Stars are born Homegrown Miami filmmakers grabbing the spotlight

Carl Juste

Jaie Laplante, executive director of the Miami Film Festival and operator of the Tower Theater, stands outside the historic Little Havana theater under its marquee.

In the old days — meaning the 1990s and the early 2000s — Miami’s nickname of “Hollywood East” made sense.

Sylvester Stallone lived here. So did Madonna and Sophia Loren and Whitney Houston and Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith and Jimmy Page.

More importantly, Hollywood studio productions flocked to shoot here, lured by the worldwide success of TV’s “Miami Vice” and Florida’s enticing tax incentives, which shaved millions off the cost of big-budget projects.

Jim Carrey mugged his way down Washington Avenue in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” Arnold Schwarzenegger shot up a Brickell high-rise with a Harrier jump jet in “True Lies.” Robin Williams and Nathan Lane camped it up on South Beach in “The Birdcage.” Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller had hair-gel hijinks in “There’s Something About Mary.” Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon and Bill Murray got up to no good in the cult classic “Wild Things.”

As recently as 2011, movies and TV shows spent more than $400 million around Miami-Dade County. Then the state tax breaks dried up, sending Hollywood — and many of the South Florida residents who made their living in the film industry — to Atlanta, where incentives were too good to pass up.

But in the vacuum left by the A-list stars, directors and crew members, a new generation of gifted filmmakers — most of them born and raised in Miami — have stepped in to tell stories about their city, their diverse cultures and their neighborhoods. Their films — most of them shorts — have traveled to film festivals around the world, from Sundance to Tribeca to Toronto to Berlin.

The ‘Moonlight’ effect

Inspired by the success of director Barry Jenkins’ 2016 drama “Moonlight,” which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney), Miami’s existing infrastructure of filmmakers helping other filmmakers has blossomed and grown. And local film festivals and art-house cinemas, still struggling to recover from COVID closures, have flung open their doors wider than ever before, giving local feature and short films a platform to connect with larger audiences.


“What was particularly effective about ‘Moonlight’ — which was backed by Hollywood producers — is that it was a universal story,” said Billy Corben, who has directed some of the best-known documentaries set in or about Miami, most recently the smash-hit six-episode docuseries “Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami,” which premiered on Netflix in August, and “537 Votes,” a look back at the shenanigans around the 2000 presidential election that made its debut on HBO Max in October 2020.

“The reason why that’s unique and important is that Miami has always been exploited by Hollywood as a backdrop and that’s about it, just like New Yorkers have treated it as a sixth borough,” Corben said. “These new Miami filmmakers are telling stories about what they know and are closest to, which is wonderful. But it’s still a big gamble to think that you can make a living down here making movies. We’re a town that subsists from hustle to hustle. Tech hub is just the new cocaine. No one had really taken the mission of developing indigenous film talent seriously before.”

Miami’s new breed of filmmaker, many of them immigrants, are choosing to tell stories about their respective cultures and communities in different genres:

Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s magical, melancholy 2019 short “T,” about a Miami ball where the participants model T-shirts and elaborate homemade costumes to honor their dead, won the Best Short Film award at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival and is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

“Huracán,” an energetic thriller about a Latino mixed martial arts fighter in Miami suffering from dissociative identity disorder written and directed by and starring Cassius Corrigan, premiered to a sold-out crowd at the Olympia Theater during the 2019 Miami Film Festival and is now streaming on HBO Max.

“The Last Resort,” a hugely entertaining documentary about the vibrant Jewish community that took root in South Beach in the 1970s co-directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch, received national theatrical distribution in 2019.

Corben said that his production company rakontur, which he co-founded with Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin in 2000, will be launching a new initiative in early 2022 to create a platform for younger and more diverse voices out of South Florida, proactively producing nonfiction content for other directors with life experiences different from theirs.

“We are going to be on the lookout for voices that can tell stories from different tribes,” Corben said. “That’s the thing about Miami: It’s so tribal. It’s like ‘Game of Thrones’ with iguanas instead of dragons. We want every flag represented. It’s incumbent upon us as the O.G. — old guard — to help amplify those new voices and those unique perspectives we don’t hear from. We have proven stories out of Miami are not provincial in their appeal.”

Money, money

The most critical aspect in getting those new voices heard: funding. Although digital technology has greatly reduced the cost of film production and the need for extensive (and expensive) crews, even a modest, 15-minute short film can cost tens of thousands of dollars to make.

According to Victoria J. Rogers, vice president of arts for the Knight Foundation, Knight Arts awarded 25 grants totaling nearly $6 million from 2016-2020 to organizations that support the development or presentation of films produced by local filmmakers in Miami and South Florida.

