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A small theater with big-screen dreams

By Padmananda Rama, CNN
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Fullfilling a dream, helping indie film
  • Washingtonian spent years preparing to open own movie theater
  • Independent delves deeper than the blockbusters

Washington (CNN) -- Some movie lovers enjoy weekly trips to the theater, others follow every major film festival and then there are those like native Washingtonian Josh Levin, who make it a lifelong passion.

"As a kid, my favorite places to be were restaurants and movie theaters," Levin said. "Being in a movie theater was the happiest place I knew."

Late last year, Levin opened his own movie house along with his business partner, Jamie Shor. His dream of owning his own big screen was one that took decades to fulfill.

"I moved to New York and went to work for an art house film distributor called Film Movement, and I did so specifically to learn about the industry from the distributor's side so I could come back to Washington and open my own theater," he said.

Levin's theater, West End Cinema, is a rarity in Washington as an independently owned movie house. It has three screening rooms, including one that continues to show 35 mm productions.

In the week leading up to the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, movie-goers could spend an entire afternoon at West End Cinema watching all five entries for best documentary shorts shown or the full-length feature, "Winter's Bone," a Best Picture nominee. The theater also continued its long-run showing of "The Social Network." While not exactly art house, the film became a hidden blessing for West End once the big local theaters stopped showing it.

"It was literally a Christmas present from Santa 'cause we opened it on Christmas Day. The way that Hollywood works, the big chains cleared 'The Social Network' off of its screens to make room for the big Hollywood holiday films," Levin said. "We got a call from Sony saying, 'We don't have a single screen in Washington, and it's the Christmas week. Would you like the film?' and we said ... 'Absolutely.' "

Like many film fans, Levin says the memories that inspired him to open a theater began in what he remembers as his own golden age of cinema, his childhood.

"What I love about going to the movies now is what I loved about going to the movies then, there's this great sense of anticipation," Levin said.

Yet those memories were transformed by the harsh reality of the movie business.

"The Washington I grew up in had 30 movie theaters. They're all gone due to consolidation of the industry and rising real estate prices," he said.

His operating costs are relatively low, hiring a small staff to run the theater. Levin works full-time greeting customers and cooking popcorn.

"It's true it's not the best economy ever but, historically, when times are tough, people go to the movies more. They look for that escape," he explained.

The theater's slogan, "all stories told here," is in response to Levin's belief that his hometown deserves options besides Hollywood blockbusters. Washington cinephiles are responding.

"Certainly this is not just another independent movie theater like ... some of the others I've seen elsewhere, said Jeff Adkins who lives nearby. "This really delves deep into some stuff I wouldn't know about otherwise at all and that I might not see on TV later."

"My favorite time to watch a movie is midnights. However, my favorite time to show a movie is probably the 7 o'clock show 'cause that's when people are off of work and they're excited and they're on a date," Levin said, smiling. "They come here and they're primed for a good movie experience."