At 10 years old, when most boys his age were obsessed with He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Kareem Tabsch couldn't get enough of PBS.
"I was that odd kid who started watching things for a much, much older audience than I was," Tabsch laughs. "My parents were like, 'That's so boring. What are you watching?'... A lot of it was the local PBS station. I watched all of the Britcoms on TV, all of the dramas, all of the films, all these little mini-movies. And then I started discovering other movies."
It was the beginning of a lifelong love of film for Tabsch, who grew up in Miami Lakes and is the cofounder, with partner Vivian Martell, of O Cinema. Launched in a Wynwood warehouse about three years ago, O has earned a loyal following among Miami cinephiles who appreciate its collection of weird, socially conscious, and indie films.
Tabsch says O Cinema's selections are curated to appeal to the unique mix of young, artsy types and older, well-educated creatives who frequent its locations in Wynwood and Miami Shores.
The decision to launch an arthouse cinema in Miami, on the other hand, wasn't quite as calculated.
"[Martell and I] spent a lot of time bitching about what was not going on in Miami," he recalls. They worked together at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and shared disappointment that many of the rejected films likely wouldn't be screened at the city's then-limited number of other venues. "[We thought,] Well, we could just bitch about it all the time — and we were getting very good at that; I'm a master complainer — or we could do something about it. We thought maybe we should open a movie theater."
Fueled by a Knight Foundation matching arts grant, O Cinema opened in 2011. Since then, Tabsch says, his proudest moments have been those that bring the community together. The cinema's screening of Marley in 2012, for example, drew film buffs, reggae fans, and Miami's large Jamaican community. O's 2012 celebration of the tenth anniversary of the film Cocaine Cowboys by the local filmmaking company Rakontur also stands out as a favorite event.
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"We have a really amazing relationship with the Rakontur guys — Billy [Corben], Alfred [Spellman], and David [Cypkin]. They're like extended family for us," Tabsch says. "The reunion we had, with Edna Buchanan and Mickey Munday, that was actually the first time all those people had ever been in the same room. What's special about that for me is we're celebrating Miami homegrown talent... Plus, it's the amazing people. Edna Buchanan is a fucking legend. I was totally like a fanboy."
In the coming months, O Cinema has plans to expand with an outdoor space for showing free films, designed to be a "convener of community," Tabsch says. The theater is up for another Knight grant, which would fund a technology upgrade and the addition of a small screening room with about 30 seats, "for smaller films that don't necessarily warrant being on the big screen." A third theater in a new area of Miami is also on the agenda, Tabsch informs.
But he can't take all the credit. "People say, 'You're the face of O Cinema,' but really I'm just the loudest," he laughs. "Vivian is this brilliant woman who's been involved in the arts community in South Florida for such a long time... And Matt Walter and Kevin Bosch... bring a passion for not just film but also for what we do.
"And they put up with me," he says, grinning. "Which, really, is not easy."