“Investing in arts and culture is central to Knight’s effort to build stronger, better informed and more engaged communities — the foundation of a healthy democracy,” Rogers said. “Movies are an integral part of us; they mirror what we believe and how we coexist as people. They can elicit deep feelings and help us reflect on our lives. It’s an art form that captivates our interest and reflects the amazing stories of our city.”


One beneficiary of Knight Foundation grants is the nonprofit Oolite Arts, formerly known as ArtCenter/South Florida. Under the leadership of Dennis Scholl, a veteran filmmaker and renowned art collector who served as the Knight Foundation’s vice president of arts for seven years before becoming president and CEO of Oolite in 2017, the art collaborative expanded its reach into film.

ArtCenter sold its longtime home base at 800-810 Lincoln Rd. in Miami Beach, where it had housed artist studios and exhibit space since 1984, for $88 million in 2014. Oolite headquarters will remain at its current location at 924 Lincoln Rd. until construction is finished on its new facility, a 28,000-square-foot studio, galleries, classrooms and work space at 75 NW 72nd St. in Miami designed by the Barcelona-based Barozzi Veiga architectural firm, which specializes in designing museums and cultural facilities. Construction is expected to begin in early 2022.

Sandy Lighterman, the Film and Entertainment Commissioner for Miami-Dade County, said the county offers several tax incentive programs, ranging from $50,000 to $100,000, to lure out-of-town productions. One condition: 70 percent of the cast, crew and vendors have to be from Miami. North Miami and Miami Beach offer similar incentives.

“The talent of the content creators we have is astounding,” Lighterman said. “They are incredibly creative, they know how to tell a story and they’re getting recognized. Our ultimate goal is for them to keep bringing their projects here as their careers get bigger and bigger. They’re really committed to keeping it local.”

groups Helping

filmmakers grow

Danielle Bender, cinematic arts manager for Oolite, oversees the group’s yearlong film residency program, now in its fourth edition. Winning applicants receive $50,000 to make a narrative, micro-budget feature, a producer assigned to their film, studio space and access to Oolite’s network of curators, artists and filmmakers.

The first feature to come out of the program — “Ludi,” director Edson Jean’s film about a Haitian immigrant trying to eke out a living as a nurse in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood — was the opening night selection of the 2021 Miami Film Festival and later screened at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival.

“That was a huge win and validation that this program is needed,” Bender said. “Making a micro-budget feature is the perfect bridge between directing short films and full-length features. We’re seeing a great existing community of creatives who are making strong work in Miami. There’s so much talent here, and we want to keep putting funds in the hands of folks who make creative work.”


Also this year, Oolite partnered with the Community Justice Project to launch “Pass the Mic,” a program that pairs a filmmaker with a Miami community leader to create short films about pressing issues around the city. “The Village (Free)dge,” one of the three initial movies produced under the partnership, is a warm and touching portrait of Sherina Jones, who launched a free community refrigerator program in Liberty City to provide food for the needy. The film, directed by Alicia Edwards, is currently making the festival rounds.

Diliana Alexander, who co-founded the membership-based FilmGate Miami with Jose Jacho, said the group has been helping filmmakers realize their projects from idea to festival delivery for nine years. The organization, which takes up the entire third floor at the Downtown Media Center, 168 SE First St., offers facilities such as green screens, studio space, editing bays and a small theater.


FilmGate also presents a monthly film festival, formerly known as “I’m Not Gonna Move to LA!” showcasing at least 10 short films, documentaries and music videos made locally. Its splashiest event is FilmGate Interactive, which is held during Art Week in early December and features some of the best XR (an umbrella term for all sorts of virtual reality experiences) from around the world.

Another group supporting filmmakers, the nonprofit Miami Film Lab, was recently launched by Miami native Jennifer Orta Castellano. It will help with everything from funding to mentorships to screening opportunities.

“My dream is to create an organization that would help create sustainable careers in Miami,” Orta Castellano said. “There are a lot of filmmakers who are scrounging around and asking for favors. We lack an infrastructure. We want to provide crew members a chance to work on local projects while making the livelihood they deserve.”

The group currently releases one made-in-Miami short film on its YouTube channel each Wednesday.

The COVID factor

Equally important as getting films made is having venues to screen them. If people don’t have a way to see the movies in a proper theatrical or festival setting, their impact is muted — just another of the countless pieces of content waiting to be randomly discovered and consumed online.

