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Posted at 10:49 AM ET, 10/ 9/2008

Montgomery Drafthouse, Ready to Serve

By Jen Chaney

The Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse opens its doors in Wheaton this weekend. (Photo Courtesy of Allied Advertising)

Guru Julia broke the news last April when she announced that the team behind the Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse planned to open a second location in Wheaton.

That new food-and-flicks venue, the Montgomery Cinema 'N' Drafthouse, finally makes its debut this Friday in a spot nestled behind the Westfield Wheaton shopping mall. I recently ventured to the theater, where a crew was still feverishly working on the final touches, to get a sense of what the place will look like.

Owner Greg Godbout took me on a tour of the space, which most recently served as a P&G theater but was a Loews multiplex prior to that. (I pause for full disclosure: Godbout and I both attended Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda and graduated in the same class.) The model for this drafthouse differs significantly from the one in Arlington, which shows films on one screen in a single, sizable moviehouse.

The Montgomery Drafthouse will make use of six separate auditoriums (the seventh was transformed into a kitchen), which means that on any given night, there might be a live stand-up comedy show, a first-run blockbuster and an older favorite like "The Big Lebowski" running simultaneously. The old-style theater seating has been yanked and replaced with tables and chairs in each house, so patrons will still be able to order burgers, pizza and beverages from waiters and waitresses. Capacity ranges from 105 in the smallest theater to 200 in the largest, creating a more intimate movie-watching experience than the one found in Arlington.

If having table service in six theaters sounds like a recipe for chaos, Godbout doesn't sound too worried. He says he will have 80 to 100 people on staff to accommodate customers. Menu-wise, it sounds like the food will be fairly similar to what's offered in Arlington, with a few more sophisticated entree options, like steak cutlets. The kitchen in Wheaton has been custom-built and designed, and Godbout says that should translate into higher quality dishes.

Tickets for first-run films (like "The Express," which screens there this weekend) will be $7.50 for matinees and $9.25 in the evenings, with admission to older films costing around $5.50. The Arlington tradition of discount nights will continue in Wheaton; cult favorites and classics will screen for $1 on Mondays, $2 on Tuesdays and $3 on Wednesdays.

Based on what I saw on the tour, I am impressed by the lobby area, which houses a 31-foot-long bar and a sizable lounge where people can hang out and have a drink. That section of the theater and the entrance, where movie quotes from "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Matrix" are painted on the glass above the door, make a nice, welcoming impression.

I'm a little less jazzed about the smaller auditoriums, which -- at least several days prior to opening -- don't quite convey that cozy, let's-settle-in-for-a-flick vibe. The Montgomery Drafthouse faces a difficult challenge: Its owners are trying to turn an old-school movie house into a wholly different kind of operation, and transform what used to be tiny theaters into mini-entertainment centers. It's a daunting endeavor, but Godbout remains upbeat. He says renovation and capital for the project cost $2 million, and he is convinced that money has been well spent.

"It is a social experience to watch a film here," he says, adding that he believes audiences are hungry to find a sense of community when they go to the movies, something the Drafthouse offers and some of the larger multiplexes do not. (Incidentally, free events like screenings of Redskins and NCAA basketball games also will be part of the mix.)

I'm all for that social experience and, as a Montgomery County resident, am hoping this new Drafthouse recaptures some of the magic once found at the dearly departed Bethesda Theatre Cafe. Godbout clearly does, too, since he has plans to open more drafthouses in the region, although he won't say exactly where yet.

Now, the important question: What's showing during the debut weekend? In addition to "The Express," "The Dark Knight," "Wall-E," the sing-along version of "Mamma Mia!" and "Tropic Thunder" are all scheduled to screen. Check out the Drafthouse Web site for the most up-to-date information.

By Jen Chaney  | October 9, 2008; 10:49 AM ET
Categories:  Movies  
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I like the concept; wish it was in Bethesda.

Posted by: Peter | October 12, 2008 4:22 PM | Report abuse

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