The On-Air sign hovering to the left of the door is off.
There are no films scheduled for the middle of a Tuesday, and standing on the sidewalk just beyond the red carpet and ropes that lead to the entrance, it’s hard to tell if the lights are on inside. The navy blue awning jutting from the pink bricks reads “SUNS CiNEMA” in vibrant cherry letters. Those words also hang on a large vertical sign in sight line for cars whizzing by.
The theater’s size isn’t indicative of the typical cinemas you’re used to – especially not the ones having a tough summer after an explosive start thanks to Avengers: Endgame. Rather, this building in Mount Pleasant once housed a cell phone store on the floor level with an apartment upstairs. Now, it belongs to movies and cinephiles.
Suns Cinema’s first showing came in 2016 after years of planning and crowdfunding by owners David Cabrera and Ryan Hunter Mitchell. Cabrera is on the short side, with curly dark hair and an extremely easygoing demeanor. Mitchell is tall and lanky with straight, long hair and thick frames; he looks like a mix between the best skater you’ve ever seen and every thrifter who swears they get their shirts from Goodwill.
Posters line both sides of the entryway. On the left is the original screening room, but now it’s used more regularly as a bar. The space contains several movie references, from zebra-adorned wallpaper as seen in Royal Tenenbaums to obscure newspaper clippings lauding a Polish auteur. The new and improved theater is directly above, even though it used to be just a guy’s living room.
The lights were indeed on earlier, as both Cabrera and Mitchell are clearing chairs from a screening held the night before. On Mondays, the first-floor room operates as it had for three years prior, but on the other nights, the upstairs space is center stage. With an operation so niche built on screening foreign art films, classics with cult followings and B movies, Suns is not only surviving but expanding and evolving – further proving that the city’s appetite for obscure films and unique experiences is only growing, just like the theater itself.
“We never imagined more than this size, and we still don’t,” Mitchell says. “We wanted to recreate the model of showing our friends movies.”
The allure of Suns is definitely the spectacle. There aren’t rows of stadium seats bolted to the floor or giant soda dispensers that look like they’re from the future. Instead, the appearance is distinctively dive-ish, with low lighting accompanied by a simple beer and cocktail menu. The seating is an assortment of beach and patio furniture interspersed with antique-looking theater seats. During screenings, people are in close quarters out of necessity – there aren’t empty showings very often at Suns.
“So, why should we exist?”
Michell asks the question rhetorically, shifting in a barstool.
“An element of that is a bar – it’s fun and social,” he continues. “You’re definitely experiencing a movie differently when you’re dealing with people in a place that’s cool to hang out and [you can] have intermission discussions. We’re kind of a one-stop shop for all of that.”
Cabrera and Mitchell tag team coming up with themes each month. The duo also edits, cuts and promotes trailers for films on the schedule. July’s focus is Creature Features, with movies like 1954’s original Godzilla, Troll Hunter, The Fly and the first two Alien flicks. There are few recent releases here, and the only blockbusters you’ll see are decades old.
“Maybe come for something you like, but also watch a trailer for something weird,” Mitchell says. “Hopefully, people come and think, ‘Okay, there must be a reason they picked this movie I’ve never heard of.’ And sometimes they aren’t worth seeing.”
Cabrera laughs, admitting they’ve promoted movies neither had seen and upon watching, became “horrified.” That’s part of the risk with this structure. When the friends set out to establish their own movie theater, they did so with a rough sketch of a business plan and literally no idea how to reach out to distribution companies.
“We kind of figured it out as we went along,” Cabrera says. “Figuring out distribution was very challenging, especially because there isn’t a tutorial or a website you can look up with how-to’s for owning a movie theater. We just got lucky.”
Even for single showings, dealing with distributors can be an expensive process – one that’s becoming pricier still. But most tickets at Suns costs about $8-$10, far less than mainstream admission. Bar sales help offset some of the more notable features (this is where the new second floor comes in). Since officially opening on May 11, the first floor now remains a bar on Tuesdays through Sundays.