“We’re trying to bring Miami’s filmmaking community together, but we can’t do it without the local cinemas,” said Scholl. “COVID made it impossible for us to have a big community premiere of ‘Ludi.’ We will at some point. But we want to make sure that when these films have a chance to go out to the world, they also get a chance here in Miami.

“The rocket ship that has become Miami filmmaking has gotten a lot of traction in the last two to three years,” Scholl continued. “As we come out of the pandemic, there’s going to be a real synergy between local filmmakers and the local cinemas. The people who are overseeing them are very welcoming, because they are filmmakers themselves and they understand what the community needs.”

First, though, local cinemas and festivals will have to overcome the financial craters created by the COVID-19 shutdown. Brenda Moe, executive director of the 141-seat Coral Gables Art Cinema, said closing the theater for six months — in the middle of a fundraising effort for an expansion to a second screen at 240 Aragon Ave., adjacent to the current location — was “an uncertain time.” The cinema’s staff was slashed from 20 people to eight. Currently, the theater is operating at 75% capacity due to seating restrictions. Monthly ticket-sale grosses are 20% of what they were in 2019.

But Moe said the cinema’s audience has remained loyal, with a 19% increase in paid memberships during the pandemic closure. In the last year, the theater brought in $500,000 in grant funds, compared to the typical $198,000. And fundraising for the expansion stands at $750,000 of the needed $1.5 million, with the rest of the money expected to be in place by the end of the year.


With the hiring of April Dobbins as the new director of programming, Moe said, the cinema will also make a bigger outreach to local filmmakers

“We want to drill down into the local filmmaking community and see how can we support local filmmakers,” Moe said. “We are going to be featuring local short films here at the cinema. We want to give filmmakers the opportunity to use the cinema during off hours to give them the opportunity to test their movies in a cinema and watch them with key cast and crew. We want to connect with as many filmmaking organizations as possible and ask, ‘What else can we do? Can we work together?’”

Loyal audiences

Jaie Laplante, director of programming at the Miami Film Festival, said he used a “Keep it simple, keep it safe” approach for the 2021 edition of the event, which was limited to one location, the Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami, with seating capacity at 50 percent for all the auditoriums showing festival selections.

The festival pared down its usual number of titles from 90 to 60 and offered virtual screenings for the 48 hours following the movies’ in-person premieres. Attendance figures were 25% of what they were in 2019, but that was to be expected.

A tougher challenge has been bringing audiences back to Little Havana’s Tower Theater, which is owned by the City of Miami but under contract by Miami Dade College, which also produces the Miami Film Festival. The theater has two auditoriums, one with 250 seats and another with 104. The Tower reopened on Oct. 9, 2020, following the statewide shutdown in March of that year.


“People continue to support their local cinemas,” Laplante said. “The Tower’s audience really loves the theater, and we are going to continue programming for them, even if distributors start releasing movies day-and-date with video-on-demand. If distributors just put their movie on Amazon, how are people going to find it? Playing a movie at a local theater gives the movie a profile. It’s saying, ‘This is worth your time.’ We’re not doing the box office we were doing before the pandemic, but we’re able to work with it.”

Although it’s in nowhere near the same league as New York or Los Angeles, Miami remains an important market for distributors of art-house fare. “Titane,” the body-horror thriller that won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, opened at the Tower on Oct. 1, the same date it opened at major cities around the U.S.

Lisa Bunnell, president of distribution at Focus Features, which released writer-director Paul Schrader’s latest film, “The Card Counter,” starring Miami homeboy Oscar Isaac, said Miami is ranked No. 16 on the list of the top 20 U.S. cities for art-house films, based on attendance. Schrader’s film was released exclusively in theaters before it was available for streaming at home, bucking the trend some major distributors such as Warner Bros. and Universal have adopted. “The Card Counter” debuted locally at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Sept. 10, the day it played at AMC and Regal Cinemas multiplexes.

“We believe in the theatrical experience, and we want to give theater owners a chance to play the movies and give the filmmakers a chance to let moviegoers experience the films the way they were meant to be seen,” Bunnell said. “Miami is always an important domestic market. It is a very viable market that gets better and better every time.”

Still, COVID forced some local institutions to think fast and react. Igor Shteyrenberg, executive director of the Miami Jewish Film Festival, the largest event of its kind in the world, had to pivot quickly for the festival’s 2021 edition. The event, which is usually held in January, was pushed back to April, and all of its 148 feature-length and short films were screened virtually at no cost to the public.

