Reel Dilemma

Is There an Arthouse War Brewing in Coral Gables?

Robert Rosenberg is acting positively giddy.  “Would you like to see the projection room?” he asks this reporter as he opens a door to reveal a state-of-the-art 35mm projector.  Two Latin American men, presumably behind-the-scenes technicians, are sitting next to the unspooling reels having lunch on this sunny Thursday afternoon in late September.

Rosenberg has plenty of reasons to play the role of the kid in a candy store. As the director of the new Coral Gables Art Cinema, the Emmy-award winning documentarian and founder of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (MGLFF) plans to inject some highbrow movie culture into the increasingly upscale neighborhood.  “It’s a perfect fit, something I’ve been building to all my life,” says Rosenberg earlier that day during the press conference that preceded the preview screening of the theater’s first commercial release, the nonfiction adaptation of the bestseller Freakonomics.  It’s a shrewd, audience-friendly choice to kick off this venue.

The theater, which is located across from Books & Books on the ground floor of a city-owned parking garage, opens its doors to the public this weekend following a red-carpet gala fundraising screening and party Friday night.  The venue had its genesis in 2006 as a partnership between the City of Coral Gables and the non-profit 501(c)3 film arts organization Coral Gables Cinemateque, Inc.

“They did it the right way, in connection with the municipality,” says Cesar Hernandez-Canton, a former theater owner who launched the Absinthe House in the Gables with business partner Johnny Calderin back in 1998.

It’s an ambitious, go-for-broke undertaking, one that’s being received with some ambivalence by Miami’s other arthouse managers.   The source of their reservations is not the venue itself, but some of the wording in Rosenberg’s email blasts and on the theater’s website.  Even though there hasn’t been a single public screening at the time of this writing, the reminder letter for the press conference declares the cinema “will be what we consider the best and most comfortable venue for experiencing independent, alternative and international film in South Florida.”

Not so fast, says Dana Keith, founder and director of the Miami Beach Cinematheque (MBC).  “The public will decide what is ‘best’ and ‘most comfortable.’ Being those things is much more than having good equipment and seats,” he says via email.  Keith is currently putting the finishing touches on the Cinematheque’s new home on the ground floor of Miami Beach’s Historic City Hall on Washington Avenue.  The move comes after eight successful years at their cozy 50-seat venue on Española Way.  In the meantime, he is showing movies at the ballroom of the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue, including Tamra Davis’s documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, which screens this weekend.

“We don’t like to comment specifically on other venues,” says Rosenberg when asked to comment on the aggressive, we’re-better-than-they-are rhetoric in his promotional materials.  “I hope it wasn’t too much hubris for me to say that,” he adds with an impish smirk on his face.

Admittedly, the new theater’s auditorium is an impressive, stadium-seating array of 144 plush, blue-colored chairs which were donated, as founder and president Steve Krams informs the journalists at the press conference, all the way from Mexico.  “It’s an international consortium of all kinds of people from the industry coming together and making a commitment to what we’re doing,” he says.  The cinema is able to screen films in multiple formats, including 16-millimeter and Digi-beta, all set to a Dolby Digital sound system.

Keith remains unfazed when asked about the new venue’s bells and whistles.  “[The MBC's new space] will have state-of-the-art digital projection with fiber optic sound, and several other formats, but flexibility of formats is not the key to success,” he said.

The more pressing question here becomes the effect the Coral Gables Art Cinema will have on the city’s other space for showing arthouse fare, the University of Miami’s Bill Cosford Cinema, which reopened its doors in its current refurbished form in August of 1995.

“It is definitely going be a challenge for both of us,” says Blyth Daylong, assistant dean for Operations and Scheduling for UM’s School of Communication. Daylong sat down with the SunPost on the courtyard of the Frances L. Wolfson Building one week after Rosenberg’s press conference.

“We’re appealing to the same basic audience, and we’re in the same part of town,” he observes.  “There are pros and cons to both.  He definitely has an advantage in that he is open seven days a week.”

