Chances are if you’re a film buff or happen to frequent Little Havana, you have attended at film at the Tower Theater. Hopefully you have, given that it is an institution in Miami’s film community.
Not only is it a site for screenings during the yearly Miami Film Festival (taking place this year March 3-12), but they also screen award-winning and retrospective films year round.
Until 2002, the theater had been operating under the same administration that handles the Coral Gables Art Cinema. During those years, they primarily screened commercial films at the theater and it was also the site of the Miami Latino Film Festival.
Then in 2002, Miami Dade College won a bid to transfer administration of the theater to an institution that is responsible for programming the site and administration of the property. It was transferred to the college’s InterAmerican Campus, during which time the theater was dedicated to multi-purpose programming including small theater plays, book presentations, an art gallery and for community gatherings.
“Although the site was suitable for all those activities, the strength of the building’s renovation was mainly for film projection,” said Orlando Rojas, film programmer and manager of the Tower. “The lobby was not really suitable as a gallery space and without dressing rooms and appropriate equipment, theatrical productions were also impossible to perform.”
So with two rooms, one with 250 and the other with 104 seats, Tower Theater began to be used for Miami Film Festival screenings immediately after the festival. Although it is not official, Rojas feels the Tower is the permanent site for Miami Film Festival activities throughout the year.
“It’s where nearly all of the projections scheduled by the Miami Film Society are screened. With the three institutions being part of the college’s Cultural Affairs Department, the link is totally organic and natural,” Rojas said.
His history with Tower Theater dates back to 2006 when he was program coordinator for the InterAmerican Campus and when the theater was a multi-purpose center. “I never thought theater would fit that kind of programming, but in 2008 the decision was made to prioritize film programming and the theater as an institution moved from InterAmerican to the Cultural Affairs Department,” he explained. It is also when Rojas becomes manager and film programmer.
The first programming as an independent art cinema at Tower was September 2008, with the Cuban film Personal Belongings by Alejandro Brugués. This was the beginning of what Rojas calls “The Movement,” when Tower began its development as an alternative, independent art cinema.
“These were years of growth and training culminating in the designation by USA Today that Tower Theater is ‘one of the 10 cinemas in the United States where cinema can be seen in its maximum splendor,’” he said.
Although the Miami Film Festival continued to perform part of its programs at Tower Theater, it did not become an official part of the festival until 2011.
Photo courtesy of Tower Theater
Rojas himself was an accomplished filmmaker in Cuba. He has experience in editing as well as directing feature and documentary films as well as documentary shorts. In addition, he was a film critic, member of the selection committee for the Havana Film Festival, and chosen as a jury member at numerous film festivals around the world. He credits all of this with enabling him to run the programming at such an important place as Tower Theater.
“Programming for the Tower has been a vital experience, much like my previous work, full of challenges, anxieties, learning, satisfaction and yes, even some embarrassing moments,” Rojas said. “I have also finally made a feature film in the United States entitled Queen of Thursdays, all while continuing day to day work running Tower.”
The rigorous process of choosing films for screening at Tower involves watching about 500 films, of which he chooses 100. Fifty of those films are ones he says he fully enjoys and he which he is sure his very educated audience, well-versed in film, will also enjoy. The other 50 he explains “in my opinion, may feature a bit of edge and imbalance, but I have the assurance they will be of great interest to the audiences.”
Just look at what they’re showing right now at Tower: Julieta, Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, and Elle, the French import that recently won lead actress Isabelle Huppert a Golden Globe and is a shoe-in for Oscar contention as well at Jackie starring Golden Globe nominee and Oscar winner Natalie Portman.
Tower Theater is located at 1508 SW 8 St. in Little Havana and will once again be a venue for screenings during the Miami Film Festival, March 3-12. http://towertheatermiami.com