“The charm of Suns was that it’s a bar and a small space, but that business model created a lot of confusion for people,” Cabrera says. “When your bar hours on a weekend are contingent on the length of a film, if you show a little bit of a longer movie, [then] people show up popping the door open at 10 p.m. and awkwardly leave like, ‘Oh, okay.’”
Outside of the Blade Runner-themed drink station tucked away in the corner, the second floor feels more like a traditional theater setting when compared to its downstairs counterpart, including elevated seats toward the back, dark walls and a larger screen.
“We’ve definitely been able to accentuate and play up the two roles separately,” Mitchell says of the dual bar-theater setup. “The constant flux was confusing. You couldn’t, like, shake a cocktail during the movie.”
Even with the bar open on most nights, the passion for these two is the experience they’re able to provide while movies are on the big(ger than a TV) screen. They aren’t mixologists or “cocktail-ologists,” as they say, although Cabrera does make a kick-ass drink.
He begins to pour shots of Malört as we speak. He’s standing behind the bar thinking about the specifics of his transformation from a casual moviegoer into a hardcore fan of the artform, and now an owner of a business whose life blood is fellow film enthusiasts. He thinks it was probably college, but then second guesses where he even stands on the pendulum of cinematic fanatics, figuring he’s not much different than anyone else who puts a DVD in and pushes “play.”
“[In 2007], I watched Breathless, which is a [Jean-Luc] Godard French new-wave movie, then this Czech movie called The Loves of a Blonde. I watched those within a week based on people’s recommendations. That made me curious about what else was out there and kind of created a new paradigm for me of movies as a broader medium. They could be this or this or this.”
Mitchell echoes the sentiment, adding how influential clerks behind the counters at video stores were for him. He also notes his affinity for punk music and B movies. He keeps up with blockbusters and popular films on a regular basis, but both tastes have grown tremendously out of necessity.
Suns wasn’t their first foray into curation.
In 2011, the influenced became influential as Cabrera and Mitchell began inviting swaths of friends for standard “movie nights.” With a blank wall, a bed sheet and a $300 projector bought on Craigslist, the pair hosted themed parties each requiring a certain level of participation from guests – whether it be contributing a pot of pasta for an Italian feature or margaritas for an art film from Mexico.
“You’d meet people on The Hill who were into indie music or who worked in bars, and we were friends with a lot of those people,” Mitchell says. “We’d invite them over for movies. It was a very unpretentious film club – not even a film club.”
The parties were natural. They had smart friends who shared interests in other forms of art, so why not share eclectic movies, too?
“I noticed we had a lot of friends who were really articulate and understood a lot about music,” Cabrera adds. “There was a language and an understanding to that. There didn’t seem to be that with movies in DC. If I would spend time in New York and you’d [name] a director, everyone’s like, ‘Oh yeah, totally.’ There’s more of a common knowledge because everyone has been exposed to it, whereas here it didn’t seem like that was the case as much.”
As they explain the lineage of Suns, it’s obvious not much has changed for either in this regard. Cabrera still suggests movies to patrons and Mitchell still has a day job as a hairstylist in the neighborhood, popping in and out to help. The two still do most of the work around the shop and bear all the responsibility for their triumphs and stumbles.
Suns Cinema is the ultimate living room for 30 or so people to get excited about movies, complete with a full bar and popcorn machine. Cabrera and Mitchell act as your guides before, after and during intermission, each vacillating between a Blockbuster employee of the month and friendly neighborhood bartender. How many films where a wild idea turns into a success story have they seen? Undoubtedly countless and probably in several different languages. But Suns Cinema isn’t a fictional place like the video store in Be Kind Rewind – it’s real life.
“I don’t think either of us had some dream of owning a movie theater,” Mitchell says. “The mission statement has stayed the same. The original idea is that we would put a sheet on our wall and invite our friends and anyone else to come watch movies that we thought were kind of cool.”
To learn more about Suns Cinema and their “kind of cool” movie showings, visit http://www.sunscinema.com.
Suns Cinema: 3107 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, DC; www.sunscinema.com