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Does Maitland, Florida Have The Best Arthouse in America?

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 19, 2011 at 2:14AM

On Saturday night, hundreds of people gathered at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Florida Film Festival. Outside, patrons gathered at the two-year-old Eden Bar, admiring a newly designed mural by indie animator Bill Plympton. On the vast lawn adjacent to the bar, a blues band played into the night, taking a short break from its usual repertoire for a cheerful rendition of "Happy Birthday." And a few feet away, audiences gathered in the 230-seat theater, a room adorned with roomy tables and a waitstaff that served drinks and dinner while the evening’s programs unspooled on the big screen.
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On Saturday night, hundreds of people gathered at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, Florida to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Florida Film Festival. Outside, patrons gathered at the two-year-old Eden Bar, admiring a newly designed mural by indie animator Bill Plympton. On the vast lawn adjacent to the bar, a blues band played into the night, taking a short break from its usual repertoire for a cheerful rendition of "Happy Birthday." And a few feet away, audiences gathered in the 230-seat theater, a room adorned with roomy tables and a waitstaff that served drinks and dinner while the evening’s programs unspooled on the big screen.

The busy scene was nothing new for the 26-year-old theater, which has served as an anchor for the festival since its inception. According to the Enzian's founders, the success of the theater -- and the festival that grew out of it -- came with time. "It started out doing a very tiny amount of business," said Phillip Tiedtke, Enzian chairman. "Since then, it has just been about finding out what people wanted and suiting our local market."

Tiedke's family made a fortune in the sugar industry two generations back and have maintained a significant philanthropic presence in the Orlando area ever since. The Enzian was launched in 1985 as a rep house by Tiedtke's sister, Tina, who purchased an old Florida homestead and built the theater from scratch.

Two years later, the Enzian transitioned into a calendar theater with regular film bookings, which was followed by the establishment of the Enzian Film Society in 1990. By 1992, Philip Tiedtke had absorbed many of his sister's responsibilities and decided to launch the film festival as an outgrowth of his experience attending the city's 50-year-old Bach festival, founded by his father.

"My family had been involved in the arts for two generations, so I grew up going to the opera and the symphony," Tiedtke said. "You watch those audiences dwindle. I wanted to do something for this community that would bring it together. You can't do that with the opera or symphony, but you can do that with film."

The single-screen theater operates with an annual budget of $2.5 million, of which a small fraction is allotted to the festival. Tiedtke, whose wife Sigrid oversees much of the festival's growth, drew from a background that included film production and business school to flesh out the theater's non-profit model. "We didn't just come into this as film lovers," he said. "We went at it knowing we had to cover our costs. If we didn't feel comfortable doing that, we wouldn't have started the festival."

As a result, he has yet to expand on the Enzian brand by opening up more facilities, despite several offers around town to do just that. "It's not an insignificant operation," he said. "If you don't do this right, you lose a lot of money really fast. Some years we're a little in the black and sometimes we're a little in the red, but overall, we've broken even."

Longtime Florida Film Festival programmer Matthew Curtis said the theater's stability ensured that the festival got noticed during its very first year, when Universal Studios served as a sponsor. (Walt Disney Studios, a competitor in town, refused to sign on.) "It helped that Enzian had been around for several years at that point," Curis said. "It had an audience eager to see new stuff and willing to try new things. We want to give as diverse a lineup as we can and really offer something for everybody."

Enzian theater owners Philip and Sigrid Tiedke. [Photo by Eric Kohn]

While submissions have ballooned from around 300 in 1992 to over 1,500 this year, Curtis feels no pressure to beef up the industry presence. "We've never had the reputation of being a business festival," he said. "It has always been about the passion and the art in a pretty unbiased, non-jaded environment." (The festival's lavish culinary events define its brand nearly as much as the movies.)

Still, Curtis points to movies such as "The Blair Witch Project" and "Hands on a Hard Body" as among those that have gained momentum at the festival and leveraged that buzz to further notice while traveling the festival circuit.

This year, Lawrence Johnson's personal documentary about his late father's possessions--one of two films in competition that were world premieres--won the documentary section of the festival. Despite that specific triumph, Curtis emphasized that the program mainly intended to serve the local population. Ticket-payers turned out in droves for screenings and events at the Enzian, including public conversations with Edward James Olmos and Victor Nuñez.
"The point is really to galvanize the filmmaking community in Orlando and show that there can be a film festival here," he said, noting that local film school Full Sail University has served as a sponsor for several years.

While screenings take place at a few other theaters around town, the festival primarily demonstrates the durability of the Enzian brand and its close ties to a single branch. "It's not a franchise," Tiedtke said. "It just isn't. It's cozy, and cozy works."

A key component of the business model is the bar and restaurant outside the theater, which gives audiences a reason to stick around. "I can't think of a cinema where I walked out of the movie theater and felt like hanging out," he said. "Usually, the first thing you want to do is get out of there and go someplace nice. Here, you can stretch out under the oak trees."

The Tiedtke family acknowledges that, in recent years, franchises such as Cinebarre and the Alamo Drafthouse have utilized a similar approach to incorporating lavish food and drink components into a movie theater environment--a strategy that has been viewed as one way to combat dwindling theatrical attendance. "Imitation is a great form of flattery," said Sigrid Tiedtke. "We wish them all well. The bottom line is that we want people to go see movies, period."

This article is related to: Features, Festival Dispatch