Missing the Big Picture

"I'm asked ten times a day, 'What are you going to do when the multiplex opens?'" sighs an exasperated Joanne Butcher, director of Miami Beach's Alliance Cinema, located on Lincoln Road two blocks west of the eighteen-screen Regal Cinemas, which opens Friday. "Well, we're going to continue showing the films we show, films the multiplex is never going to show. You're never going to see The Apple at a multiplex," continues Butcher, referring to the Alliance's run of the highly acclaimed and independently distributed film from Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf.

At Regal Cinemas' corporate headquarters in Nashville, there's a similar note of co-existence. "By nature of being in the same business, we're in competition to some degree," concedes Phil Zacheretti, Regal's vice president of marketing. But while the new complex has earmarked a few of its screens for so-called art films, "we're never going to be playing the same pictures," Zacheretti says. "We don't feel a need to put a squeeze on anybody. We recognize the flavor of the area; we know we're not plopping down eighteen screens in the middle of a midstate mall. But you've still got a mass audience in Miami Beach looking for mass Hollywood fare."

A David and Goliath scenario, then, would seem a bit overstated. Yet it's hard not to notice the marked contrast between the nonprofit Alliance Cinema with its single, tiny screen, and the neighboring 3300 seat behemoth -- the latest outpost of the world's largest cinema chain, which has 420 Regal Cinemas locations worldwide.

But even if the immediate future of the Alliance is not in doubt, the opening of the new Regal multiplex does highlight a larger issue: the dismal state of alternative film in Miami. Despite the construction of eighteen new screens, viewing options continue to shrink.

In fact when it comes to showcasing independent film, re-released classics, and touring repertory programs, Miami has one of the most limited scenes of any major city in the United States. The numbers speak for themselves: Miami currently only has one screen fully dedicated to opening new independent films (the Alliance), with a second, the University of Miami's Bill Cosford Cinema, operating for only part of the year, and only occasionally introducing such pictures to the city. In contrast a Midwestern city such as Cleveland, hardly considered a cultural mecca, has eleven screens fully given over to independents, foreign cinema, and widely heralded programs like the François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, and Alfred Hitchcock retrospectives now touring the nation.

There is no single villain at work here, but rather a particularly painful confluence of conservatism and poor planning on the part of local figures, and destructive trends on a national level. What it means is that fewer and fewer truly exciting films will be making their way to Miami. And it may get worse.

Some would suggest the lack of independent film is simply the price of living in Miami. When asked to comment on the dearth, one local arts writer said simply: "Miami is the sticks. You don't get art films in the sticks."

It's an argument that doesn't fly with Nancy Gertsman, copresident of Zeitgeist Films (the distributor of acclaimed titles such as Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, and "new" French Wave pictures Irma Vep from Olivier Assayas, Seventh Heaven from Beno”t Jacquot, and My Sex Life ... or How I Got into an Argument from Arnaud Desplechin). "If there's an audience in Lincoln, Nebraska, for our movies," she says cooly, "then there should be an audience in Miami. We consider Miami a major city, yet we're not able to play our films there as if it were a major venue." The problem for Gertsman is nothing culturally intrinsic to South Florida, however. Rather it's a peculiar business situation, one that was echoed by several other film distributors, small and large.

"Booking is hard these days," Gertsman explains. "There's a real glut of product and not enough theaters. But a lot of the time when you can't find a suitable art theater for the kind of film that Zeitgeist distributes, there's a university film society, some sort of college venue, or a media center -- something that picks up the slack. That's been the problem in Miami. There's never been one centralized place that specialized art films play. Miami is missing a real theater that plays the 'outsider-independent' films, the things that aren't distributed by Miramax or Fine Line." Gertsman cites the Cleveland Cinema-theque as an example of just such a nonprofit, university-sponsored theater, one located in the heart of "the sticks" that still manages to be a place where "films that need special attention can be curated properly."

Of course Miami does have a university-sponsored, nonprofit theater: the Bill Cosford Cinema. To many, however, the Cosford isn't fulfilling the role it could. "The University of Miami spent $250,000 bringing the Cosford up to par," says Nat Chediak, director of the Miami International Film Festival, previously the owner of two Miami art houses in the Seventies and Eighties, and a University of Miami alumnus. "You'd think they would spend a little more for somebody to actually program it properly." Chediak points his finger squarely at professor George Capewell, chair of the university's film department and the Cosford's booker, and accuses him of a lack of programming philosophy and poor marketing.

