Thumbs-up to D-MAC and other digital progressions

For the average movie fan, the plot line of Orlando's growth and development into digital media is a tough one to follow. "Digital" is not just a buzzword in local film circles anymore; by year's end, there will be a touchstone for digital filmmaking in the form of the Downtown Media Arts Center, slugged D-MAC. The project is the love child of arts patron Ford Kiene, who brought together the University of Central Florida and the city of Orlando for the collaboration that will be housed in the Rogers Building on the northeast corner of Magnolia Avenue and Pine Street, donated rent-free for four years by Kiene.

The venture was hanging on the approval of economic incentives from the Community Redevelopment Agency that were green-lighted Sept. 15 by the city, and the final wrinkles in the project are to be ironed out this week between Kiene and Sterling Van Wagenen, UCF's director of the School of Film and Digital Media. No time to lose.

What that means for movie fans is that there will be a new, 100-seat movie theater in town, one that shows independent films, the kind of films usually lumped under the umbrella of "art house" fare. Check out the programming on the Sundance Channel and you get the idea. Consider it an overflow of Enzian Theater's usual programming, a prospect that is just fine with them considering that there are enough new releases each month to go around. (Enzian itself has outgrown its Maitland facility and is making headway on its own initiative to build a multiscreen facility near Park Avenue in Winter Park.) The broad-thinking idea with D-MAC is that there are plenty of films for all, as long as there are people who'll pay to support them.

Keep in mind that the door is still wide open for a glittering cineplex to open downtown, according to Frank Billingsley, executive director of the Downtown Development Board and the CRA. "It's an element that we are still courting to add to the mix," he says. But he underscores the edgier draw and culture surrounding independent films that would be satisfied by D-MAC, which Billingsley says is projected to serve 17,000 people in the first year, hopefully many of them new visitors to the downtown core. (Billingsley says D-MAC would be used as an Orlando International Fringe Festival venue, but that was before the Orlando Sentinel reported Sept. 30 that the Fringe Festival was moving out of downtown to Loch Haven Park.)

A downtown film house is a project Kiene has envisioned since he first came to town, having expressed many times over his desire for such a facility, the likes of which he missed when he moved here from Seattle in 1997. The Rogers Building location is a street-friendly one, rich with character. Kiene bought and renovated the landmark, and turned the first-floor into the Gallery at Avalon Island and Guinevere's coffeehouse, now established downtown destinations.

There was messy chapter when the Mad Cow Theatre Company was moved in and out of the second floor to make way for D-MAC; but that troupe is firmly established in a new home at 105 S. Magnolia Ave. Kiene's own temperament came into question in the fray, with generalized agreement that he's a genuine patron of the arts but no saint. Active and well-respected on many local arts advisory boards, he is the savvy owner of City Beverages, a Budweiser

distributorship, and involved in countless community endeavors.

"It will feel great once we finalize it," says Kiene. "Loose ends need to be tied up with Sterling in the next couple of weeks." But he confirms D-MAC's opening by the end of the year.

Lisa Cook, the executive director of D-MAC, has a long order to fill in a couple short months. Her job is to hire the center's full-time employees -- a programming director and a facility manager -- and to flesh out D-MAC's other agendas, including developing "digital video and sound editing suites available to select filmmakers and film students working on worthy independent projects," and establishing an array of "events, educational opportunities and workforce retraining programs designed for seniors, school children, industry professionals and more." Cook's background includes credits as associate producer on Disney's "Fantasia 2000" and "Bears," and she teaches production management and producing at UCF. She says her previous skills play well with her current challenge: "It's not different at all -- it is a big artistic project that you need collaboration and the right people for; it's a very family feeling."

For right now, the main focus is on getting the physical space ready, with up-to-date power sources and other necessary infrastructures. She says it's likely that screenings will start on weekends only and then ramp up to the anticipated 16 screenings a week held both on afternoons and evenings. Ticket prices are expected to be around $6.

