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The blame for Miami's anemic film scene also falls on the local media. Virtually every figure in the industry cites the importance of an impassioned local critic willing to champion independent film as a key ingredient to a city's cinematic health. "Intellectual traditions, cultural ferment, lots of bookstores, a large student population: All these things help make a city a great film town," says author Peter Biskind. "But what's crucial is a local media that nurtures and throws a spotlight on [independent] movies with feature pieces on independent filmmakers."
The Alliance's Joanne Butcher is blunt on the matter. "The New Times sucks," she says. "When they got rid of their local film critic, it changed everything," Butcher continues, referring to New Times's chainwide decision to replace local film writers with a group of Los Angeles-based critics. "Now they'll run reviews of independent films that show at the multiplexes, but not ones that open at the Alliance," she continues. "If the New Times is a local paper, then they ought to be reviewing films that show at a local theater. Because of this [lack of support], the smaller independent distributors know that if they open a film in Miami, they're not going to get publicity, and they're going to die."
Writing in the film journal the Independent, critic Rob Nelson addressed a similar situation in his hometown of Minneapolis, focusing on the role of that city's daily paper and its film reviewer, Jeff Strickler. Nelson writes that Strickler declared "coverage of indies ... is limited in his paper by meager space and resources," then added a revealing comment from the reviewer: "'My job is to report and review, not to support local filmmaking. It is not my job to sell tickets to their movies.'" Nelson continues, "So if I understand this correctly [Strickler's] comprehensive and prominently placed coverage of studio films week in and week out [in the daily paper] does not constitute selling tickets to their movies. It's simply a matter of reporting and reviewing whatever's most worthy of attention. In practice this has meant that a movie that's wide-released by a major studio, even if it sucks, is automatically deemed more worthy than a foreign and/or independent movie playing at [an art house], even if it's great (and could use a leg up)." As this approach spreads to more and more local papers (both weeklies and dailies), film criticism appears increasingly to be simply an extension of the Hollywood publicity machine.
The Cosford's George Capewell, the Absinthe's Hernandez-Canton, and Chediak all echoed this view, saying that their fortunes are by default tied to the Herald's reviews and their "star" rating system. Booking choices become dictated by what will receive a good review, regardless of a film's actual merit. A little-known film that receives four or five stars can thrive, with word of mouth building up audiences beyond the opening weekend's draw. Conversely a poor review, no matter what the size of the national buzz, almost inevitably kills a picture.
From a national perspective, Sony's Tom Prassis cites Cleveland as an example of a city with responsive local criticism. "We got a glowing review of The Governess from the Cleveland paper," he says. "Consequently we were able to play that film for fifteen weeks there. We never expected it to perform that well."
If there's a way out of this impasse, it lies with individuals willing to ignore both national trends and local neglect; with theater owners who see the spread of independent films at multiplexes not as a threat, but as an opportunity. Instead of duplicating the mall's selections, why not choose to dig deeper?
Barron Sherer is a figure who has taken that path, soldiering on week after week with Miami's sole repertory film program, his Cinema Vortex series, which takes place Sundays at noon at the Alliance. Showcasing a wide array of pictures, from lost noir classics Point Blank and The Asphalt Jungle to the experimental work of Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, Sherer hasn't let occasionally small crowds dampen his spirits. "I'm not going to stop," he says firmly. "If somebody figures out how to draw huge crowds in this town, let me know, but I'm not stopping.