"My God, pay somebody proper remuneration and program the Cosford accordingly!" Chediak says. "I'm sure Capewell is doing his best, but he's just not being paid enough to devote his full attention to programming that theater like it should be. Why spend a quarter of a million dollars, just to flush something down the tubes?"

Indeed the bulk of this past season's programming at the Cosford (it closes for the summer) simply duplicated films shown at the AMC CocoWalk, including treacly Hollywood fare such as Playing by Heart. Capewell freely admits these selections could be viewed as uninspired, but points to fall 1999 bookings of several films that otherwise would bypass Miami: Olivier Assayas's latest, Late August, Early September; After Life; and Leila. Moreover he bristles at Chediak's charges.

"I'm a full-time professor! When am I supposed to do all this stuff?" Capewell asks. "All Nat [Chediak] does is the festival. He watches films year-round, period. If I had the budget he has, I'd market more, too. Not to mention all the free ads he gets from the Herald."

Of course Capewell shouldn't have to worry about these things in addition to his teaching schedule, which is precisely the complaint of many who criticize the Cosford's lack of vision. Unwilling to see itself as serving the entire community of Miami instead of just the university campus (closing for the summer -- the perfect time to catch an air-conditioned flick in Miami -- is indicative of this), it stands as one of the few theaters of its ilk without any operating budget for film. While the theater trumpets its upgrade this summer to a THX sound system, it has yet to obtain a grant for ongoing film programming, raising the question: What's more important, quality films or high-tech gadgetry?

For John Ewing, director of the Cleveland Cinematheque, the formula for survival is simple. "One of the keys to the longevity of the Cinematheque is that we do exclusive runs, that's very important," he explains. "If [another art house] is running Life Is Beautiful, I'm not going to touch it. Maybe I could make money, but it would be a waste. Our focus is always on the community at large. We feel as though we're serving a purpose: to bring in films to the greater Cleveland area which wouldn't come to this region otherwise."

As for marketing, Ewing thinks when it comes to screening art films, nothing is more important than producing a good movie calendar: "The calendar is the main vehicle for reaching audiences, and that's borne out when we get crowds for films we've gotten no other publicity on. We showed a Japanese film called Junk Food, and it got no local press. It had nothing going for it besides being done by an interesting young director. But we've built up an audience for Japanese cinema. People were intrigued by the calendar's description of it and we got a good turnout."

"I just don't have the money," answers Capewell when asked about the Cosford's own skimpy calendar. "Three years ago I printed up this nice, glossy program guide. In the film department [at UM] we have three or four well-published authors on film: big minds from Harvard, places like that. I included literary commentary from them on the films. I lost $2000 on it. If that happens again, I'd be out of business."

Ewing's attitude toward exclusivity points out one of the chief problems with the Absinthe House Cinematheque and the Astor Art Cinema (both in Coral Gables), two locally owned art houses that have fallen back on trying to compete with AMC CocoWalk and Sunset Place for the same audience, and the same films. In fact the Astor ran Life Is Beautiful for more than four months while it screened at CocoWalk. Although Life may have been a solid revenue generator, it begs the question of just what the role of an art house is. In a city with a chronic shortage of screens available for truly adventurous fare, isn't running Life Is Beautiful, as Ewing puts it, "a waste?"

Cesar Hernandez-Canton, co-owner of the Absinthe, disagrees. "The audience that goes to see art films does not want to park, go up a flight of stairs, pay for the ticket, go up another flight of stairs to see the movie, and all within a mall environment." Moreover it isn't as if Hernandez-Canton isn't trying to open exclusives at his theater. He cites two foreign films he recently begged distributors for: the astonishing debut from French director Erick Zonca, The Dreamlife of Angels, and the Argentine psychosexual thriller Open Your Eyes. In both cases he was turned down in favor of AMC sites. "The community thinks we don't give a shit about art films, but they don't know what's going on behind the scenes," he says. "I just refuse to accept the proposition that art films go with malls."

