Keeping Miami’s film scene indie
Miami’s independent film scene is flourishing, even as hundreds of arthouse cinemas close around the country. The city is home to seven independent cinemas, most of which have opened in the last four years, and its increasing number of film festivals and notable filmmakers is propelling South Florida into a passionate film mecca with more than 10 festivals and an entire month dedicated to showcasing film.
Miami has made its mark in the performing arts world, while becoming synonymous with the visual arts through events like Art Basel and cultural hot spots like Wynwood. It’s more than burgeoning. Miami is taking its place as a global artistic and cultural hub, and the cinema scene is no exception, rallying to catch up with the other developing art forms. Despite its progress, statewide challenges from legislators threaten to stifle the industry’s growth if left without resources from community members.
Miami-Dade County’s Film and Entertainment Commissioner Sandy Lighterman believes the South Florida indie film scene is going strong and has seen the recent boom as a result of the larger arts movement, inspiring local storytellers in new ways.
“Because we have so many South Florida stories to be told, the environment here for the growing of the community is growing by leaps and bounds every day,” she said.
Local cinema art houses, like Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema, and the Bill Cosford Cinema, have bolstered Miami’s film culture by providing a place for the community to experience films they may never have seen otherwise.
For too long, people have been selling Miami’s film scene short. Filmmaker and O Cinema co-founder Kareem Tabsch has had enough, and he’s set out to change that impression by screening quality films and local stories at his three art house locations.
“We want to honor, celebrate, and support the local filmmakers who are making these stories,” he said. “We want to hear our stories contextualized from those here. The narrative that’s being projected should be informed by the local voices.”
Aside from the growth in art houses showcasing independent films, there are the locals sharing Miami’s stories with the world. Earlier this year, famed Sundance Film Festival had its own Miami delegation, with local filmmakers Kenny Riches and The Borsht Corp. selected to screen their films. “These are local guys that have elevated the movement and they help promote our area as well and promote the fact that it is a mecca for indie filmmakers,” Lighterman said.
Films with a hyperlocal focus may have started by taking root in Miami, but are spreading across the country to share some of South Florida’s weirdest and craziest stories. After moving from Utah to the Magic City three years ago, independent filmmaker Kenny Riches became fascinated by this “really bizarre kind of lawless crazy place.” His goal was to make a story that would give the audience the feeling he had when he first visited Miami. Seeking that experience, he created a strange sort of narrative peppered with magical realism elements. His film The Strongest Man follows Beef, an anxiety-ridden Cuban construction worker who believes he is the strongest man in the world, as he seeks to recover his lost golden bicycle, traversing Miami’s complicated cultural and social landscape in the process.
Thanks to its screening at Sundance, The Strongest Man has been picked up by film festivals across the country, and even secured a deal with FilmBuff, a national indie film distribution company that will continue to spread the film in theaters and Video on Demand services.
“[Miami] is such a fascinating place, especially in the context of the rest of the United States, and it should be kind of captured and locked in cinematic history,” Riches said.
Adrian Baschuk, producer of Beach Picture, a local production company, is a Miami Beach local through and through. After working around the globe as a journalist for companies like CNN and MSNBC, he returned home to share Miami’s stories.
Baschuk’s latest endeavor is an investigative piece for MSNBC on his hometown of Miami Beach and the way it’s combating sea level rise. His love of all things local shines through in the filming locations he chose, including iconic spots like the Fontainebleu, Joe’s Stone Crab, and Mac’s Club Deuce.
“I really believe it’s a special place, so the fact that they’re taking such a proactive approach in the story of climate change and covering it in one of the most positive headlines, you can see that we’re actually doing something about it,” Baschuk said.
Another homegrown Florida tale is the story of Dolphin Lover, a documentary by Tabsch and his film partner Joey Daoud about the true story of a man’s romantic relationship with a captive dolphin in the 1970s at a roadside Florida amusement park. The film screened at Slamdance Film festival and won the best documentary prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
“It was too out there and unique of a story not to make it into a film,” Tabsch said. “Florida will always be a central figure, a seductive mistress to our inspiration. The magnet that exists under Florida that attracts crazy people with crazy stories – I don’t want that to go anywhere.”
