Small Screen, Big Bucks

How much does it cost to see a two-dollar movie in Miami? About three million dollars, if you're watching it in Little Havana's Tower Theater.

After the relative success of the Hispanic Film Festival, subsequent festivals dedicated to Peruvian and Colombian film flopped. We just kept losing money, recounts Soto. When their 90-day agreement with the city expired, he and Angulo declined to enter into another one. They say the negative attacks and their tenuous lease arrangement made it impossible to garner support or outside funds.

After the departure of Soto and Angulo, the theater remained closed until Labor Day weekend, when another temporary operating agreement -- this one between the city and 21st Century Cinema, the company that installed the theater's projection equipment -- allowed it to reopen, not as an arts center but as a second-run movie house. The city continues to provide utilities and alarm services at a cost of approximately $2500 per month. As before, the tenant must cover all other operating costs.

Steve Krams, whose company currently is running the Tower, says his business plan is pretty straightforward: Charge rock-bottom prices for whatever films he can scrounge up. Films with Spanish subtitles are not easy to get, he laments. Not that he thinks the Tower's latest incarnation is any kind of long-term solution. Krams says he is pursuing co-occupants such as the Alliance Cinema, the Lincoln Road arthouse that recently closed. His goal for the Tower is to turn it into a community-based theater, like community-access cable but in a theater. In other words a venue not only for film but live performance, dance, and art exhibitions.

Little Havana's Tower Theater: A failure of biblical proportions?
Steve Satterwhite
Little Havana's Tower Theater: A failure of biblical proportions?

Problem is, the space is fairly inhospitable to alternative uses. The lobby runs along only one side of the building, providing a limited gathering space. The original 1000-seat auditorium has been carved up into twin cinemas with a combined total of less than 400 seats. Although the stage in the bigger room may be large enough to accommodate a musical performance or one-act drama, it is hardly suitable for a play requiring large sets or set changes. The building has been beautifully restored, but it remains primarily a movie house.

Then there's the theater's continuing identity crisis, one compounded by the burgeoning local arts scene. A discount movie house recycling mainstream Hollywood releases looks increasingly out of place in a neighborhood that each day features more and more artists' studios and collaboratives like the recently created Arting Together, a cultural center featuring theatrical productions, art, and dance, located directly across the street from the Tower.

This, in fact, may be the ultimate irony. Not only is the Tower not leading the Calle Ocho renaissance, it actually may be hindering it. Second-run movies are not going to bring in people capable of revitalizing a neighborhood, complains Gayton.

Soto agrees: It's very difficult to go from being a two-dollar house to an arts theater. The Tower will probably go out of business.

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