Screen Gems

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

Orcutt taught English composition as an adjunct professor at UM for three years and made short films as a hobby until a substantial grant from the South Florida Cultural Consortium convinced the ersatz English teacher to try to make a go of it as a filmmaker. He quit teaching in 1989 and began making films full-time, showing his work at the San Francisco Film Festival and the Pacific Film Archive in 1990. Orcutt got to know Don Chauncey when the Alliance founder bought a couple of Orcutt's short works for the Miami-Dade Public Library's collection, and he began working at the new Miami Beach theater as a volunteer. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Orcutt and Chauncey's noble battle to promote progressive cinema is part of a colorful twenty-year tradition. Long before the recent South Beach revival, Coral Gables and Coconut Grove were the center of the universe for film-loving Miamians whose palates were not sated by commercial Hollywood fare. The Gables was the home of Nat Chediak's Cinematheque (almost as famous for its original chairs -- reclining seats salvaged from a 727 and donated by Eastern Airlines -- as it was for its diverse celluloid offerings) and Arcadia theaters, as well as UM's Beaumont Cinema. Coconut Grove was home to Richard and James Fendelman's Grove Art Cinema, which opened at about the same time as the Cinematheque (in 1973) and, much later, to Chediak's short-lived Grove Harbour theater. The Grove Art Cinema is probably best remembered for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which played there every weekend for more than ten years and subsidized many of the Cinema's more esoteric offerings.

Those were the salad days for the local art-house scene, and no single event better crystallized the mindset of that time than the notorious bidding war that broke out in 1983 between Chediak and the Fendelmans for the exclusive right to exhibit Werner Herzog's epic Fitzcarraldo. At a time when their average film cost about $2500, the Fendelmans paid $26,500 for Fitzcarraldo, plus a percentage of the profits. The brothers won that battle but nearly lost the war when they had to feature the film for four months and charge the unheard of price (remember, this was 1982) of six bucks a ticket to recoup their investment. All that one needs to know about the differences between that bygone era and today's cinema marketplace is neatly summed up in that image: two competing movie theaters willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of showing a Werner Herzog movie.

Donald Chauncey, the Alliance co-founder, didn't set out to fill Chediak's and the Fendelmans' shoes when he moved to Miami in 1983. In fact, he quickly became a regular patron of Beaumont Cinema and the Cinematheque, along with fellow cinema buffs Scott Shelley and Victor Velt. But neither theater was devoting much energy to the category of films Chauncey and his compatriots were most interested in: experimental cinema. So the trio started holding monthly screenings and special programs on their own at Coral Gables locations such as Books & Books and the local branch of the Dade County Library.

"We became known as the black-plastic people," recalls Chauncey. "We'd go into Books & Books and set up folding chairs and drape black plastic over the windows [to block out light]. It was very makeshift, to say the least."

But their audience, which ranged between 40 and 70 patrons, didn't seem to mind. (It was standing-room-only when ex-adult-film star Veronica Vera showed clips of non-sexist porno, but that was the exception.) As both attendance and screening dates became more regular, the three film buffs incorporated the Alliance for Media Arts as a not-for-profit corporation in 1984 and appointed themselves to the first board of directors. After four years both Shelley and Velt left the area, and were replaced by new board members. Finally, in 1989, the Alliance moved into its own theater in the Sterling building in the Lincoln Road Mall. The familiar black plastic adorned some of the walls, covering up holes in the plaster, and the first seats were white Rubbermaid lawn chairs.

The move to the Beach proved fortuitous. As the Nineties began, both Chediak's and the Fendelmans' once-fashionable independent-film showcases in the Gables and the Grove had closed. Beaumont Cinema in the Gables shut its doors for renovations, lost momentum, and has yet to return to form. Only the Astor Cinema, on the site of Chediak's Arcadia theater in the Gables design district, remains in business today as a home for second-run foreign films. That leaves the Alliance standing alone as the hub of new independent film exhibition in Dade County.

But the theater's survival and burgeoning popularity have not come without a price. While much of the Alliance's menu is daring and innovative compared to the offerings at mainstream cinemas, in order to maintain that popular growth the theater has been forced to show more accessible films than the unorthodox movies it was originally supposed to be an outlet for. Neither Orcutt nor Chauncey has been particularly thrilled by this development. But, true to their progressive roots, the two have come up with a novel solution.

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