Art cinemas flourishing in Miami

Smack in the middle of an unremarkable city block in Wynwood, O Cinema — with its neon-blue exterior and mural of cute monsters and precocious aliens — looks out of place, like a pop art gallery that got lost on its way to Art Basel, or a quirky day-care center for parents of extra-terrestrials.
The moment you step inside the place, though, you latch onto the vibe. A year after its grand opening, the nonprofit cinema has grown into one of Miami’s coolest hangouts for fans of eclectic films; home to several art galleries featuring rotating exhibits; a mini-shop of so-obscure-it’s-cool memorabilia; and a former warehouse — once used for wood working and electrical engineering — that has been converted into a cozy, 55-seat theater with a large screen, a full-service snack and wine bar and some of the most comfortable couches you will ever sit in.
Despite the odds — an out-of-the-way location, challenging programming and little to no advertising budget — the O Cinema hasn’t just survived its first year: The theater is actually thriving, with plans to expand.
The O has also become a vital element of a surging art house cinema scene that extends throughout the area. To wit:
• At the O, a weeklong retrospective of the films by the Miami-based rakontur studio sold out nearly every night; documentaries such as Page One: Inside the New York Times drew larger audiences than at the Regal South Beach; anime fans trekked south from as far as West Palm Beach — by bus! — decked out in full character regalia for the premiere of Fullmetal Alchemist; and the original Battle Royale — a Japanese movie rarely screened in the United States that makes The Hunger Games seem like Disney fodder — is scheduled to screen at the theater beginning April 5.
• The Coral Gables Art Cinema, which also opened in 2011, already has film distributors begging to get into the theater. Pina, the recent 3D dance documentary by director Wim Wenders, grossed a whopping $16,000 in its first week at the theater — the fifth highest gross in the entire country. In November, Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In earned $18,000 its opening week, even though the film was also playing at area multiplexes.
• The Tower Theatre in Little Havana, which is operated by Miami Dade College, sold an astonishing $15,000 worth of tickets during the first week of the Iranian drama A Separation (by comparison, the movie grossed an average of $8,600 per screen at other theaters that week). The Tower’s aggressive slate of programming for April includes the new film by Zhang Yimou, Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, and the Italian drama We Have a Pope, directed by Nanni Moretti.
• At the swank Miami Beach Cinematheque, movies that might have once never reached South Florida — such as Bela Tarr’s magnificent The Turin Horse and Céline Sciamma’s acclaimed French drama Tomboy — are regularly screened.
• And at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, the programming has become eclectic enough to include the Miami premiere of avant-garde artist Matthew Barney’s controversial Cremaster Cycle (all five parts of it), glorious 35 mm retrospective screenings (including Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend), new releases such as The Kid with a Bike (which opens April 6) and, for fun, occasional late-night showings of fan favorites such as Back to the Future.

What exactly is going on here? Kareem Tabsch and Vivian Marthell, who co-founded the O Cinema with the help of a $400,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Arts Foundation, believe the resurgence of the Miami art house scene is the result of a classic snowball effect.
“Our job is not to make sure people love every single movie they see here,” Tabsch says. “Our job is to make sure every time people come here, they feel like they’re at home, and they’re at a place like no other in town. Some of the smaller movies we’ve shown — Trollhunter or Human Centipede 2 or Hobo with a Shotgun — haven’t always sold out. But the people who came to see them all said this was the funkiest theater they had ever been to, and so they come back the following week to see whatever we’re showing.”
“We’ve learned our job involves a lot more than showing movies,” Marthell says. “We have to create an ambience. We draw the youngest audience in town, so we have to make the space cool for them. We want everyone to remember that the strange weird movie they saw and loved, they saw it at the O Cinema.”
Filmmakers agree that the vibe and presentation of a movie can be critical in cultivating a loyal audience who turns out week after week, slowly growing into a community while expanding its cinematic tastes.
“I think places like the O Cinema may well be the future of nonmainstream movie-going in America,” says acclaimed director John Sayles, who participated in a Q&A discussion at the O Cinema in November after a screening of his latest film Amigo. “The theater has a very nice mood, a real personality, and it makes you want to go back there to check out movies you may not be aware of, just to enjoy the place. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon they’ll be screening movies there that have already been released on the Web, but people would like to see a second time on a bigger screen with their friends.”
Oscar-winning director Fernando Trueba, who attended the opening weekend of his animated musical Chico & Rita at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, says the care that the theater put into the promotion and marketing of the film makes a huge difference in ensuring the audience who would most appreciate his work would find it.
“[Programmer] Robert Rosenberg has been amazing with his attention to all the little details: Promoting the movie with e-mail blasts, selling CD soundtracks and graphic novels in the theater lobby, and then the sound and image in the theater is tremendous. This is exactly the kind of thing that can bring back Miami’s luster as an international home for art films.”
Distributors, too, are taking notice. Cary Jones, vice president of national sales for IFC Films and Sundance Selects, says the variety of art house venues in Miami is a big boon, since their distinct vibes and audiences afford distributors the opportunity to match the right movie with their target audience.
“The Miami Beach Cinematheque and O Cinema play very different kinds of movies,” Jones says. “And the Coral Gables Art Cinema is a different kind of venue altogether. It is located in a neighborhood [Coral Gables] that embraces our kinds of films. But you cannot underestimate the importance of the O Cinema and the Cinematheque and the Cosford and the Tower also providing Miami with the opportunities to see movies that would otherwise never play Miami. They are taking chances on some very esoteric movies. Together, all these theaters raise Miami’s national profile as a destination for art films.”
An added advantage of the boom in Miami’s art film business: Distributors that used to wait months before opening their movies in South Florida after they premiered in larger cities are now putting us higher on their list. Last week, the Susan Seidelman romance Musical Chairs opened in South Florida on the same day as in New York and Los Angeles. On April 13, the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar will open at the Coral Gables Art Cinema — again, the same day it hits New York and L.A.
“Miami as a market for specialty cinema is clearly on an upswing,” says Music Box Films managing director Ed Arentz, who was recently in town for the Miami International Film Festival. “There’s a coalescing of venues, inspired operators and a growing audience that realizes they have a home.
“It’s a huge gain from where you were a few years ago. With the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Tower [which is a twin theater], Miami has three world-class screens now. The O Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque represent the funkier end of the spectrum, so they can house a wider range of stuff. But I was very impressed with the theaters there. The Tower is gorgeous. And the columns in front of the Gables theater are beautiful.”
And unlike other industries, in which competition tends to kill off the smallest players, Tabsch says the plethora of art house cinemas in the city benefits all of them.
“Each of these theaters has a completely different feel, and they’re all great spaces,” he says. “As a movie buff growing up in Miami, I couldn’t wait to move to New York. But now it’s a great time to be a film lover in Miami. So much is happening so fast: What used to be a cultural wasteland has been turned into fertile ground.”