Phase two: dynamic media

Replacing "digital" as the buzzword is the term "dynamic media." What's the difference between "digital" and "dynamic"? Sterling Van Wagenen makes it relatively easy to digest. At the core of the digital revolution is the fact that you can reduce media into a sequence of zeros and ones in the computer. "So, essentially the nature of the revolution has been that there are an infinite number of ways of manipulating that media -- words, images, sound. When you use the term 'dynamic media,' a term of art, it means media that is constantly undergoing change."

So there's the impetus for the proposed Downtown Center for Dynamic Media, another digital-media project that represents ambitious undertakings on the part of both the University of Central Florida and the city of Orlando. Bottom line: The Downtown Center for Dynamic Media could become home to the university's proposed graduate programs in film and digital media. And it could become a state-of-the-art research institute, as well. Ultimately, there would be classrooms, studios, an incubator facility, a meeting venue, even a hotel.

From the report on the "City of Orlando and UCF Partnership Strategic Plan Development":

effort to maintain and grow Metro Orlando's competitive edge, the city of Orlando and UCF are proposing to develop a Downtown Center for Dynamic (Digital) Media (DMC). The proposed DMC brings together education, private industry, incubation and innovation and is critical if Metro Orlando intends to be a true global player in this industry. In addition, DMC would be the first center of its kind in the United States and becomes a prototype and nucleus for digital media innovation.

Whew. But this gives you an idea of what UCF is building toward in its graduate program and the facility they hope to house it in. "We're just taking this one step at a time," says Van Wagenen. "Assuming we jump through all the right hoops, it's unlikely that we would even have the programs (available at UCF) until 2005."

Locating the project downtown is positive for UCF, which is running out of space out east of town, believe it or not. And it would be a coup for the city as well, which will need to figure out where to site it.

"We're keeping our nose to the grindstone, working in assumption that the city will have their act together at some point, it'll all come together. And if that doesn't happen, we'll do something in Research Park, or we'll do something somewhere else in town."

It's possible that one day D-MAC and the DMC could be interrelated. Billingsley said they are complementary projects, which could come together at some point Ðit all hinges on location. Or that maybe the D-MAC would become a satellite for the DMC. Kathy Ramsberger, the city's director of arts and entertainment, concurs. But Kiene says that he would not be involved with the DMC. Van Wagenen says there has been lots of discussion about placing the DMC on the west side of downtown in Commissioner Daisy Lynum's backyard. She said she was not available for comment on the issue.

Digital media is a pet project of Mayor Dyer and his Downtown Strategic Transition Team. The hot-off-the-presses "Impacts of Cornerstone Projects" report presented to the city on Aug. 23 by Real Estate Research Consultants compared and contrasted the economic impacts of possible new downtown projects, from a movie theater to a Minor League baseball stadium to the digital media initiatives. By far, digital media was projected to bring the highest increase in permanent wages to the area, $30.8 million as opposed to $990,000 for the theater and $825,000 for the stadium. Expect the results of this report to further light the way in the city's growth.

Meanwhile, if the term digital pushes your button, you might want to join or network with Digital Media Alliance Florida or DMAF (, "the nonprofit industry association connecting Florida's Digital Media and e-entertainment companies, institutions and industry professions." DMAF's Executive Director Jud French says his group was formally incorporated in December with seed money from Orange County, though he's long been involved with both the industry and Central Florida governmental advisory boards. Membership has been brisk, he says, and the group just participated in a jointly sponsored "Media Mingle" on Sept. 23 at Lake Eola Yacht Club, which drew a surprising 200 people.

Obviously, there are many citizens eager to hear how the latest developments on the digital and dynamic media fronts is translating into jobs and opportunity. And hopefully, the D-MAC will prove a testing ground for finding out how interest in digital filmmaking translates into entertainment dollars.

As Van Wagenen says, "We've studied it to death and now we need to do it."

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