On June 21 2015, indie film fans in Lake Park, Florida and surrounding counties, were in for a surprise when they tried to browse through the Mo’s Art Theater website to see which new movies were playing that week. Instead of the expected weekly schedule, they saw this message flashing on their screen:
Mo’s, a small art house theater changed hands several times. Founded in 2009, the theater was a quaint venue, with a small lobby and only one screening room with the peculiar aggregate of a mirror ball in the middle of the ceiling. Mo’s was the only art house theater in the area, with the exception of the Stonzek in Lake Worth that offered independent and foreign films that were not available in any other theater.
Albert Rossodivita and Philip Dvorak, two young entrepreneurs who were enthusiastic about an art house theater in the area bought the property in the hope of establishing a sort of community-theater. According to Hap Ernstein who interviewed them in May 2009 for The Palm Beach Arts Paper, the young owners were: “complete novices when it comes to running a movie house, but they have plenty of good ideas” Alas, good ideas didn’t seem to bring the audience and revenues that the theater needed, and some time after, Mo’s was passed over to a new management team. J.R. Coley and his wife Erin who were also running a small performing art studio, told Victoria Drake from the Fort Lauderdale Performing Arts Examiner: “Our mission is to inspire, educate and connect the community through film, art, music and hope”.
The couple had experience in the world of performing arts, and came up with innovative ideas like cinema memberships and weekly specials, like “Date Night” and “Two-For-One beverages. The Coleys made it work for a while, trying to avoid the unavoidable fate of bankruptcy, that had already befallen other indie movie houses. After Mo’s closed, we attempted to contact the Coleys to no avail.
However, Charlie Birnbaum manager of the Stonzek Theater did comment that he knew that Mo’s had been for some time part of Emerging Pictures. A New York based business, Emerging Pictures is a network that gathers up independent movie theaters that are often bankrupt or unable to make a profit. The company then offers these theaters the opportunity to become part of their theater circuit, while they provide the films, programming, and the advertising-sales expertise.
No one in Emerging Pictures was willing to verify if Mo’s had been one of the theaters in their network, but Charlie Birnbaum gave an insider’s perspective of what it means to be part of Emerging Pictures.
“They were called a different name before: Emerging Cinemas”, Birnbaum said. “We had a contract with them for approximately three years. In that time, they offered to provide us with the films that they uploaded into our computers from their offices in New York”
“We were supposed to benefit from this, in addition to them taking care of the advertising and marketing for us”. Birnbaum continued, “However, things didn’t pan out the way it was initially negotiated. They were the ones that had control over the number of showings and the programming, plus the proprietary hardware. So in the end, we decided to part ways with them and do our own programming” Birnbaum concluded.
The outspoken Stonzek manager may have been on to something. If Mo’s was indeed part of the Emerging Pictures network, it certainly did not benefit from the advertising and marketing machine that it was supposed to provide. In the end, the indie film fans that went there weren’t enough to provide this small movie house with the much financial support that would have allowed it to stay in business.
Mo’s Art Theatre is certainly not the first one to suffer such a fate. In 2005, the Carefree Theater located on South Dixie Highway was the victim of both hurricane Wilma and the beginning of a rough economic recession. The Carefree was once part of a colossal entertainment company owned by Palm Beach entrepreneur John Stoll who formed Fantasma Productions, which had the Carefree Theater at the center of its performance venues.
The land is now in negotiations, and the future of the Carefree is unclear. In June 2015, Alexandra Clough from The Palm Beach Post ran an article titled “WPB South Dixie dealings: Carefree Theatre in play”, which revealed that the theater, now in possession of John Stoll’s widow, Lori Stoll will be part of a massive redevelopment plan. Said plan, seeks to renovate the area where the Carefree stands, and turn it into a strip mall bearing small shops and restaurants. The article did not offer much detail if the Carefree would be repaired and re-launched as a movie theater, or if instead, would simply be demolished.
The slow disappearance of these theaters is alarming, even more so for fans of indie and foreign films who notice that the films coming out of many indie film festivals, often cannot get a release in Florida, much less in Palm Beach County. Tangerine, a film directed by Sean Baker, which premiered at Sundance with high praise, now has three Gotham Independent Film award nominations.
