MIAMI — On the fifth evening of the Miami Film Festival, the shutters are locked and the marquee is blank at Tower Theater, a historic art-house cinema in Little Havana dating back to 1926. This time last year, three films were shown here on a single night during the festival: Mediterraneo: The Law of the Sea (2021), a thriller about two Spanish lifeguards helping migrants cross the Mediterranean sea on one screen; Camila Saldrá Esta Noche (2021), a queer, Spanish-language coming-of-age film about a high school girl on the other; and afterward, The Power of the Dog (2021), a Western drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kristen Dunst, received the festival’s Art of Light Award for cinematography. 

Now, the Tower sits empty, collecting dust and cobwebs ever since the City of Miami abruptly terminated its contract with Miami-Dade College, which had been managing the 97-year-old art deco property since 2002.

“It’s a huge blow to Miami’s film culture,” said Rene Rodriguez, manager of the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema and former Miami Herald film critic. “Art Basel, New World Symphony, the Miami Ballet — every single art discipline in Miami has grown and blossomed with the city. The only one that is shrinking is film exhibition and for absolutely no reason.”

Poster for Miami Film Festival’s 40th edition (courtesy MFF)

For two decades, Tower Theater was the primary venue for Miami-Dade College’s Miami Film Festival. But on its 40th edition, which kicked off last Friday and ended March 12, programmers were forced to quickly pivot after another one of the festival’s venues, Regal South Beach, announced it was closing six weeks before the festival’s opening night. Screenings were relocated across the county to Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami, Cosford Cinema, and the Coral Gables Art Cinema.

“When we opened our doors in 2011, there were five of us,” recalls O Cinema co-founder and director Vivian Marthell, referring to the county’s remaining art-house cinemas. “Now we’re down to three. I don’t know what we need to do — support or money for the festival or the college to find a permanent home, if that’s what they want — but it’s really important that we all take notice.”

Movie theaters across the country reported dwindling box-office sales even before the COVID-19 lockdowns. In addition to Tower Theater and Regal South Beach, it’s been announced that the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and Florida Atlantic University’s Living Room Theaters will be closing, too. Plans to demolish the abandoned Coconut Grove Playhouse are currently under review.

Last fall, the local film and art community protested the decision to terminate the Tower’s contract, chanting “Save the theater!” and holding signs that read “Commissioners — hands off!” An online petition to keep the Tower under the college’s management garnered more than 8,400 signatures. It was to no avail. Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo stated that the city will use the space as a visitor center and venue for film and live theater. By January, all of the movie-related equipment had been removed.

The now-shuttered Tower Theater (photo Jess Swanson/Hyperallergic)

“We urge all film lovers to support these vital institutions and to continue to champion cinema and the arts,” said Miami Film Festival Director Lauren Cohen. “Art house cinemas are an essential part of the Miami Film Festival experience and contribute to the cultural and economic vitality of our Miami community. They are a great way for film lovers to come together and discover unique films that are not typically shown in mainstream theaters.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Rodriguez, who recalls going to Tower Theater as a kid to see Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Torn Curtain (1966). “I had a lot of really fond memories of going to the theater with my dad because of the Spanish subtitles. Then, when the college took over, the programming was stellar.”

It’s unclear what these closings mean for patrons. O Cinema and Rooftop Cinema Club will be the only remaining theaters on Miami Beach, with just two screens combined. Even more concerning, Rodriguez says, is the loss of an art-house cinema with two screens, like Tower Theater. He laments that films like EO (2022), which was nominated for an Oscar for International Feature Film, did not play in Miami theatrically.

“If the Tower had been open, I bet you a million dollars they would have played it,” Rodriguez said.

Decades before movie theaters and cinemas were threatened with extinction, their open-air cousins, the drive-ins, fared a similar fate. The risk didn’t deter local 35mm aficionado Nayib Estefan from opening Nite Owl Drive-In with a 53-foot outdoor screen and 4K DCP projector in downtown Miami in the middle of a pandemic. Night after night Estefan sold out with the unlikeliest of screenings, movies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Jennifer’s Body (2009).

“The problem is that a lot of these theaters have no connection with the audience. It’s almost like a school lunchroom that serves whatever food Cisco is giving you that week,’” Estefan explained. “The movies are supposed to be fun and take you away to another place — not make you more depressed. We’ve had enough of that.”

The Nite Owl Drive-In (courtesy Nayib Estefan)

The key, Estefan said, is making the cinematic experience memorable and fun. When Nite Owl Drive-In screened the gory American slasher Terrifier 2 (2022) last Halloween, Estefan dressed up as the film’s antagonist, Art the Clown, and startled patrons when he tried to break into their back seats.

“It’s just like the music industry. It’s ending for certain people but for the artists, it’s the era for them to really shine,” explained Estefan, who is the son of Grammy Award-winning musicians Emilio and Gloria Estefan. “We’re having a blast over here.”

Indeed, there are reasons to celebrate. This year’s lineup at the Miami Film Festival was more robust than ever, with three North American premieres, seven United States premieres, and screenings of more than 140 films from 30 countries. Marthell reports that O Cinema is working to acquire a second location on the Miami mainland, and actively adding more programming that incorporates virtual reality. She points to the 20-minute cinematic VR experience titled This Is Not a Ceremony by Niitsitapi writer and director Colin Van Loon.

Nine months ago, Estefan launched Dream Arcade, a “secret theater” in Little Haiti, for what he refers to as “beta testing.” He was tight-lipped on the programming but mentioned he previously incorporated “150 vintage televisions” one night.

“Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” Estefan said cryptically. “The future is fun.”

Jess Swanson is a Miami-based freelance journalist. She writes about art, culture, sex, travel, technology, women’s issues, and the environment.