How it started: Co-founders Marthell and Tabsch received a Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant in 2008 to launch their non-profit independent cinema concept “which was exactly when the bottom dropped out of the market,” Marthell said. “Crazy times. Bookended by this crazy time.” But the $400,000 three-year grant was enough to get them going. They opened in Wynwood in 2011 helping that community become an arts and culture destination. In the spring of 2019, they were forced out of the Wynwood location due to a planned redevelopment of their space. That fall, the City of Miami Beach decided not to renew O Cinema’s lease in North Beach’s Byron Carlyle Theater after declaring the deteriorating structure uninhabitable.
O Cinema continued on, however, in South Beach when Marthell and Tabsch took over operation of the 75-seat Miami Beach Cinematheque at 1130 Washington Avenue in August 2019. Dana Keith who opened the Cinematheque, originally on Española Way in 2003 as a permanent home for the Miami Beach Film Society and then in the old City Hall location in 2010, moved on to other projects but continues to provide programming for the Cinematheque – renamed O Cinema South Beach – a couple times a month.
The idea of O Cinema was sparked as Marthell and Tabsch were “boohooing the fact that you either had to travel outside Florida to see these independent or intriguing films or you had to wait for a film festival to come around.”
With O Cinema, they are able “to bring to our community these amazing films” giving “the ability for more story tellers and filmmakers” to get their films out there. “The bar was dropped,” she said.
“What that meant for us was we could be a platform for these non-Hollywood films, if you will.” Films, she said, that cause “heavy thinking three or four days later.”
“Part of our mission,” she added,” is to have our community both on the screen and behind the screen, and, of course, making it accessible.” Through independent cinema, Marthell said, attendees can “still be touched by arts and culture” without the high-priced opera or theater ticket.
Asked how O Cinema has changed over the last decade, she said the model has become “more important than ever” with the current conversations about race and hate crimes.
Marthell and Tabsch survey their audience every year to understand what they want. “They love documentaries,” Marthell said. “That seems to be one of their favorite things.”
Food, fashion, music, health and wellness topics are also popular. Through the “Awake & Aware” program, O Cinema presents films with topics ranging from spirituality, health, creativity, environmental sustainability, philosophy, and sciences along with discussions with filmmakers, subjects and practitioners, and, when possible, interactive experiences as they relate to the film.
O Cinema also explores cultural diversity through its “Lift Every Voice” program which, according to the theater's website, focuses on “ensuring that the stories on our screen reflect the rich and diverse fabric of our community,” including people of color, the LGBTQ community and the Caribbean diaspora through films, discussions, and events. The program is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The most successful films of the past ten years at O Cinema? “Moonlight comes to mind,” Marthell responded. “I think we ran it for like 16 weeks… It was just brilliant and it was kind of lifting up our homegrown filmmakers, which was great.” Moonlight, which was set and filmed in Miami, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. It was directed and written by Miami native Barry Jenkins and was based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, also from Miami.
Other films that have done well at O Cinema include Marley, about the life of Bob Marley. Square Grouper, a documentary on 1970s pot smuggling in South Florida from local producers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman and directed by Corben, and The Last Resort, a portrait of photographers Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe who documented South Beach’s Jewish retirees in the 70s. Tabsch co-directed the film with Dennis Scholl.
A move that didn’t do well? “That’s all relative,” Marthell said. The movie that audiences did not want to see, The Act of Killing, a documentary about the individuals who participated in the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965-66, was “one of my personal favorites,” she said. After seeing it at Sundance, her reaction was, “This may not sell a single ticket… but it is my major obligation as a creative to bring this to the community and we’ll see who shows up.”
“It was just poignant, and, at the end, there was a come to god moment,” she said, in which the perpetrators “realized after reenacting it with pride, they kind of realized it was bad and wrong.” The film, she said, is an example of what independent cinemas do, “injecting and bringing to the community things they get to question and look at through the context of another human, another storyteller.”
Her favorite memory? “Speaking personally, I am a Rocky Horror fan so every year being able to put on Rocky Horror is great,” Marthell said. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a campy look at B-movie horror flicks, was a box office flop when it was released in 1975, but it has since become a cult favorite with regular showings and moviegoers dressed in costumes enacting and immersing themselves in scenes. The first year O Cinema ran the movie, “cutting edge” Miami-based artists “who are now off to greater things” participated, a highlight for Marthell. This past year, with the theater closed for COVID, there was no Rocky Horror Picture Show at O Cinema for the first time since the theater's opening.
How’s it going: O Cinema closed March 12, 2020 as the pandemic hit the U.S. The partners pivoted almost immediately to virtual screenings to remain engaged with their audience. Just over a year later, the theater reopened, with provisions for contactless purchases, temperature checks, distanced seating, hand sanitizers, and entrance and exit procedures, among other precautions. The reopening was the day before the City declared a State of Emergency and early curfew to mitigate Spring Break crowds so Marthell said she can’t gauge how moviegoers are reacting to being back in a theater though she said some have been coming. The State of Emergency ends Monday, April 12.
Marthell said everyone is still in a “let’s wait and see” mode with France shutting down for a fourth time. “We are trying to stay as nimble as possible, continue to do the work that we are charged to do, continue our virtual screenings, continue in-person showings,” she said. “I believe that, slowly, people as they get back… will feel a little bit more comfortable, understanding that there’s caution around the variants. This is a new normal, you’re walking on eggshells. We have to be careful and thoughtful and number one think about the audience’s safety.”
As to what the future looks like for the industry, she thinks the large chain movie theaters will be “hard-pressed… to provide the kind of independent and first run films that I think art house cinemas across the United States are doing.” With many theaters having shuttered permanently, she said, “As they come back, my fear is that they’re going to come back with the tried and true or continue to make their remake stuff” whereas art house cinemas, she said, “what we consistently do is bring the ‘other.’”
O Cinema’s Tenth Anniversary CelebrationWhat: O Cinema's tenth anniversary
When: Friday, April 16, 7:00 pm, Doors open at 6
Where: North Beach Bandshell
Screening: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Attendees will receive swag bags with chocolate bars, ten of which contain golden tickets. Those tickets are good for free movies for one year for the person who finds one.
CDC safety protocols will be in place.
For tickets, click here. [Updated April 15: This event is SOLD OUT, however, there will be a rush line in case RSVPs don't show up before 7:10 pm.]
Photos courtesy O Cinema