“We wanted to ensure that the cultural arts were not a privilege at this time in our community,” Shteyrenberg said. “The arts need to aspire to provide a sense of hope. We are going to have a sense of normalcy and go back to theaters again. But this year, the question was, ‘Do we endure this challenge?’ Because it is so unnatural. Our mission as a nonprofit organization is to bring people together in the largest number possible. The challenge was keeping our community as safe as possible.”


Shteyrenberg also co-founded Popcorn Frights, South Florida’s only all-horror film festival, with local programmer Marc Ferman. The 2021 edition, which was held in August, combined eight days of virtual screenings with four days of in-person showings at the Silverspot Cinemas in Coconut Creek. The festival, which includes a programming block for films made in Florida, drew an estimated 10,000 people.

“We have built a channel between local filmmakers and our festival,” Shteyrenberg said about Popcorn Frights. “There is something really special about our Florida talent. Their movies get featured in Fangoria magazine. We highlight their work and bring it to the attention of the national audience we have.”

COVID was actually a boon for one local cinema — the Nite Owl Drive-In in downtown Miami. Nayib Estefan, who founded the drive-in, said more than 50,000 people have attended the venue since it opened in January. The venue has hosted exclusive theatrical runs, such as a two-week engagement of the Netflix animated film “Vivo.” The drive-in, which was turned into a feature park for the premiere, hosted some of the movie’s stars, including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Gloria Estefan.


The venue also hosted a special screening of the HBO documentary “Revolution Rent,” about an actor who travels to Cuba to reimagine a production of the Broadway hit “Rent” on the island. And the drive-in was one of only four venues around the world — including the Apollo Theater in New York and the TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles — to host a screening of the Madonna concert documentary “Madame X” on Saturday.

Perseverance pays

Other local filmmakers have eschewed the traditional channels and made their independent films the old-fashioned way, raising budgets by seeking funds from private donors.

Jessica Kavana Dornbusch, who wrote and directed “Reefa,” a recounting of the life and death of Miami graffiti artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez, said she reached out to friends and family members to raise the initial $750,000 funds for the film’s eventual $1.1 million budget. She raised another $150,000 via crowd-funding. Once the film was in production with a full cast and crew, she was able to raise the remaining funds through local business owners. The movie is now streaming on HBO Max.

“It was a miracle the movie got done,” Dornbusch said. “There’s a lot of help in the physical production arena. When it comes to anything having to do with crew members, every filmmaker on the ground here wants everybody else to succeed. The boots on the ground are fantastic. Hopefully, we keep them here. But there’s no financial aid in getting a feature film made. The infrastructure that you need when you’re a filmmaker is not there.”


One of the biggest success stories to emerge from the Miami film scene in the last few years is Tabsch, who co-founded O Cinema with Vivian Marthell at its original Wynwood location in 2011. The cinema, which continues its longstanding tradition of playing specialty art fare and works by local filmmakers, is located at the space of the former Miami Beach Cinematheque space at 1130 Washington Ave. Dana Keith, who founded the Miami Beach Film Society, continues to use the venue for special screenings and exhibits of its ambitious “The MBC Interactive Archive,” a digital presentation of the entire history of cinema, from the 1880s to the present day.

While Tabsch remains active with the cinema, he is focusing primarily on his filmmaking career, which began with several celebrated shorts (including 2015’s “Dolphin Lover,” co-directed by Joey Daoud, which won the Best Short Documentary prize at the LA Film Fest).

Those led to the feature-length documentaries “The Last Resort” and “Mucho Mucho Amor,” an affectionate exploration of the life and flamboyant style of the late Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado co-directed by Cristina Costantini. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and began streaming on Netflix last year. It was nominated for an Outstanding Arts and Culture Documentary Emmy in 2021.

“The Miami film scene is having this moment,” said Tabsch, who signed with the prestigious Los Angeles talent agency WME in March. “What is the through-line? A through-line of community. And community doesn’t happen in a silo and it doesn’t happen with just one thing. It’s about having film festivals that support local filmmakers, about cinemas that show movies people otherwise wouldn’t see, about having organizations like the Knight Foundation and Oolite, about people such as Sandy Lighterman [the Film and Entertainment Commissioner for Miami-Dade County] helping everyone. All of these things have to happen — these cross-pollination opportunities that bring people together.

“There still isn’t a real film industry in South Florida,” Tabsch added. “But there is a growing filmmaker community. There’s a difference there. We just don’t do enough of a good job in celebrating and cultivating local talent. The talent has always been there. The talent has always existed here. But before, you had to leave because there wasn’t a sense that there was an opportunity that you could create here. I am a product of this community 100 percent and have seen how it has changed.”

Rene Rodriguez: @RodriguezRene