The film’s only Palm Beach screening was at the Stonzek Theater. The same thing happened with films like The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Falling, Breathe, and The Witch; these films had wide screenings in multiple art house theaters in places like New York, L.A. and London, but next to zero screenings in Florida, where perhaps only two or three art house venues in the whole state gave it prominent space.
Jacqueline Journey, an independent Florida-based filmmaker, who presently is enjoying the success of her most recent feature film, Hidden Assets, said that the loss of art house theaters is terribly sad. “I saw Hitchcock’s Rear Window for the first time in an art house theater,” Journey said. “So I’m a huge fan of these theaters, the problem is that people have to go out and see the movie, patronize these places so they can keep their doors open.
However, these large theater chains are really catering to the big studio film, or to the eighty million so called “indie movies.” Nevertheless, in reality, it’s impossible for a real independent film to be screened at any of the theaters.
Journey went on to say that art house theaters are extremely important. “They do a great service to the independent filmmakers,” Journey stated. “They allow people to have a voice and to be heard. There are so many more indie filmmakers now, so it would be a shame to lose the art house theater.”
In any case, the rate at which art house theaters have disappeared in Florida is certainly a revelation. It tells us that they are succumbing under the pressure of bigger chain theaters like AMC and Regal. Unfortunately, unable to compete with what these theaters offer, like big parking lots, multiple concession stands that sometimes include a dinner menu, and wide leather reclining chairs.
So the question is, will the disappearance of art house venues by association diminish the release of indie and foreign films in Florida? The answer seems to alarmingly point in that direction. Is it possible that there simply isn’t enough of an audience for these films in the Sunshine State?
The local film industry in general is having problems of its own, and this might have a bit of an impact on indie theaters. The State Film Office, located in Tallahassee, suffered severe budget cuts which were announced in August. This meant possible staff layoffs, and the closing of the Los Angeles branch of the State Film Office, which worked closely with producers in several important studios. Michelle Hillery, the president of Film Florida expressed concern for these cuts, even though they did not occur in her home office.
“What we did as Film Florida, we banned together and took immediate action through our board of directors, and we voted to work with our Film Commissioner’s Council to raise additional dollars to help support the efforts of the State Film Office in L.A., because we didn’t want to see it shut down. Certainly the message going around was that now Florida has no incentives, and additionally, we were closing the L.A. office.” Along with the State Film Office, the money was raised to avoid closing the office in Los Angeles and staff cuts, but the problem will still be there until it is resolved in the next legislative session.
On the other side of the Atlantic, attitudes seem to differ a bit towards indie films and art theaters, specifically in Manchester, England. British film magazine Sight & Sound, in their August 2015 issue reported that twenty-five million pounds (an approximate of fifty million dollars) were invested in the construction of HOME, a shiny new art theater and film complex in downtown Manchester. It’s not by far a tiny one-screen theater; HOME is equipped with five screen rooms of different sizes. Its lineup consists solely of independent and foreign films, equally shown in its main two hundred and fifty screening room as well as in its smallest room a thirty six-seat room.
Is a project like this not perhaps viable in Florida? Indeed, most Florida cities may be very different from Manchester, but it may be possible that a project like HOME could work. However, what makes the difference between a condemned theater and one that conversely not only survives through the decades but also actually, manages to thrive.
The Tampa Theater is an example of such ability, combined with the avid concern of citizens who spoke out when the theater was threatened with demolition, and managed to secure its future by fighting for the theater’s right to be a city landmark, which became a reality in 1978. The theater first opened its doors in 1926 as a movie palace in Tampa, Florida, and as Jill Witecki, the theater’s Director of Marketing and Community Relations points out, this was always its main goal.
“Live performances were considered an ‘added value’ to the motion pictures, not the other way around,” Witecki said. “Vaudeville was already on the decline, having been impacted greatly by the new motion picture industry, and the Tampa Theatre was designed and built primarily as a movie palace. It did open with certain features that made small Vaudeville performances between screenings possible, including two small dressing rooms in the basement and a narrow strip of stage in between the screen and the orchestra pit.”
Witecki went on to say that even though on occasion, there are concerts held at the theater, the Tampa remains true to its origins. “We are unique in the way that we have remained a film house for eighty-nine years,” Witecki said. “ Many “saved” movie palaces find new life as concert/performing arts halls, which is a completely different business model with different risks and different rewards.”
