Film & TV

Secret Celluloid Society Makes Saturday Night Screenings the Place to Be

It's been over a year since the first time I met Nayib Estefan in the back room of Gramps, just as he was starting up Shirley's and telling me just how badly he wanted to bring classic films to Miami through Secret Celluloid Society (SCS). To think that over that year a few movies shown digitally next to an open bar would become what can only be described as the ideal classic film experience.

The second I start recording, just before the 35mm screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, our conversation kicks off:

"I need your help, Juan Barquin of the Miami New Times," Estefan says, trying not to laugh just yet. "I have been trying to contact a high-level executive at El Dorado Furniture, to get them to donate a VIP couch for the front row of After Hours. I want one of the brown ones that recline with a little stick, on each side, so that we can let two or four lucky people — I prefer four — come to the front and recline."

The idea for throwing in a couch came to him after talking with the Miami Herald's Rene Rodriguez, he'd mentioned that he'd never seen 2001 in a theater. "They won't return our calls or emails,” he adds, so I joke that I’ll happily do it as long as I get to sit in it if and when he brings Showgirls.

That's exactly the kind of warm conversation you'll get when talking to Nayib — even when he shifts gears into film nerd mode, which is a total pleasure — who pretty much talks to every single person in that theater looking to chat and makes them feel right at home.

"I want to see if Miami has the kind of audience that L.A. does," Estefan said back then, and anyone who has attended one of the many films he's shown can testify that it does. And they're a fascinating mix of audience members. Some just come to say they went, slipping out in the middle of a movie they've never seen before while some others get drunk and leave after falling asleep on strangers, casually telling them to fuck off.

There's the first-timers of all ages, the film nerds who could easily tell you every detail of a semi-obscure movie only half the audience knows about, the folks who have established names for themselves in the Miami art scene long before now, and families passing down important art to a new generation who deserves to experience what they once did. It's these that he refers to like they're family, because they're all here for the same thing: the real classic movie experience.

"There is always this point, usually around the middle of the movie at After Hours, where you have the feeling that there is no place you'd rather be but in this theater finishing the rest of this movie. And I feel that every week," he admits.

At the screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey on 35mm, where at least twenty people had to be turned away at the door, we hung out for a solid six hours. This is, amazingly enough, one of ten screenings — out of thirteen so far this summer — in which the theater was totally sold out. Until 4:26 a.m., when everyone finally went presumably home, there were anywhere from 150 to ten people lounging around, talking about movies and how much they dig what Secret Celluloid Society offers.

That discussion isn't just limited to in-person chats, though: you can see folks buzzing about screenings online too. Check out the Coral Gables Art Cinema geotag on Instagram and you'll see how excited people are. But of all the coolest things that happen in person, it's watching some folks waiting until the reel rolls out entirely, when you can find one or two strange frames tossed in after the credits and people recording to catch it.

"It has been interesting to see how the Miami public rises up to challenging movies and situations in terms of supporting and celebrating these movies. I always feel like people underestimate the Miami crowd," he states. "What this has evolved into, over here, is like a mutation of Shirley's. It's almost like Kiss, with Kiss' Alive! This is the Alive! of SCS. And I think that's why everyone gets so hyped on it: the big amps, the dude spitting blood, Ace Frehley's guitar."

And a big ol' party it is! Watching Nayib setting up a playlist full of Bowie and music from Carl Sagan's Cosmos among others to get the crowd going, and witnessing his excitement — and that of dozens of others once intermission starts — of just how pristine the print of 2001 looks. But even when it's not perfect — like with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and its literal missing scenes — there's still fun to be had. They're like old relics, with people still cheering for their existence, and as Nayib says, "You can feel the history on those prints."

There are rounds of applause for movies all the time, and even for when Nayib goes around introducing the audience to people in the room he's fond of and raffles to strangers at 1:45 a.m. of random cool objects at the most low-key events. And the big time screenings feature everything from shadowcasts for Rocky Horror Picture Show that drag the audience in for fun, liquid nitrogen being shot into the theater during Ghostbusters, and - coming up in September - a literal Hedwig and the Angry Inch screening featuring a sing-along with Tony Award-winning actress Lena Hall and musical co-creator Stephen Trask.

