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Curtains for the Alliance Cinema?

Joanne Butcher, the Alliance's executive director, says the theater that helped create Lincoln Road is getting no respect
Steve Satterwhite

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."

The Alliance, however, needs more than garage films to succeed. "We need A+ films," says Butcher. Her grading is based not on quality but on the power to attract the groups that have been the Alliance's core support: the gay market, the "hipsters," and the "New York Times crowd," according to Butcher. During the summer and autumn, as revenues plummeted, it became more difficult to pay for A+ films, she comments.

Even if the Alliance were offering topnotch films, it's possible some people would miss the theater altogether. After the café Pacific Time Next Door closed in October, Shelly Abramowitz set up South Beach Stone Crabs in its place. But Abramowitz has more tables, and according to Butcher, they blocked the passage that leads to the Alliance. The Alliance sign was also shunted to the side, so that few people walking the mall would notice it. "Nobody could find us," Butcher says. A game of cat and mouse began: Butcher would pull the sign out and someone from South Beach Stone Crabs would push it back against the wall. Butcher says she took pictures of the offending tables, but "he [Abramowitz] shouted at me.... Now I'm too scared to take pictures anymore."

Abramowitz, not surprisingly, sees it another way. He says he accommodated the sign as best he could. (Legally signs are not allowed on the street, and the landlord ordered it removed Thanksgiving week.) And he has not blocked the theater's passageway: "There needs to be six feet of aisle. I've given them eight, ten feet." As for the Alliance, "personally, I think it should stay. Nobody's trying to force them out. I want them to grow and prosper. But let's face it, their problems started long before I got here. I've only been open three weeks, and she's behind three months on rent."

Abramowitz goes a bit further. "The problem really is [the Alliance] has run its course," he says. "There's now a huge movie theater down the street, new, with nice seats. It's economics. They can't afford the rent."

He may have a point. The sad but inevitable reality could be that Lincoln Road's days as an art center for Miami and the Beach are over. Rents have skyrocketed; even the crowds have changed. Robert Rosenberg, a local filmmaker and organizer of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, who has worked with the Alliance (and received backing from the Regal), says the process of gentrification often is painful. "Unfortunately, while the area is crowded and popular, it has lost a lot of the arty, funky, bohemian quality that attracted me in the first place."

And while the ground changed beneath it, the Alliance may have lost its vision. Rosenberg has seen it happen before in New York and Boston, where only those arts groups that planned well survived. "The independent theaters that remain [in gentrified neighborhoods] are those that had the foresight, and money, to buy their space. But it takes a certain amount of stability and financial security to do that."

Neither gentrification nor competition are to blame for the Alliance's woes, says a Miami Beach arts supporter, who doesn't want to be named. He thinks the indie organization has been poorly managed for some time. "They still think like it's 1991, that people will just come because they are the only game in town," he says. "Nowadays you have to work for your audience, whether its live theater or film. It can be done if the product is good."

If the Alliance shuts its doors on Lincoln Road, it won't be the first group to do so. Area Stage, the Miami Light Project, and other arts-related groups packed up several years ago. It's a cultural hemorrhage the city of Miami Beach wants to put a clamp on, says Ronnie Singer, executive assistant to the city manager. "We've been losing some of those early institutions, and we don't want the Alliance to go," she says. The city would like to convince Lincoln Road businesses that keeping groups such as the Alliance is to the long-term benefit of everyone. "Part of the attraction is that we are not Anywhere, U.S.A. We want the private sector to have a role in supporting these groups, but it's not something we can impose." Government did provide a financial shot in the arm in late October, when the city forwarded to the theater $8000 that was not due until next June. The county ponied up $10,000 in emergency aid plus a $25,000 arts grant, which will come through in December.  

But even with last-minute funding, even if tables didn't discourage entry, even if the Regal hadn't scooped off the cream of the gay movie crop, even if the landlord were nicer, the Alliance's physical and psychological place on Lincoln Road may have disappeared. Butcher feels some bitterness. "We were part of the creation of Lincoln Road, and now we're treated like a pariah. We helped power the economic development, and we should be rewarded. But we are not."

Butcher is considering a possible solution to keep the Alliance on Miami Beach, though not in South Beach. It's called the Byron-Carlyle, and it's a large six-screen theater up on 71st Street. Currently it shows second-run movies at discount prices. But Butcher pictures it as "a multimedia arts facility. The possibilities are very exciting." The likelihood of the Alliance relocating such a long distance from its initial base, and of it being able to afford such a spacious facility, might seem slim. Then again good corporate friend Regal Cinemas leases the Carlyle and the closest restaurant with outdoor tables is a block away. The Regal's Zacheretti wouldn't discuss the idea in detail, saying only "we haven't made any promises."

anne_tschida@miaminewtimes.com


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