Rare flower on the film scene 

It gets its name from a blue, four-pointed flower that grows in the high mountains of Austria. "It's very hardy, very rare, and exceptionally beautiful," Enzian Theater executive director Peg O'Keef says of the independent cinema's namesake. "It's representative of the spirit of Enzian -- that we provide things that are extra special, not necessarily easy to find, but worth the trouble."

Tucked among the oaks in a placid oasis of greenery off Orlando Avenue in Maitland, the Enzian -- with its white-rock parking lot, a serenely trickling fountain outside and the elegant Nicole St. Pierre restaurant next door -- hardly compares with the flash of a 24-screen megaplex. But its presence is keenly felt.

A not-for-profit venture, the Enzian opened in 1985 with weekly screenings of classic films and occasional live performances (including composer Philip Glass). By 1989 it had revamped its programming to rely on first-run independent films. That programming has evolved to include the Brouhaha Film & Video Showcase, held each fall, and the Florida Film Festival, which returns for its eighth year June 11-20.

For the amateur filmmaker, Brouhaha, which draws about 800 people with four screenings over two days, "is an excellent starting point," says Rich Grula, the Enzian's marketing director. "It's a low-pressure event, and really geared toward first-time filmmakers."

The Florida Film Festival has succeeded with far grander ambitions. The 10-day event last year drew 17,000 with its focus on American independent filmmakers, although features and classics from around the world also are shown. Competition is high, but the festival's inclusion of seminars and Q&As with established artists offers others the chance to mingle with knowledgeable professionals in the industry.

In that respect, the Enzian is a resource for the growing Central Florida filmmaking community. "We create opportunities for filmmakers to advance themselves, but they really have to be motivated and have that determination," says O'Keef.

One local group of filmmakers with an Enzian story to tell -- Haxan Films -- currently is reaping the benefits of their debut feature, The Blair Witch Project.

The psychological thriller, shot on a tiny budget and with unknown actors in Florida and Maryland, tells the story of three filmmakers who hike into the woods to make a documentary on a local legend called the Blair Witch and are never heard from again; the film, which purports to show their "found" footage, generated a huge buzz at Sundance and in May won an award at Cannes. It goes into national release July 16.

Haxan's five young filmmakers -- Robin Cowie, Gregg Hale, Mike Monello, Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez -- all are graduates of the film program at the University of Central Florida. They struggled financially to complete their feature, keeping afloat by making video graphics and commercials for Universal Studios, Planet Hollywood, MTV, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the Enzian itself.

But here's the real Enzian influence: John Pierson, producer of the influential "Split Screen" cable show that focuses on independent film, was a juror during the 1997 film festival. Myrick eventually was asked to help Pierson film a segment on the festival for his show, and passed along a tape of the filmmakers' work. Pierson followed up with a profile of Haxan that aired on Bravo and included "Blair Witch" footage, generating interest that helped secure added funding to complete the shoot.

With filming done, "Blair Witch" co-producer Mike Monello says the Enzian further came to their rescue: "Enzian allowed us to come in on a Saturday morning and screen the film to a packed audience. The opportunity to see the film in a theater like that was invaluable. At that screening, a producer from L.A. named Kevin Foxe showed up. After our two hour, 45 minute rough cut unspooled, he became a huge fan and signed on as executive producer. Kevin helped raise the rest of the money to finish the film and was critical to helping us get agents and sell the film."

Says Grula: "If Orlando is going to grow as a filmmaking area, the creative types in town have to be inspired by more than mall movies, cable TV and the opportunity to make commercials. There's a world of film out there, and I believe Enzian's most critical mission is to serve as the pipeline for bringing those films into Orlando."

Beth Nixon, of Orlando-based Point of View Films, agrees that the Enzian helps foster independents. "They have been an asset to our company personally, because they are always there to answer questions and give good advice," she says. "In fact, they recently sent me the press release kit for Gods and Monsters to help me put together a similar packet for our film, 'Regret.' Without theaters with this kind of commitment, there is no venue for indie films to screen. I have nothing but praise and thanks for the Enzian."

The Enzian also works with the Asian Cultural Association to sponsor an annual South Asian Film Festival. And the theater stage has hosted acts from performance artists to the Orlando Opera Company -- part of the Enzian's desire to foster a diverse arts scene. But film remains its focus, one in which Central Florida schools play a major role.

Jim Martin, who directs film production courses at Full Sail in Winter Park, uses the Enzian as an educational tool. Full Sail will book a showing of a film from the Enzian's regular schedule exclusively for its students, and the Enzian has allowed those students to screen festival entries. "They've always been very helpful in trying to accommodate what we want to do," Martin says.

What they do is a lot; the instruction offered at Full Sail, UCF and Valencia Community College is validated by the success of their students in the film industry.

Full Sail students had two films, "Marine Men" and "Perihelion," accepted to previous Florida Film Festivals. "Just getting them into the festivals is a major achievement," Martin says.

Valencia also has made an impression, earning praise from Steven Spielberg as "one of the greatest programs for training young movie technicians." Valencia has showcased its own students' work for four years, and some have gone on to win bigger awards such as the 1998 CINE Eagle award, given to VCC graduate Dan Springen for his film "The Reel."

"Many of our graduates utilize the Enzian as a means of transitioning into the world of film," says Mary Johnson, a UCF film instructor and member of the Florida Film Festival's selections committee.

UCF grad Alicia Conway began her career by working on crews for 50 or 60 student films and selling tickets at the film festival. Today, she is production coordinator for the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. "Filmmakers in Orlando who aren't familiar with Enzian, in particular, are really missing out on a place that is basically the hub of film in Orlando," she says.

Johnson agrees. "The Enzian isn't just a theater, it's a unique place which breathes life into the independent filmmaking community," she says. "A place where foreign and independent films and filmmakers demonstrate the love of craft. A place where local filmmakers can gather to argue or celebrate. It's not a soulless corporate multiplex. It's a place where people recognize that film is art."

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