November 23, 2014

Calling All Film Fans

Like many Southwest Floridians, I've long lamented that good film is the one element missing from our cultural mix. If you've been lucky enough to live in a town with an art-house cinema, enjoying a steady diet of independent and foreign films, you soon get hollow and hungry on nothing but Hollywood fare.

Good films aren't just more intelligent than blockbusters with plastic characters and screaming action sequences; they're more entertaining, too. The best foreign and independent films present characters you care about and situations that draw you in. And films made in other countries have an added dimension, introducing you to new landscapes and ways of life. Watching Children of Heaven, which was featured last month in the Sugden Theatre's "Films on Fifth" series, I learned more about life in Iran than I'd absorbed from years of following the news-including the realization that those children and their families are essentially just like us.

"They stay with you; they attack your emotions," says Naples real-estate agent Karen Van Arsdale of movies like that. A longtime film fan, Van Arsdale proposed the "Films on Fifth" series to Northern Trust, which invited some of her clients-wealthy newcomers who perfectly fit the bank's customer profile-as well as its own arts-loving clients to attend. The series started two years ago with four films during the season in the second-floor conference room of the bank's Fifth Avenue South offices and was an immediate hit.

"We had to stand up to read the subtitles," remembers Van Arsdale; but people loved the clubby atmosphere, from the hot popcorn to the impromptu dinners in nearby restaurants afterward. This year the series expanded to the Sugden, with half of the 300 seats going to the bank's customers and the other half offered to Naples Players' season-ticket holders. Northern Trust managing executive Scott Alexander says he was soon deluged with calls from customers asking, "Why didn't I hear about this?" Alexander and Dallas Donegan, artistic director of the Players, say they consider the program a great success, and at press time were discussing plans for next year.

Though it's the most fashionable of the region's film events, the Sugden series is certainly not the first. In addition to series at the Collier and Lee county libraries, says Les Blumberg, who teaches a film course for Florida Gulf Coast University's Renaissance Academy, "tons of movie clubs" show films at home. We also have three homegrown film festivals: the Edison and Fort Myers Beach festivals and the six-year-old Marco Island Film Festival, which last fall screened 120 films for 8,500 visitors and was rated one of the top five "vacation festivals" by noted indie critic Chris Gore (he called the nightly screenings on the beach "pure heaven").

The region's "very knowledgeable film audience" has now caught the attention of Regal Entertainment, which is dedicating "at least one screen" and occasionally more to art films at its Bonita Regal 12 theater, says vice president of marketing Dick Westerling. Interest in such films is rising all over the country, says Westerling, especially in "affluent, upscale markets," like Southwest Florida, and the Bonita programming is "performing very well."

But one screen won't satisfy true film fanatics, who dream of a local cinema playing nothing but art films. Now a fledgling group, the Film Society of Southwest Florida, is taking the first steps toward that goal. Maggie McCarty, who as film commissioner of Collier County tries to lure companies to shoot here, says the society hopes to launch a membership drive and start showing films once a week this fall, probably at Naples' Pavilion Theatre, where they held a well-attended Chinese film festival in March.

It's a long way from there to their own art house cinema; and the price of Naples real estate is just one obstacle, says Dick Morris, owner of a three-screen independent theater, Burns Court Cinema, in Sarasota. The big art films, like Bend It Like Beckham and The Pianist, make enough money for art houses to play the small, obscure ones, which "lose money in every city in the United States"; but now the chains are grabbing the moneymakers. As a longtime industry insider, Morris can wrest many of the big films away from Regal, but "I'm in a fight with them every day." For an art house to rise in Southwest Florida, he says, "someone will have to underwrite it," at least for the first five or six years, until it has the clout to book the profitable films.

Maybe what we need next is a leader. I'm thinking of someone who is to film what Myra Daniels was to the Phil-a charismatic crusader who lives, breathes and fights for a home for this rewarding art form, a place where people of all ages and backgrounds can share the excitement of waiting in a darkened theater for the screen to light up with a story that may stay with them the rest of their lives. If you're out there, give McCarty a call, at 659-FILM.