By Chuck Strouse
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It's Tuesday night, a good time to catch a foreign film on the Beach. Hmm, isn't the Alliance Cinema tucked away in this alcove on Lincoln Road? Can't see a sign. Looks like a lot of tourists dining here.... Maybe it's the next block down. Used to be able to get to the little theater through the back alley, but that's closed off now.
Where is it?
It's still there, back behind those tables, though the sign is now permanently gone. But it's been a tough couple of months for the Alliance Cinema. More like a rough year. Okay, so the independent movie theater, which opened at 927 Lincoln Rd. in 1990, has never had it easy. But now things have become so bad that it may have to depart its South Beach home, probably when its lease runs out in August 2000. The people at the Alliance trace their problems to several causes: a new nasty landlord, a new megaplex down the street, and a new greedy neighbor. Some people disagree, saying the Alliance should blame itself for financial woes and poor attendance.
Regardless, there's no debate about its dire situation; the audience has dwindled considerably since the summer, so much so that the Alliance was in imminent danger of closing during much of October, according to executive director Joanne Butcher. "Attendance is way, way down," Butcher laments. "No one knows we are here anymore." In fact the theater has not hit $1000 in weekly revenues for several months; last year it averaged between $2500 and $4000. But the city and county recently came up with an emergency advance of $18,000, and it appears as though films, from gay-oriented to foreign to cutting-edge indie, will continue to unspool until the lease is up.
The latest round of troubles started in 1998, after Butcher took over from founders Don Chauncey and Bill Orcutt, and after Sam Herzberg bought the Sterling Building, where the cinema is located. According to Butcher, Herzberg wanted the little nonprofit out from the get-go. During renovations at neighboring Pacific Time, a literal stink arose when two stray cats were plastered in behind new walls and, claims Butcher, Herzberg wouldn't pay to ferret them out. The felines cried, they ran around, they emerged at night through cat-size holes in the wall, and they left trails of food on the Alliance floor. Animal-rights issues aside, Butcher says two carcasses left to rot in the building's skeleton might have had potentially deadly consequences for the theater. Eventually workmen freed the cats, but by then the feral inmates had sown their own revenge and left a flea infestation in the theater that Butcher says took weeks and money to exterminate.
The relationship between tenant and owner grew worse, and by August, when neighbors started building a hotel next door, the Alliance was almost buried. According to Butcher, electrical lines were clipped so that the Alliance courtyard went black (meaning it really looked like no one was home), phone service was disrupted, and a popular rear entrance was locked. Butcher has sued Herzberg, asking for $195,000 in lost revenue and expenses.
Herzberg says he can't comment on litigation, but he thinks his relationship with the theater only recently became adversarial. The Alliance hasn't paid rent since September, he says. "I've given them a grace period. But I've got bills to pay. I've got no choice but to try to evict the tenant," Herzberg comments. "I'm not looking to push the Alliance out. I'd like them to stay. And if they pay rent, they are welcome." The Alliance will fight the eviction proceedings.
Rent isn't the cinema's only problem; another issue looms large down at the end of the mall, in the form of Regal Cinemas' new eighteen-screen theater. When it opened in June, the Regal promised to earmark a couple of screens for alternative film. The megaplex kept its word; one of its first screenings was the gay-theme Edge of Seventeen. Butcher thought the showing was underhanded, or at least a breach of a gentleman's agreement, because the Alliance already had scheduled the film. From Butcher's point of view, it seemed as though both the landlord and the deep-pocketed Regal were trying to run the Alliance off the block. "Cinema distributors didn't want to give us films anymore," Butcher recalls. "It was so devastating."
Ticket sales tanked as the audience flocked to the Regal. So Butcher brought her complaints to City of Miami Beach officials, who quickly brokered an October meeting between the Alliance and Regal. Butcher was happy with the outcome. Turns out it was more lack of communication than devious plot, she says. The Regal "didn't really know we were supposed to be showing [Seventeen]," she says. And lines of communication were opened. "I can call them anytime I want." She even asked the Regal to help out the Alliance financially.
The Regal has no real motivation to do so, of course. "It's not our responsibility to save a competitor, to maintain their success," says Phil Zacheretti, Regal's vice president of marketing and advertising, from the company's Nashville, Tennessee, regional headquarters. "It's not our responsibility if they've got problems with their landlord." He also says it's easy to see why viewers would choose "to come to a better, cleaner venue to see a film." But Zacheretti doesn't want the Regal to be considered a bad guy. He says theater execs are not trying to force out a nonprofit. "We do want to talk. We're trying to be good corporate citizens." And they may offer more than dialogue. "We might be able to help it out; it's a possibility."