Tom Prassis, vice president of sales for Sony Pictures Classics (the distributor for Dreamlife), is sympathetic to Hernandez-Canton's plight, but insists on the need to follow the bottom line when choosing where to book his company's films. "The Absinthe is a fairly good house and we'll play some of our pictures there," he explains. "But they need to build up an audience."

Dreamlife's run at Sunset Place was solid, but unspectacular. Could Sony have made more money by placing the movie in the more art-film-friendly environs of the Absinthe? Hernandez-Canton thinks so, but says he finds himself in a Catch-22 situation. "The distributors say I don't have the grosses to justify them giving me a certain film exclusively," he explains. "But how can I get those grosses if they won't let me open a quality film like The Dreamlife of Angels?"

The Alliance's Joanne Butcher puts it this way: "When the majors see a sex, lies, and videotape or a Brothers McMullen making big dollars, they're not willing to let that go," she says. "They're not satisfied with just doing Titanic and Star Wars. They want every penny that's out there. That's why every big studio has a classics or indie division."

Today's world of independent film can be traced to 1989 and the breakout success of sex, lies, and videotape. The debut feature from the young director Steven Soderbergh, sex was the toast of a then-little-publicized film festival assembled by Robert Redford called Sundance. From there it went on to take the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Financed for $2.5 million (a pittance in the film industry) primarily by a home-video company operating outside the established Hollywood studio system, the film would go on to gross more than $25 million in the United States, and $100 million worldwide. Although sex certainly wasn't the first independent film to grab headlines (John Cassavetes was raising eyebrows with his own self-financed productions back in the Fifties), it proved that independent films could mean big bucks, and for a relatively modest initial investment. It was a trend cemented by the arrival of Quentin Tarantino and the phenomenal international grosses for his second film, Pulp Fiction, in 1994.

Five years later independent film is its own genre, with a parallel universe to Hollywood. It has its own glossy magazines, award shows, and even competing cable networks. In fact the indies now seem less an alternative to Hollywood than merely an adjunct to it. Technically speaking, they are. The bulk of the so-called independent features that receive media attention are in fact released on independent subsidiaries of the major studios. Miramax, once a scrappy hole-in-the-wall outfit, is part of the Disney empire, and outspent the competition by millions on 1999 Oscar ads.

Even the dreaded malls, once the physical antithesis of indie films, have gotten in on the act. Several chains now set aside two to three of their numerous screens at a given multiplex for "art films" -- including the AMC sites at Coconut Grove's CocoWalk and the Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami. The new Regal Cinemas in South Beach will also screen some independent films, mainly the same heavily marketed ones that AMC shows. It also plans to aggressively challenge the Alliance's present near-monopoly on gay-theme releases. Of course this competition could be a blessing in disguise, freeing the Alliance (as well as Miami's other art houses) to fully concentrate on precisely those independent films and treasured re-releases overlooked by the malls. Earmarking screens for art films isn't a chainwide policy, however. Regal's Phil Zacheretti concedes that doing so depends solely on profitability.

Profits of course are what independent film is all about these days. Once the province of artists such as Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, who were not considered bankable enough for Hollywood, it is now a growth industry. The designation "indie film director" is rapidly rivaling "rock star" in the hipness quotient. But as the world of independent film has changed, so has its vision. The bulk of the independent films being shot seem less the product of edgy auteurs, and more like calling cards for Hollywood-bound resume holders. A look at Miami's own South Beach Film Festival bears this out locally, with most of the works differing little from upcoming network TV pilots.

Tom Bernard, copresident of Sony Pictures Classics (the indie-friendly division of Sony), explained this evolution in a recent interview with the New York Times. After mulling over the sharp drop in quality showcased at this year's Sundance Film Festival, he said, "The motivation for most kids to make independent movies is not to have a means of independent expression, to say something you can't say within the system, but to get into the system, become a major director, and get rich."

