A wider screen 

On Friday, Aug. 24, Orlandoans who prefer their movies slightly offbeat suddenly found themselves living in paradise. Four new releases that were independent, foreign or otherwise "alternative" in nature -- the maternal nightmare "The Deep End," the French suspense thriller "With a Friend Like Harry," the moody Chinese elegy "The Road Home" and the musicological period piece "Songcatcher" -- were all opening on area screens. And four others -- "The Closet," "Made," "Memento" and "Ghost World" -- were continuing their engagements for another seven days.

After years of making do with one to three such pictures per week, greater Orlando now looked like a genuine hotbed of moviegoing iconoclasm. The center held: In the ensuing month, even when the suspension of national air travel played havoc with the delivery of prints, the number of alternative features playing locally never dropped below six.

Clearly, the cause of nontraditional film in our community has risen to a new level. But why now?

"Orlando has been really underserved in art cinema," says Dick Morris, the founder of the Sarasota-based Morris Projects Inc., which acquires features for independent theaters in Florida and several other states. It's Morris' job to act as a paid intermediary between those theaters and the distributors who supply them with product. For more than a decade, he has performed that duty for Maitland's Enzian Theater, the area's premier art venue. He can easily recall a time (not too long ago) when the theater held a veritable monopoly on its genre.

"The Enzian has one screen, and no other exhibitor sought to play art product, probably because they were doing too well playing commercial movies," Morris says. "`But` right now, the commercial movies are not doing that well. And there's a proliferation of screens."

The actual history is slightly more complex. Other theaters, including AMC's West Oaks 14 and (especially) the Colonial Promenade, have dallied with alternative films. And here as elsewhere, the "proliferation" of screens has been an up-and-down process. But the amount of non-mainstream pictures in national circulation has expanded. The result? "There's an awful lot of art product the Enzian really can't play," Morris says.

Helping to fill the void is Regal Cinemas' Winter Park Village 20, the teeming multiplex located a few blocks south of the Enzian's pastoral, wooded grounds. Since its opening in late 1999, Winter Park Village has usually reserved a screen for alternative fare; recently, though, the roster has swelled to three or four such features per week. That, more than anything else, explains the local film calendar's change in complexion.

Yet Morris (who, it should be noted, once counted the Regal organization among his clients) thinks the situation may be a case of too much too soon. This is not New York City, he reminds; of the three or four smaller films a theater like Winter Park Village may play during a given week, perhaps only two have the chance to attract a sizable audience.

"These fellows are just putting movies on because they have an empty screen," Morris says. "Twelve of the 20 screens pay the overhead, and the others are a free ride.

"They do not love film," he charges. "They don't give a damn about the film. It could be a gay Tibetan film that could attract a very limited audience of gay mountain climbers."

On the other hand, it could be a movie the Enzian would like to have shown but couldn't, due either to its own tight schedule or the aggressive efforts of another venue's film buyer. In 2001, the high-profile "Sexy Beast," "The Deep End" and "Memento" all bowed at Winter Park Village.

The tug of war between chains and independent theaters is "not an isolated" situation, says Roger Paulsen, whose Paulsen Theater Services books alternative films for Regal theaters across the U.S. "It's a national condition that's very positive. If you add up all the choices people have now, it's a wonderland."

Art films, he says, "kind of used to stumble out slowly. Now there's more film available at any given time than a single-screen theater could keep up with."

It's the audience's ability to keep up with that product, however, that determines its ultimate viability. If word of a feature's impending arrival isn't adequately publicized, all the artistic merit in the world may not save it from playing to sparse houses -- especially in a city like Orlando, where the art crowd isn't used to making choices. The Enzian keeps the public informed of coming attractions via such informational tools as its website, www.enzian.org, and the e-mail version of its Reel News newsletter. (The printed version is sent to members of its Enzian Film Society.) In contrast, alternative films -- particularly the genuine indies that have no studio's publicity muscle behind them -- often arrive at cineplexes with little fanfare, left to fend for themselves in an environment dominated by mega-hyped would-be blockbusters.

"The `promotional` resources are extremely limited compared to mainstream film," Paulsen acknowledges. "There's hardly any national advertising to raise awareness; everything is local. Materials and accessories are often not available too far in advance."

Instead, he believes that a chain like Regal can build up an ersatz partnership with its patrons by programming a reliable number of art-house films until it is perceived as a "destination" theater in its own right. And the steady foot traffic is also a plus: "There's an opportunity in a 'plex to reach a customer who might never visit a dedicated, single-screen, alternative theater," Paulsen says.

