At Z Movies

COVID Bit Small Business Hard, But This Indie Theater Bites Back

The good news is Suns Cinema’s in-person screening is baaaack! Read the story about this cinema here!

The Patio at Suns Cinema in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of DC is open Thursday-Sunday and is all-the-more inviting after a summer rainstorm clears. (Photo Suns Cinema)

Alexandria, VA – When David Cabrera, co-owner of Suns Cinema in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in the District, got the green light from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to reopen his intimate repertory theater and cocktail space to full capacity back in June, he knew instantly which film he wanted to showcase for the July screening calendar. Cue the music — JAWS!

July, after all, is Shark Month. After over a year of unprecedented pathogen terror, the powers that be decided we needed more reasons not only to not go outside unmasked or unvaccinated but also to not go back into the water. Last year’s debate whether to close or not close the beaches was a never-ending quandary for shoreline resort businesses that rely heavily on summer tourism.

But while beach biz was nearly nonexistent last year, no one was hurt more by the pandemic’s stranglehold on the economy than entertainment venues. Especially movie theaters. For Alexandria-born Cabrera, the remedies that chain theaters employed as capacity restrictions eased proved not feasible for his limited-seating screening space.

Suns Cinema co-owner David Cabrera busy bartending for a pretty big crowd on a Saturday when the in-person film screenings returned last month. (Photo Kelly MacConony)

Instead of traditional rows of flip-bottom seats and shared armrests inciting cup-holder combat, Suns’ accommodations have consisted of upcycled vintage settees, armchairs, stadium and classic theater/concert hall seating, patio furniture, even a pew. Social distancing isn’t practical in such a comfortable yet tightly-spaced milieu.

A year before the pandemic took control of Planet Hollywood, Suns completed renovations of the first-floor theater/bar space in its once-abandoned classic D.C. row house on Mount Pleasant Street. The screening room was moved to the second floor, expanding room for the bar service and lounge downstairs. Whimsical nods to filmmaking classics such as a lipstick red graffitied Redrum mirror, The Shining carpeting, a Clockwork Orange-styled Suns Cinema marquee, and a Blade Runner mural homage by Nessar Jahanbin create a Kubrickesque mise-en-scène, a post-midcentury modern apocalyptic Ridley Scott production.

Pioneer of American independent cinema, John Cassavetes, was an actor, director, and screenwriter, best known for roles in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby and his groundbreaking reinvention of cinema verité. (Courtesy photo)

From its opening in 2016, Suns has proved time and again that thinking and coloring outside the box work exceptionally well when life throws you a curve and resources are limited. Add a keen sense of humor to the mix coupled with Gen X hipster panache, and you have a recipe for hands-down urbane success. The entire Suns experience, especially the secret up-a-steep-and-narrow-staircase theater, resembles a speakeasy along the lines of Cathal Armstrong and Todd Thrasher’s now closed P.X. and Rob Krupicka’s über hip Captain Gregory’s in Old Town.

Cabrera began Suns in his Mount Pleasant house digs. Well before Go-Fund-Me joined the popular vernacular, David created Friends-Fund-Me. Showing indie and art home movies to friends and family aficionados by donation, initially with a BYOB and BYOC (bring your own chairs), he and his Suns Cinema partner Ryan Mitchell cultivated a following that lead to transforming a virtual home theater into a shabby cool, brick and mortar space, replete with vintage Scalamandré pink flamingo wallpaper in the powder room and the classic zebra on a scarlet red background wall covering behind the bar. This Zebra writer’s and publisher’s personal favorite!

Suns Cinema co-owners, film savants, and barkeeps Ryan Mitchell and David Cabrera have kept the curtain up virtually and the drinks flowing in house and to go at their inimitable independent theater throughout the pandemic. Photo Suns Cinema.

In the early days at 3107 Mount Pleasant Street N.W., film tickets cost $5. Popcorn was $3. Old school cans like PBR were $5, with most offbeat cocktail concoctions costing $10 or less. At one point, before the kitchen expanded to include special guest chef and mixologist film pairings, Suns even served T.V. dinners.

When COVID shut down the screenings and limited indoor capacity at the bar and in the lounge, Suns moved out to the sidewalk, like most urban bars and restaurants. And they returned to being a virtual movie house. A Venmo account gratefully accepted patronage donations which helped supplement online screenings and alfresco lounge sales.

In May, Suns offered a virtual showcase of the groundbreaking Five Films collection by John Cassavetes, a celebration of its 50th anniversary. Cassavetes was a gifted director and actor, best known for his role as Guy Woodhouse, the duplicitous husband who sold his wife to the devil for a successful stage career in Rosemary’s Baby. Directed by Roman Polanski and co-starring Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, and Charles Grodin in his debut feature film, it’s scarier than Jaws. You’d gladly take your chances with a 25-foot great white shark over endlessly intrusive, ingratiating, Satanic cult practicing neighbors.

But as Cabrera and Mitchell note, promoting the raw cinema-verité of Shadows in their Five Cassavetes Films block: “Arguably the founding work of the American independent cinema, Shadows is the prototype for Mean Streets, Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, and all their progeny.”

Daisies, a specialty cocktail created by Suns Cinema’s film-inspired mixologists, using Crema De Mezcal, Tequila Cointreau, passion fruit, and lime. (Photo Suns Cinema)

Virtual showcases such as Cassavetes Five Films demonstrate the breadth of Cabrera’s and Mitchell’s film curatorial chops as well as their business savoir-faire. This past New Year’s Eve, Suns sold NYE Party Bags containing a Root Beer Negroni flask, two malört shots to go, a bottle of bubbly, and a microwaveable popcorn packet in a Suns Cinema tote bag. They also offered homemade spicy hot cocoa made with Reese’s Puff cereal milk for tea totalers and designated drivers.

Tickets for in-person screenings are now $10. Beer and wine run from $3-11 plus $18 for bubblies with an eclectic $13 cocktail menu featuring amusing movie monikers: “Heeere’s Johnny” made with Johnny Drum Bourbon, or “Pineapple Express,” a gin concoction, and a “Daiq to the Future” top-shelf rum daiquiri. Servers also bring drinks, which can be ordered via Q.R. code, to your seat.

On the night that At Z Movies screened Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws to a sold-out crowd of some 35, a squall swept through D.C., sending the crowd on the patio into the lounge where Sharknado 1 or maybe 6 (who can tell?) was entertaining those who couldn’t score last-minute Jaws seats along with a few neighborly devotee regulars. Exiting the theater down the dark staircase into the kitschy bar and lounge was like getting up in the middle of the night to raid the fridge and finding a party in the kitchen.

The good news is Suns Cinema’s in-person screening is baaaack! It’s a comfort knowing that it’s safe to go back into the theater, if not the water. Cross the moat into D.C. this month or sometime soon and discover a novel way to enjoy films in the comfort of something not too unlike home. Because, well, there’s no place like Suns Cinema!

Suns Cinema is open Monday- Wednesday 7:30 pm – 12:00 am, Thursday 7:00 pm – 2:00 am, Friday and Saturday 7:00 pm – 3:00 am, and Sunday 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm. The patio is open Thursday- Saturday 7 pm – 12 am. Films are shown Thursday – Sunday, with two films each night.

ICYMI: Big, No, HUGE News for Signature Theatre, Wolf Trap, and Broadway Fans!

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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