This growing corporatization of independent film was brought home for the Alliance's Joanne Butcher this past year with the release of Hurricane Streets, a gritty, urban coming-of-age tale directed by newcomer Morgan J. Freeman (no relation to the actor), which took the Audience Award at Sundance. The film's assistant director was Jamin O' Brien, a board member of the Alliance, and the theater's booking agent. The critical success of Hurricane Streets and its resulting purchase at Sundance by MGM would seem to be a triumph for the Alliance. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

"MGM wouldn't let us show it!" exclaims an exasperated Butcher. "The film was a blood relative and they wouldn't let the Alliance show it." Apparently MGM had its sights set on a mainstream market for Hurricane Streets. "Then when it was a box-office failure, we still had to fight for the film," she continues. "The only reason we finally got it was because a guy I know in MGM's accounting department leaned on their distribution department and forced them to return my phone calls. That's the only reason that film ever made it to Miami. MGM is going to pick up an 'Alliance' film and then they're going to kill it. It's just corporate arrogance. They don't know how to market these films."

Hurricane Streets is not the only example of Hollywood's mismanagement of indie films. Sitting on a panel at the Wolfsonian-FIU in February as part of the Miami International Film Festival, the venerable film critic Andrew Sarris struck a tone similar to Butcher's. Hollywood no longer knows how to reach adult audiences, he lamented, decrying a trend in which the bulk of the studio's promotional efforts are aimed at the highly profitable teenage market. Quality pictures, even those made by proven talents, are simply cast to the wind. Consequently two of Sarris's picks as 1998's best (Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan) were box-office disasters. Marketed as mainstream pictures and screening mainly at malls, the two films failed to connect with audiences, despite being aesthetically accessible and having the Hollywood advertising juggernaut at their disposal.

There is no small irony at play. Rewarded with a big budget and studio backing after his indie debut, Soderbergh's original fans deserted him. This despite Out of Sight's star power (Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney), a bankable Elmore Leonard-based script, and unanimous critical praise. Raimi, too, received glowing accolades for A Simple Plan, with many calling it the long-awaited masterpiece from a director who made similar waves in indie circles with his low-budget 1983 cult horror classic The Evil Dead, taking an award at Cannes for that self-financed picture.

Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a history of Seventies Hollywood and its modern evolution, is blunt. "Had Out of Sight been marketed by a smaller distributor, it would have been a hit," he says, certain that the same audiences that flocked to the similarly themed Get Shorty would have bought tickets. But because the film was budgeted at more than $20 million, it was automatically assigned to the major Hollywood "parent" of October Films. "They just have no idea how to work that kind of film," Biskind asserts. He believes A Simple Plan died financially for the same reason.

Moreover indie films in general, even the ones marketed as such, are falling victim to commercial pressures. "Distribution patterns of independent films are becoming more and more like the majors," continues Biskind. "There's a glut of independent films on the market, and there are many more films than there are screens, so they're getting into the same situation as studio films. The first weekend is crucial in deciding whether the film is going to be retained on the screen or not."

Foreign cinema particularly gets lost in the shuffle. Even more so than with domestic indies, rigid formulas apply in marketing foreign films to American audiences: Merchant-Ivory bodice-rippers, Shakespearean-theme pageants, and middle-of-the-road weepers are the only types of foreign pictures considered financially viable.

Accordingly several mainstream critics have wondered aloud as to the whereabouts of the successors of the great foreign directors of the Sixties and Seventies. Where are the inheritors of the spirit of Godard, Bergman, and Fellini? The truth is this next generation is hard at work in their native lands, but thanks to the vagaries of distribution, their films are erratically screened in America, and often below the media radar.

Ignored by the studio-run indies (and thus, shut out of the malls), exposing these movies to American audiences is left to truly independent distributors such as Kino (which released Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels and Happy Together), New Yorker Films (Serbian director Emir Kusturica's Underground and Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple), and Zeitgeist Films, all of whom must now compete for the single screen at the Alliance or the Cosford.

For the Absinthe the solution to this business dilemma may be to opt out of the competition altogether. By the end of the summer, co-owner Cesar Hernandez-Canton hopes to switch the programming of the Absinthe to retrospectives, beginning with a sampling of the work of director Federico Fellini in July. The horizon is less certain, though. In the year 2000 the theater's lease is up, and Hernandez-Canton's landlord has expressed a desire to convert the building into more lucrative office space.

"This is a strange market," Hernandez-Canton says with a note of weariness in his voice. "You're competing with the ocean and the beach. You're not freezing your ass off in the rain when you get out of work every day, like in New York, which makes you want to see a show."

Don't talk about the weather to Nat Chediak. "I don't materialize an audience of 41,000 out of thin air!" he says with a roar, referring to the record crowds this past year for the Miami International Film Festival. "These people are here. I don't invent them. They don't come out to the movies for ten days in February and then go away skiing."

