.

The Wheaton location was attractive for Godbout because of the mall’s central location. Given the long distances that customers at the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse have been willing to travel and the Wheaton site’s proximity to a Red Line Metro station, Godbout expects plenty of patrons

‘‘If you look at the people in the area around Wheaton and look at a 15-minute drive around that, that’s easily enough people,” Godbout said. ‘‘And Wheaton is right on the cusp where, obviously, Westfield is putting a lot of money into the complex. Our thinking was that this [location] was a no-brainer.”

Duncan Smith, general manager at Westfield Wheaton, said in an e-mail that the addition of the Drafthouse is exciting because it brings a unique form of entertainment to the area.

In a March 17 meeting with the Wheaton redevelopment committee, a group of urban planners said one of the key obstacles to revitalizing the downtown area was upgrading Wheaton’s public image. Virginia Sheard, a Kensington View resident and member of the Wheaton Citizens’ Coalition, said she doesn’t think a venue like the Drafthouse will struggle to attract outsiders because of Wheaton’s image, and that an influx of satisfied customers from surrounding communities will help put Wheaton in a positive light.

‘‘As you get people coming for a destination, then they’ll see there are other good things around, too,” she said. ‘‘It’s kind of the chicken and the egg, it depends on which comes first, but something like the [Drafthouse] is a start.

‘‘The responsibility of Wheaton is that if something like this does come in, it has to be safe.”