Rosenberg emphasizes this feature repeatedly during the press conference.  “We’re a full-service, full-on theater.  [Patrons] won’t have to run to see [a film] that second, because they’ll have an opportunity to see it all week long,” he says.  Rosenberg even plans to have afternoon screenings every day, as early as 1 pm for Freakonomics during the weekend.

Having more showtimes, suggests Daylong, will attract interest from distributors.  “It will give him access to things that would not play at the Cosford.  In terms of retaining our audience, that’s going to be the real trick,” he says.  Daylong doesn’t have anything to feel ashamed of regarding this year’s movie slate at the Cosford.  Previous releases include The Complete Metropolis, the restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1927 social-unrest sci-fi masterpiece (it screened earlier in the year at the Miami Beach Cinematheque), as well as the final half of the saga of real-life French gangster Jacques Mesrine, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, which screens this weekend.

Rosenberg could hardly contain his excitement regarding the “dizzyingly diverse” lineup he has planned for the fall.  As MGLFF’s former program director, it comes as no surprise that two gay-themed titles will screen at the Coral Gables Art Cinema: Howl, the fiction feature debut from documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman starring James Franco as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and Eyes Wide Open, Haim Tabakman’s provocative look at homosexuality in Israel’s Orthodox community.

Even more intriguing is the fact that Rosenberg plans to pursue and screen films with no distribution in the States, such as the female-boxer drama La Yuma.  The film, Guatemala’s answer to Million Dollar Baby, is the country’s first fiction feature in two decades and screened at the Miami International Film Festival earlier this spring.  “If we like the film we will work directly with the filmmaker to set up a way to show it here,” he says.

Finding the right marriage of films and audience proved to be the magic formula for Calderin and Hernandez-Canton. “It was an uphill battle for us, because it was not easy initially to get distributors to give us first-run films,” Hernandez-Canton recounts from his Brickell office.  “A lot of those distributors were not familiar with the venues that existed down here.”

Hernandez-Canton’s solution was to put on a suit and fly out to New York City to meet with Tom Prassis, who was then Vice President of Distribution and Film Sales for Sony Pictures Classics.  The film in question was Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, and Hernandez-Canton was keen on acquiring it for a first-run showing.  “It was a double-edged sword, because you needed to prove that you were capable of bringing in the crowds, but you couldn’t do that unless you had a film that had the legs to run for an extended period of time,” he says.

All About My Mother was a runaway hit at the Absinthe House.  The Foreign-Language Film Oscar winner outgrossed the film’s run at Regal South Beach Cinemas by a margin of nearly 50% and, in its earnings,  ranked 18th in North America.  Its run at the Absinthe House lasted almost five months.  “After that, things started falling into place,” Hernandez-Canton says, although it took him well over a year to reach that place.

His suggestion for the current dilemma that Rosenberg and Daylong face is to find common ground. “All of these exhibitors should somehow work in tandem.  If they can form a working alliance, whereby they’re not cannibalizing from each other, but rather being a unified front as an alternative to the megaplex, they could provide considerably more value to the local market,” he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by current MGLFF program director Kareem Tabsch.  “Everyone is working hard to be the best for their respective communities, and that is okay by me,” he says.  Along with partner Vivian Marthell, Tabsch has been attempting to open O Cinema in the Wynwood district.

Daylong remains skeptical about the chances he and Rosenberg will work in perfect harmony, but is optimistic about the increased exposure the opening of the Coral Gables Art Cinema will have on the rest of Miami’s film community.  “Yes, we’re competition, but I don’t think that’s all we are,” he says.  “The more [new] places open, the more visibility they will bring [to the rest].  Ultimately, it helps everybody.”

And what does Keith think?  “There is no reason to get all grand about who is best and who will program better,” he says. “I’m happy that art film has come of age in Miami, and I’m happy that more awareness means more appreciation and interest.”  As for his future plans, he’d like to send a message to all of Miami’s cinephiles: “Rumor has it that the new MBC will make a debut in this year’s Art Basel, and will be off to an incredible start!  That allows Robert to be ‘best’ for a month and a half.”

Fasten your seat belts, folks.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

About Ruben Rosario

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