Missing the Big Picture

The problem isn't the new multiplex coming to Lincoln Road. It's that Miami has no indie film scene. At it's not getting better.

"I'm asked ten times a day, 'What are you going to do when the multiplex opens?'" sighs an exasperated Joanne Butcher, director of Miami Beach's Alliance Cinema, located on Lincoln Road two blocks west of the eighteen-screen Regal Cinemas, which opens Friday. "Well, we're going to continue showing the films we show, films the multiplex is never going to show. You're never going to see The Apple at a multiplex," continues Butcher, referring to the Alliance's run of the highly acclaimed and independently distributed film from Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf.

At Regal Cinemas' corporate headquarters in Nashville, there's a similar note of co-existence. "By nature of being in the same business, we're in competition to some degree," concedes Phil Zacheretti, Regal's vice president of marketing. But while the new complex has earmarked a few of its screens for so-called art films, "we're never going to be playing the same pictures," Zacheretti says. "We don't feel a need to put a squeeze on anybody. We recognize the flavor of the area; we know we're not plopping down eighteen screens in the middle of a midstate mall. But you've still got a mass audience in Miami Beach looking for mass Hollywood fare."

A David and Goliath scenario, then, would seem a bit overstated. Yet it's hard not to notice the marked contrast between the nonprofit Alliance Cinema with its single, tiny screen, and the neighboring 3300 seat behemoth -- the latest outpost of the world's largest cinema chain, which has 420 Regal Cinemas locations worldwide.

But even if the immediate future of the Alliance is not in doubt, the opening of the new Regal multiplex does highlight a larger issue: the dismal state of alternative film in Miami. Despite the construction of eighteen new screens, viewing options continue to shrink.

In fact when it comes to showcasing independent film, re-released classics, and touring repertory programs, Miami has one of the most limited scenes of any major city in the United States. The numbers speak for themselves: Miami currently only has one screen fully dedicated to opening new independent films (the Alliance), with a second, the University of Miami's Bill Cosford Cinema, operating for only part of the year, and only occasionally introducing such pictures to the city. In contrast a Midwestern city such as Cleveland, hardly considered a cultural mecca, has eleven screens fully given over to independents, foreign cinema, and widely heralded programs like the François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, and Alfred Hitchcock retrospectives now touring the nation.

There is no single villain at work here, but rather a particularly painful confluence of conservatism and poor planning on the part of local figures, and destructive trends on a national level. What it means is that fewer and fewer truly exciting films will be making their way to Miami. And it may get worse.

Some would suggest the lack of independent film is simply the price of living in Miami. When asked to comment on the dearth, one local arts writer said simply: "Miami is the sticks. You don't get art films in the sticks."

It's an argument that doesn't fly with Nancy Gertsman, copresident of Zeitgeist Films (the distributor of acclaimed titles such as Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, and "new" French Wave pictures Irma Vep from Olivier Assayas, Seventh Heaven from Beno”t Jacquot, and My Sex Life ... or How I Got into an Argument from Arnaud Desplechin). "If there's an audience in Lincoln, Nebraska, for our movies," she says cooly, "then there should be an audience in Miami. We consider Miami a major city, yet we're not able to play our films there as if it were a major venue." The problem for Gertsman is nothing culturally intrinsic to South Florida, however. Rather it's a peculiar business situation, one that was echoed by several other film distributors, small and large.

"Booking is hard these days," Gertsman explains. "There's a real glut of product and not enough theaters. But a lot of the time when you can't find a suitable art theater for the kind of film that Zeitgeist distributes, there's a university film society, some sort of college venue, or a media center -- something that picks up the slack. That's been the problem in Miami. There's never been one centralized place that specialized art films play. Miami is missing a real theater that plays the 'outsider-independent' films, the things that aren't distributed by Miramax or Fine Line." Gertsman cites the Cleveland Cinema-theque as an example of just such a nonprofit, university-sponsored theater, one located in the heart of "the sticks" that still manages to be a place where "films that need special attention can be curated properly."

Of course Miami does have a university-sponsored, nonprofit theater: the Bill Cosford Cinema. To many, however, the Cosford isn't fulfilling the role it could. "The University of Miami spent $250,000 bringing the Cosford up to par," says Nat Chediak, director of the Miami International Film Festival, previously the owner of two Miami art houses in the Seventies and Eighties, and a University of Miami alumnus. "You'd think they would spend a little more for somebody to actually program it properly." Chediak points his finger squarely at professor George Capewell, chair of the university's film department and the Cosford's booker, and accuses him of a lack of programming philosophy and poor marketing.

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