Chediak's success with the festival hasn't gone unnoticed locally. Instead of inspiring a multiscreen art house (such as Fort Lauderdale's Gateway Theater), however, the example of those 41,000 paying customers has sparked only more festivals. The motivation seems less to showcase quality cinema that would otherwise remain unseen in Miami, than simply to make money.

"Everybody wants to do festivals now," Chediak says dryly. "They go to Gusman, they see a packed house, and like any dunce, they think, 'Hey, I can do that!' Look at the Hispanic Film Festival. I swear to you, 39 Spanish films and not a single one I would recommend to anyone I call a friend. Look at the Brazilian Film Festival. Opening night is Central Station [a film that played for months at CocoWalk and the Absinthe]. Everybody and their mother has already seen that movie! What's the point?"

The blame for Miami's anemic film scene also falls on the local media. Virtually every figure in the industry cites the importance of an impassioned local critic willing to champion independent film as a key ingredient to a city's cinematic health. "Intellectual traditions, cultural ferment, lots of bookstores, a large student population: All these things help make a city a great film town," says author Peter Biskind. "But what's crucial is a local media that nurtures and throws a spotlight on [independent] movies with feature pieces on independent filmmakers."

The Alliance's Joanne Butcher is blunt on the matter. "The New Times sucks," she says. "When they got rid of their local film critic, it changed everything," Butcher continues, referring to New Times's chainwide decision to replace local film writers with a group of Los Angeles-based critics. "Now they'll run reviews of independent films that show at the multiplexes, but not ones that open at the Alliance," she continues. "If the New Times is a local paper, then they ought to be reviewing films that show at a local theater. Because of this [lack of support], the smaller independent distributors know that if they open a film in Miami, they're not going to get publicity, and they're going to die."

Writing in the film journal the Independent, critic Rob Nelson addressed a similar situation in his hometown of Minneapolis, focusing on the role of that city's daily paper and its film reviewer, Jeff Strickler. Nelson writes that Strickler declared "coverage of indies ... is limited in his paper by meager space and resources," then added a revealing comment from the reviewer: "'My job is to report and review, not to support local filmmaking. It is not my job to sell tickets to their movies.'" Nelson continues, "So if I understand this correctly [Strickler's] comprehensive and prominently placed coverage of studio films week in and week out [in the daily paper] does not constitute selling tickets to their movies. It's simply a matter of reporting and reviewing whatever's most worthy of attention. In practice this has meant that a movie that's wide-released by a major studio, even if it sucks, is automatically deemed more worthy than a foreign and/or independent movie playing at [an art house], even if it's great (and could use a leg up)." As this approach spreads to more and more local papers (both weeklies and dailies), film criticism appears increasingly to be simply an extension of the Hollywood publicity machine.

The Cosford's George Capewell, the Absinthe's Hernandez-Canton, and Chediak all echoed this view, saying that their fortunes are by default tied to the Herald's reviews and their "star" rating system. Booking choices become dictated by what will receive a good review, regardless of a film's actual merit. A little-known film that receives four or five stars can thrive, with word of mouth building up audiences beyond the opening weekend's draw. Conversely a poor review, no matter what the size of the national buzz, almost inevitably kills a picture.

From a national perspective, Sony's Tom Prassis cites Cleveland as an example of a city with responsive local criticism. "We got a glowing review of The Governess from the Cleveland paper," he says. "Consequently we were able to play that film for fifteen weeks there. We never expected it to perform that well."

If there's a way out of this impasse, it lies with individuals willing to ignore both national trends and local neglect; with theater owners who see the spread of independent films at multiplexes not as a threat, but as an opportunity. Instead of duplicating the mall's selections, why not choose to dig deeper?

Barron Sherer is a figure who has taken that path, soldiering on week after week with Miami's sole repertory film program, his Cinema Vortex series, which takes place Sundays at noon at the Alliance. Showcasing a wide array of pictures, from lost noir classics Point Blank and The Asphalt Jungle to the experimental work of Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, Sherer hasn't let occasionally small crowds dampen his spirits. "I'm not going to stop," he says firmly. "If somebody figures out how to draw huge crowds in this town, let me know, but I'm not stopping.

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