In Orlando, the reemergence of the Colonial Promenade sixplex has made the game even more complicated. Once a General Cinemas theater that presented an art feature or so per week (for a time, Morris bought films for this locale, too), the Promenade was shuttered in September 2000 when GC pulled out of Florida. Last July, Entertainment Film Works, a division of the Restaurant Entertainment Group, reopened the theater, announcing its intention to match and even surpass GC's alt-cinema track record. The company also has expressed great interest in having the theater resume its role as a secondary site for the Enzian's annual Florida Film Festival. What's more, Entertainment Film Works is in negotiations to purchase GC's Fashion Square location, which the company says would free it up to program even more art films at the Promenade.

But with the notable exception of "Songcatcher," the rejuvenated Promenade has mostly served as a second home to films that have already played at Enzian. While Dick Morris says that "they're only moving over because Enzian is giving them up," the process may not be quite so voluntary. The latter theater's staffers have been known to chafe at how often still-viable films are yanked from their hands after a single week of play and sent elsewhere, leaving their new host sites to reap the remaining financial reward of running pictures the Enzian may have spent weeks or even months promoting.

"It's maybe a little frustrating about not being able to hold on to these films that we've nurtured," admits Sigrid Tiedtke, the Enzian's director. But she clarifies that she and her staff don't consider their theater to be in direct competition with the Promenade, Winter Park Village or any other local venue. As a nonprofit cultural organization, the Enzian's "resources, concerns, objectives `and` timetable" are totally different from those of a commercial venture, she says.

"We're willing to take on a very difficult film and deepen the audience appreciation for that kind of work," Tiedtke states. It's an important point, given the Enzian's stated mission is to enrich its community via the introduction and promotion of challenging cinematic art. A commercial chain, on the other hand, has no especial mission but to turn a profit, and can thus back away from an underperforming genre at any time, for any reason. Knowing the difference between public service and private enterprise gives the Orlando film buff good cause to hope that the flowering of viewing opportunities around town poses as little threat to the Enzian's health as Tiedtke claims.

When Regal opened its multiplex just down the street, "we all wondered what would happen," she recalls. "`But` it's not making a dent." She refers to attendance and income; there are signs, though, that the Enzian's once indomitable reputation may be a different story. Winter Park Village 20 was recently voted "Best place to see a movie" by readers of Orlando Weekly, a contest the Enzian could previously be counted on to win in a walk.

How much territory is there to fight over, anyway? An answer may be found in Tampa, where Regal last year opened Channelside 9, a nine-screen multiplex intended to show all alternative films. Reportedly, relations between Channelside and the Tampa Theatre -- a nearby music hall that supplements its slate of concerts with films booked by Morris Projects -- were heated from the start. But the controversy eventually evaporated, perhaps because the local pie proved smaller than expected: Attendance at Channelside has been disappointing, observers say, and the theater has hedged its bets by adding features that hardly qualify as alternative -- unless "Cats & Dogs" is an "art" film.

"By and large, people are not coming out," says Lance Goldenberg, film critic for Tampa's Weekly Planet. "It was almost literally too much of a good thing. It's been interesting and kind of sad, really."

While the folks at Enzian entertain no fantasies of expanding to nine screens, adding at least a second has long been on their wish list. They say the idea isn't driven by economics; still, it would clearly enhance their venue's appeal to cherry-picking filmgoers. Now all they have to do is find a way to pay for it.

"We have determined that this would be more than the Enzian on its own, or my family, could bite off by ourselves," says Philip Tiedtke, Sigrid's husband and the theater's president. "We're looking out into the community to see what support there might be to help us expand."

Sigrid Tiedtke doesn't rule out receiving some of the estimated $3 million in tourist-tax revenues that have been earmarked for arts organizations. She believes that the theater's 10-day Florida Film Festival, for instance, is right in line with Orange County's drive to promote "cultural tourism." ButÊher husband, Philip, places less stock in pinning the theater's aspirations to public monies. Last year, he says, admissions and related revenues like food-and-beverage sales accounted for about 70 percent of the theater's total operating budget; membership fees and endowment contributions made up about 15 percent. Public monies were less than 5 percent.

"In relation to most cultural organizations, we get a great deal more support from our members," he says.

While the Tiedtkes work to enrich the Enzian's pedigree, others wonder how long the imprimatur of "art" will even be a factor in the marketplace. If the influx of alternative films into the multiplexes continues, the distinction between those pictures and "commercial" offerings may become harder for the average audience member to perceive -- or even care about.

"Kids are going to "Sexy Beast," and mainstream America finds "Chocolat,"" Regal's Paulsen says. "They like Richard Linklater and they like the Coen Brothers. A lot of people go to Pedro Almod—var films, and they may or may not consider themselves Ôart' patrons."

"It's like pouring a colored liquid into water," he says. "When does it blend in so well that you don't see it anymore?"


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