Come this Friday, March 26, downtown Orlando will finally have its long-promised focal point for thoroughly modern media.
The good Lord willing.
A certain vagueness has surrounded D.MAC, the Downtown Media Arts Center, which was originally announced to open by the end of 2003 in the historic Rogers Building (home of the Guinevere's coffeehouse). That deadline came and went -- quietly moved to March 1, 2004, and finally to the end of this month. There's even been some hushed implication that this latest curtain date is -- how you say? -- hypothetical, but when we caught up with the center's principals last week, Sterling Van Wagenen (the Director of the School of Film and Digital Media at the University of Central Florida) was treating it as a done deal, demonstrably relieved to have most of the guesswork behind him.
Construction won't technically be complete by Friday's opening night; that much is sure. But Program Director Jason Neff has scheduled 15 public screenings of the first feature to be shown in D.MAC's centerpiece 80-seat digital theater. In "The Five Obstructions," Danish director Lars von Trier issues fellow filmmaker Jorgen Leth a challenge: to remake Leth's 1967 short "The Perfect Human" in five new ways while weathering the procedural "obstructions" that von Trier himself sets up. Screened at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, the film is enjoying its U.S. premiere at D.MAC, making it that exceedingly rare example of a cinematic work that Orlando audiences will see before their counterparts in New York and Los Angeles. For once, the common complaint, "Why can't we have an arts community like the one in (fill in name of major metropolis)?" has been not only met but trumped.
In the coming weeks, Neff says, D.MAC will roll out further indie features whose only common thread is their digital format. Following Obstructions on April 2 is the incendiary documentary "The Weather Underground," which had a sadly underheralded seven-day run last November at Altamonte Cinema 8. But for the foreseeable future -- which will also include screenings of the action comedy "The Hebrew Hammer" and the Chinese mining drama "Blind Shaft" -- D.MAC will likewise adhere to a dizzying, one-film-per-week timetable. It's the allure of an exciting new venue that's being pushed here more than any individual offering. Should the scheduling prove too ephemeral for the public to get a grip on, the programming metabolism may have to be slowed down a bit, Neff admits.
D.MAC's staffers (Executive Director Lisa Cook and Facilities Manager Tracy Yeager are also on the letterhead) appear to anticipate an extended period of trial and error. But that's only natural given the wide scope of the enterprise. As conceptualized and sold to the city, the center will be much more than a movie theater, offering creative and educational opportunities steeped in the hot-button media that few deign to fully define, but which always seem to start with "d": digital, dynamic, developing. The goal is to maintain a world-class media-arts hub that can stimulate and promote the efforts of visionaries both homegrown and imported from other cities.
A definite is the residency of the Group 101 filmmaking project (formerly housed at Winter Park's Creative Stages), which will present a "best of" screening Tuesday, March 30, at D.MAC and then resume its established modus operandi of one public presentation per month. Venue captains are talking about a shorts "slam" for Florida filmmakers, with the audience awarding weekly prizes; in addition, a community-conscious documentary project being shepherded by UCF will be housed on the premises. On-site apartment spaces will be offered as an enticement to establish filmmaker residencies, and equipment rentals are being mulled for farther down the road. D.MAC has even taken over the downstairs coffee shop Guinevere's (possibly due for a renaming) in order to up the mingling quotient.
Officially, the adjacent Gallery at Avalon Island no longer exists, the space having been enveloped into the D.MAC. But the Orlando Modern Art Collection (www.o-m-a-c.org) that's been on display there will remain in the space, until it's ready to be refitted as a workshop-type area. And Mary Wilson, who curated the former gallery, will continue to organize monthly art events.
It's all very ambitious, but its success isn't inexorably tied to the whims of the marketplace. According to the prospectus distributed to city leaders last year, theater admissions will have a relatively light impact on the venture's fortunes. For the time being, monies from the city, the university and (especially) building owner Ford Kiene are heavily responsible for keeping D.MAC afloat -- a luxury that helps explain the theater's competitive ticket price of $7 and the affordability of membership packages ($250 for a full year of screenings, no charge at all for $2 off every ticket in the same time frame). The results of that long-leashed operational model should be fascinating to witness. With projects like the defunct Central Florida Film & Video Festival under his belt, Neff has an established history of pushing Orlando's arts savvy past its existing boundaries, and the area's appetite for independent film (when properly promoted) hasn't begun to be exhausted.
In the long run, the success or failure of D.MAC will be a referendum not only on its creators' planning acumen, but on the technologically oriented economy that civic leaders have anointed as our salvation from eternal tourist-dependence. For now, though, it's just a chance for John Q. Public to embrace the future by engaging in the distinctly analog process of putting butts in seats.
D.MAC, 39 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando; 407-992-1200; www.dmacorlando.com)
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