There’s been a push to cultivate South Florida’s talent from organizations like FilmGate, which hosts programming, workshops, and provides resources for independent visual storytellers.
Formerly Indie Film Club Miami, it was born out of necessity when executive director Diliana Alexander graduated from her master’s degree in film and couldn’t find a central organization that provided various resources for filmmakers. FilmGate lives where school leaves off and professional set life begins, which influences its educational programming.
FilmGate also works to reach out to the community through its monthly “I’m not gonna move to L.A.” film screenings. It’s a chance for local filmmakers to screen their films in an environment welcoming of all, from amateur to professional level quality. The screening gets its name from one of FilmGate’s goals of developing and keeping talented storytellers in South Florida. Although it has experienced exponential growth in the last four years, the area still lags behind film giants like Los Angeles, Hollywood, Toronto, and New York.
However, there are problems brewing in South Florida’s film scene. Miami is in the midst of an exodus of film professionals to more established areas since the region just can’t always offer the same opportunities. The environment remains difficult for those who choose to stay in South Florida in part because some industry professionals doubt the skills of local crews, choosing to bring in workers from California to do the same work, if they decide to film in Florida at all.
What lies at the heart of this is a tumultuous battle between the state legislators and the film industry surrounding tax breaks and incentives for filmmakers to create films, TV shows, and web series in the state.
Back in 2006, Florida was third in the country as far as the number of film productions shot in the state. In 2010, Florida allocated almost $300 million for these productions through a series of entertainment tax incentives. However, money that was supposed to last five years ran out in just three because of high demand. In the past, the incentives were given to many out of state companies who would just hop from state to state looking for tax breaks, as opposed to focusing on benefits to Miami’s homegrown film scene.
Legislators voted against providing up to $20 million in continuing film incentives last month, which has many in the industry concerned about the future of film in South Florida. Without tax breaks, production companies can easily choose to go to other states where filming is cheaper, like Georgia and Louisiana. In turn, the loss of local productions drives away filmmakers who depend on the industry remaining in Florida to make a living.
For Lighterman, there’s no questioning the benefits of an incentive program, as she reports that for every dollar of an incentive spent, the state made $9 in return.
When a production crew films in-state, the area experiences an immeasurable impact, since crews also use local services such as hotels, car rental companies, restaurants, dry cleaners and grocery, retail, furniture, and hardware stores. Of course, there’s also the less tangible benefits of showing off South Florida’s culture and showcasing the region as a place to live, work, and enjoy.
“As a community, everybody is out there to try to keep people here,” Lighterman said. “That’s private business working with the public sector together to promote and try to keep filmmaking happening here.”
As Baschuk has worked in the industry and on shows for networks like TLC and CW, he’s witnessed firsthand what happens when LA companies shoot a show in Miami, but bring their own crew from California instead of using local talent. “Not only are they taking local jobs, but I would say, more seriously, they’re taking away the local creative angle, outlook and execution of the project that should be wholly, locally made,” Baschuk said.
For filmmakers who don’t know the area, it can be too easy stereotype or overgeneralize Miami, highlighting the sexier criminal elements or imagining that life only exists on sandy beaches and luxurious boats.
“If you’re watching only films that are produced somewhere else telling those stories, you’ll lose your identity, and I think it’s important for your identity to be able to tell your own stories,” Alexander said.
It’s these local stories and voices that are celebrated and protected by the independent film community. For Tabsch, film is the most accessible of art forms, with the barrier for entry just the cost of a ticket. In the darkness of the cinema, everybody is the same. “Film is a reflection of our lives, our community and our culture,” said Tabsch. “Or, at least, it can be. If we want art and film to continue in this city then we should support it any way we can. You’re either part of the solution by giving it a platform or you’re part of the problem by ignoring local filmmakers.”
This article originally appeared in The New Tropic July 9, 2015.