Screen Gems

Under the direction of rocker Bill Orcutt, the Alliance for Media Arts keeps the faith for Miami's cinema aficionados

His wardrobe runs to flannel shirts and weathered jeans, and his threadbare Chuck Taylor high-tops are so far gone that his wife Adris is only half-kidding when she says she likes them because she can nibble on her husband's toes without taking his shoes off. No, Bill Orcutt does not look much like the executive director of any institution, let alone one so vital to the cultural vigor of a region as the Alliance for Media Arts is to Miami. And as unassuming as he looks, Orcutt acts even less like a big shot. He thinks nothing of hopping into his trusty '86 Subaru to deliver a press kit or a videotape preview of an upcoming release to a local newspaper, or waiting patiently at the quaint little theater on Lincoln Road for movie critics running late for screenings.

But that's the thing about Orcutt. Yes, he's polite and soft-spoken and he smiles easily. He comports himself more like a graduate student in philosophy than the top dog at the only theater devoted to cutting-edge foreign and independent cinema in Dade County. With his low-key manner, Orcutt also indirectly oversees that theater's new offshoot, a film and video co-op dedicated to helping small, noncommercial local filmmakers. Yet to look at him you'd never guess that he's the lead singer-songwriter-guitarist (Adris plays drums) for a noise-rock band called Harry Pussy, or that he once duked it out with a snotty French screenwriter over a dame.

The quest of men like Bill Orcutt and Don Chauncey (the Alliance founder and chairman of the board, as well as head film librarian for the Dade public library system) verges on the quixotic. They are the last of a dying breed, the windmill-tilters. They are Miami's independent film exhibitors, fighting to bring obscure quality films to an often unappreciative community. These days even a middling Hollywood film needs to gross millions of dollars in its first weekend of release to have a shot at turning a profit. Videotape rental stores, pay-per-view, and cable TV make even marginal films available in the home within six to eight months of their theatrical release. Competition for the discretionary entertainment buck has never been tougher.

The Alliance has, by default, inherited the mantle of being Dade County's premier alternative movie house. In the late Eighties, Nat Chediak's Cinematheque, Arcadia, and Grove Harbour theaters and the "Fabulous Flying Fendelman Brothers'" Grove Art Cinema all closed. Today, AMC's CocoWalk and Fashion Island multiplexes deserve credit for consistently dedicating screens to adventuresome programming like The Summer House, Tous les matins du monde, Orlando, Like Water for Chocolate, and Amongst Friends. Their successes with those films have prompted the chain to go a step further and create a program called Gourmet Cinema, which will offer membership cards and discounts to what they label "discriminating viewers." But the Alliance, where the seat count is lower than that of CocoWalk's smallest auditorium, specializes in less commercially viable features, like the exquisite but obscure Mongolian delight Close to Eden and the appropriately titled Tokyo Decadence. Yet it also has enough prestige to snare such eagerly anticipated independent features as Mike Leigh's Naked (scheduled to open here in the last week of February). Currently the Alliance is the only first-run movie theater on South Beach -- as well as the only cinema in Dade County -- willing to host a controversial documentary like The Panama Deception or such gay films as Luna or Okoge.

Alliance membership has grown over the years to the current level of 150 supporters who pay $35 per year (plus another $25 if they want to make use of the filmmaking co-op; approximately 60 are members of both). The public is welcome at the theater, where standard ticket prices for members are $4, non-members $6. Orcutt, who started out as a volunteer projectionist in 1989, became the full-time executive director in 1991. You can find him there most days making sure there's plenty of change in the cashbox, returning phone calls, and faxing out promotional materials. The board of directors has remained virtually unchanged since 1988, but today they serve in more of an advisory capacity than as active participants in the organization's daily operations. It's basically Orcutt's baby.

And it's winning high praise. "The Alliance is South Florida's finest alternative cinema," says Dick Morris, founder of the Sarasota Film Society and a programmer who specializes in booking "art films" -- low budget, independently produced, often foreign -- into roughly two dozen alternative movie houses (including the Alliance) around the country. "It's very important to the cultural health of the community. They put on 50 films a year that the community would otherwise not get to see. Bill Orcutt and the Alliance's board of directors deserve applause and gratitude."

Morris offers a few numbers to back up his claims. It's Orcutt's third year as head honcho of the not-for-profit organization; during his reign average weekly attendance has grown from 100 paid admissions per week to more than 500. That's about half the number a small Hollywood film needs to draw to break even, but a strong showing for an art-house. The theater's most recent offering, Spanish director Bigas Luna's dark comedy Jam centsn Jam centsn, drew 2000 viewers its first week.

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