But none of this would be possible without many others, and Estefan refers to his collaborators by way of a different band, Grateful Dead, whose presence is often brought up and not just in the dope patches SCS just sold.

"I keep making Grateful Dead references because we're really headed that way. They had their own legacy because they had an ability to do things their own way, that they wanted to do when they wanted to. And everyone who was into it and wanted to was along for the ride. SCS has now grown into something that has become bigger than me and I appreciate that and love that," he explains.

And there's many he thanks outright, outside of the people who buy tickets that he's come to know and love. There's Bryan Herrero, who initially started by attending every which After Hours and Shirley's screening he could and inevitably became Nayib's right hand man. "Bryan has been instrumental in keeping everything going, and really saved me from a mental breakdown this summer."

Then there's Ben Delgado and Javier Chavez at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, who Nayib says "couldn't have come into his life at a better time." Along with them is Steven Krams, who he describes at Secret Celluloid Society's Jerry Garcia [of the Grateful Dead fame] and the man who made it all possible who always radiates "mad positive energy."

"I always say it's like High Fidelity: everybody has their own thing that they're passionate and they have arguments about what's better and nobody's right because everybody has their own perspective," he posits about his work-family of sorts. "But the fact that everyone is so into something and working together, it makes it something special."

It's certainly come a long way since the Mannequin screening as Shirley's that served as the interview spot for the first time we met. He describes the shift from Gramps to here with another apt band comparison. "It's basically like an evolution of an art project that went wrong. It's like Devo."

That art project isn't done evolving. While Gables Cinema is having a 70mm projector installed, offering up even more possibilities for movies on film, Nayib seems truly focused on one cool idea: a traveling movie theater. After buying and revamping an old bookmobile, adding in 35mm projection and DCP, he's planning on taking over multiple spots in Miami to project all kinds of films in every which scenario.
"I've always dreamt of joining the circus, of being a carnie," he offers. "And there's a certain freedom to that and a certain freedom to being able to travel and move your circus. There's something to be said about being free and not being tied to anywhere.

But it all goes back to ensuring his audience is having a great time and finding themselves immersed in the moviegoing experience. He recalls some advice his friend Kenny Ortega (Newsies, Hocus Pocus, High School Musical) gave him when he was directing the shadowcast of Rocky. "Make sure that the audience knows that you know that they're there. They need to know that you're doing this for them."

With their enthused reactions, they definitely do. He polls the audience on what they'd rather watch in October: Friday the 13th Part III in 3D or Jaws 3D, both on 35mm. He talks with the folks waiting for popcorn, bringing up all sorts of movies, like Milo & Otis and Moscow on the Hudson. He thanks the volunteers and reminds folks to get their free popcorn and tickets for The Holy Mountain early (so they don't end up like those turned away at the door). Hell, he even announces the line-up for the upcoming two months, which includes Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Grease, Revenge of the Nerds, Little Shop of Horrors, Hausu, The Fly, Dawn of the Dead, The Thing, Night of the Demons, Eraserhead, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, almost all of which are on 35mm.

"When I started this project, my dream was always to run a classic theater, from time that doesn't exist anymore. A time of a certain music or a certain drugs or certain parties or crowds or cults; before the Internet," he admits.

"Rocky Horror was the place to be if you were weird and it was a place they wouldn't judge you. You were there and everyone was as weird as you were. That time disappeared for a while, and when I started this project, that was always my ideal crowd and vibe. I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off, but starting it at Gramps, I ended up seeing that a lot of people were on the same page."

He tells me all this near the end of the evening, long after most people have gone home thrilled about the fact that they saw an essential work of art on film in Miami. But Nayib adds one last thing, "I feel like we're at that time again." And he's damn right. 

Follow Juan Barquin on Twitter @woahitsjuanito
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.