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Notes from Underground Film

Astroll along the Miami River one recent Sunday evening didn't seem particularly promising. The rains had subsided, the river flowed calmly, nothing much disturbed the slumber of a rusting freighter slouched along the north bank. Over at Tobacco Road, the regulars were huddled over beers, largely ignoring a boxing match...
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Astroll along the Miami River one recent Sunday evening didn't seem particularly promising. The rains had subsided, the river flowed calmly, nothing much disturbed the slumber of a rusting freighter slouched along the north bank. Over at Tobacco Road, the regulars were huddled over beers, largely ignoring a boxing match on the bar TV. But upstairs in the cabaret, something unusual was about to happen. A projectionist methodically set up a screen, some speakers, and a digital projection system. A few people trickled in with beer and burgers in hand from downstairs. Then, within minutes, the tiny black-and-red space was packed. With little marketing and less fanfare, independent cinema came back to town.

Welcome to Detonate, the Reel Indie Film night in Miami, a weekly program of really independent films. Featuring an eclectic mix of short dramas, experimental video art, documentaries, and longer fiction films, Reel Indie screens movies you have never heard of, featuring actors you probably have never seen. The programming always features some South Florida talent among the mix, but the subject matter and styles of film range widely from week to week, as does the quality of the prints that are screened. The bar ambiance keeps the program informal and certainly improves the choices for refreshment.

Reel Indie is the brainchild of Tom Griffith, a local filmmaker who produces the series with his wife and producing partner, Jean Holland Griffith. The couple is aided by Jean's son, Smith Parkins -- a jack-of-all-trades who triples as the team's cinematographer, postproduction man, and aforementioned projectionist -- and Keri Lynn Hoffman, who handles marketing as well as working as an actress in Griffith's films and other local projects.

Griffith is an earnest, amiable man whose passion for independent cinema led him to abandon a career as a tennis pro to follow his movie dreams. His conservative appearance belies his fierce opinions about the corporate stranglehold on movies and the star system in general.

"We're now in a star-driven culture that demands big stars in every aspect of public life: movies, fashion, news, magazines," he says. "We want to know who's wearing what, who's screwing who. It's ridiculous. And also very expensive." The star system may work for corporate interests, but securing name talent for small projects is cost prohibitive. "And without stars, most films never get distribution, never get seen. But many deserve to be seen. That's what we are doing here."

Ask Griffith about the indie film scene and he really gets wound up. "A true indie film is a picture that is completely produced and financed outside the Hollywood system. The so-called independent films we see in the cineplexes are just as corporate and studio packaged as the bigger pictures. The true indies have next to no chance for distribution. So what happens to them?"

As for the film festivals being the preferred arena for unknown projects, Griffith scoffs at that notion. "Most festivals have become big businesses. They're not interested in the little guy anymore. Look at Toronto or Sundance or Telluride. They're all screening the same films. They all look the same, they all are star driven, they all have studio distribution.... And that includes the Miami Film Festival."

Reel Indie's programming follows a certain model: Some local films are always included. No student films or exploitation films are allowed, and the films that are have to have some prior exhibition, either at contests or festivals or on the Internet. Filmmakers receive a percentage of the take, but with only two showings (Detonate also runs once a week at a bar in Hollywood), "filmmakers are lucky if they get enough to pay for the print and the postage."

A recent program featured "Chick Flix," films directed and produced by women. A quick series of video art shorts by local artists was followed by Keepers, a dramatic short from England's Rebecca Promitzer. Promitzer, who makes her living as a movie set decorator, has a great eye for color and design, and features (of course) some evocative, striking sets. The film, however, was hampered by uneven acting and amateurish musical scoring. Next up was Julie Morrison's The Magnificent Andersons, a wry documentary definitely not to be confused with Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. Winner of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, Morrison's doc records the lives of a family of dirt-poor survivalists in the New Mexico desert whose genuine charm and love for one another is disturbingly juxtaposed with their paranoid fears of alien invasions, government coups, and Armageddon in general. The program wrapped with Instructions Not Included, an accomplished Israeli film about a young woman's struggles with romance and friendship. Well acted and well shot, Instructions left the audience ready for next week's program.

Griffith got the idea for his microcinema concept from another iconoclast, Brian Standing, who runs a similar underground cinema program in Madison, Wisconsin. According to Griffith, Standing has developed a strong following in Madison by featuring offbeat films, including local product, in alternative settings such as bars and restaurants. Based on Standing's model, Griffith uses grassroots marketing to reach and build an audience. "We can't afford a quarter-page ad in newspapers, or any ads at all. We market one person at a time: by e-mail lists and by word of mouth." Reel Indie's association with the Madison program has developed into a cooperative relationship. Programming now travels regularly between Florida and Wisconsin, and each place can add new films to future programs. The microcinema movement might develop into a national trend, according to Griffith; the co-op expects to expand to St. Louis and Spokane in the near future.

The "movie and a beer" concept has been kicked around the business for some time. Upscale cinebars have been a success in South America, and the trend has been closely followed by American exhibitors. Two years ago both AMC and Cineplex Odeon, two major North American chains, trumpeted their own plans for upmarket cinemas with bar service in New York and Los Angeles, but the venues have yet to be built. And that leaves the field wide open for minimoguls like Griffith.

Plans for the future? "We would like to investigate a move into television. There isn't anything like what we do. Even the Independent Feature Channel just screens the big stuff, Bertolucci, the Coen Brothers. So we hope to approach a local station for air time to screen all this new stuff. There's plenty out there to see."

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