Conversely, Witecki does realize that presently, rescuing an art house theater or movie palace like the Tampa is an extremely risky undertaking. “The one piece of advice that I could offer anyone looking to resurrect a movie palace is this: realize that they haven’t built a single-screen, fourteen-hundred seat movie theater in decades, and there’s a reason for that; it’s an antiquated business model that is not financially sound based on today’s movie distribution model. It is because we are a non-profit organization and have the backing of our Members, donors, sponsors and corporate partners that we are able to maintain a healthy, year-round film operation.”
There are other alternatives to resurrecting one-screen art theaters. In August of 2015 the organizers of the Palm Beach International Film Festival, announced that the festival now had a new home. The Palm Beaches Theatre in Manalapan will be now the main stage where independent and foreign films will be shown year round, not only for the festival. Located in what was once the Plaza Theatre, and after undergoing extensive renovations, this one-screen film house will have the opportunity to thrive as the new home of PBIFF.
However, Jill Witecki has pointed out something crucial. Today, opening an independent theater or undertaking the job of renovating an existing one, should be accompanied by a detailed evaluation from the perspective of sales, marketing, and even technology. If a one-screen art house theater is to remain, could it benefit from investing in something like a DCP projector?
Considering that even the independent film studios like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics distribute their films now using only this format, could this investment result in more access to different film distributors, and perhaps maybe, in a bigger audience?
These are conjectures of course, but one thing is certain. The quaint film theaters like Mo’s and the Carefree are vanishing at an alarming rate. As a result, there are cities in Florida that have zero indie theaters left. Cinema Treasures is a non-profit organization, currently building the largest database of movie theaters in the world, a sort of IMDB for theaters.
The following infographic shows how many one-screen art house theaters remain in ten Florida cities, selected at random. The graphic shows the ones that are still open and operational, and those that have closed or been demolished in the last forty years:
This may not be an issue to many, but for people like Chris Jankow, a librarian in Palm Beach County who on occasion runs a Sunday matinee at the Acreage Branch Library, theaters like the Stonzek offer something that big theaters can’t. “You can’t see the movies they show anywhere else. In addition, it’s less stressful to go there, crowd-wise. No teenagers running all over the place. It’s more my speed, you know. It’s great.” Not all art theaters are demolished or sold when the owners can or no longer want to keep them. Michael Hurley, the owner of the historic Temple Theatre in Houlton, Maine decided to pass on the ninety-eight year old venue to its next owner in a most peculiar way. Hurley decided to write an article in the film review website Indiewire to launch the “Win the Temple Theater Essay Contest”, which promises the winner ownership of his theater. Is Hurley doing this because owning an art house theater is no longer profitable? “No, it’s not that at all,” Hurley, said. “I live far away from the theater, and I had a fantastic manager who is now leaving. So I thought it was time to pass it on.” Why not sell the theater instead of giving it away to a stranger? “Well, I’m not really giving it away.” Hurley admitted. “The entrance fee for the essay is one hundred dollars, and I’m hoping there will be enough admissions that I can pay off the mortgage and hopefully pass on the theater to the next owner.” Hurley said that he had invested time, love, and money into the theater (he did a massive renovation when he bought the Temple), but that now the theater needed someone new to keep a watch over it. “That’s how I see myself really,” he said. “I am the theater’s caretaker more than I am its owner. I only hope that the next caretaker is someone who loves films and who loves the theater as much as I do.” Hurley’s approach may certainly be uncommon but definitely not at all foolish. After all, is it not preferable to pass on the gift on an art house theater, particularly a historic one, to someone who will care for it, manage it and appreciate its value than to sell for a meager profit to land developers who will likely bulldoze it to make way for a car park or shopping mall? Perhaps if more Michael Hurleys lived in Florida, the many art theaters that have been demolished in the name of progress would still be around. One only hopes that the remaining ones have similar dedicated owners and managers who understand the importance of these theaters for the community, local filmmakers, and many indie film cinephiles. We could affirm then, that art house theaters are not just a business. In many cases, they were witnesses of important historic events. If only for that reason they should be cherished and preserved and not be considered obsolete venues of entertainment.
Listen to the Film Sounds podcast featuring theater manager Charlie Birnbaum and indie film director Jacqueline Journey as they talk about art house theaters and what it could mean to lose them: