Like everything else, Miami is bigger than it used to be. At 5.5 million, the burgeoning Miami-Dade population is the eighth largest metro area in the U.S. You hear Spanish everywhere, from the glitzy Vegas-level Faena Hotel — resplendent wth full-length lobby murals from Pedro Almodovar’s poster designer Juan Gatti, a stuffed peacock, and Damien Hirst’s $15-million 14K gold-painted mastodon skeleton encased in glass perilously close to the ocean — to the famed neon-deco restorations lining Collins Avenue on South Beach, Little Havana’s Ball & Chain, the wild grafitti art at Wynwood Walls and a gut-busting range of South American restaurants, from Chile to Peru.
And you hear Spanish at Miami-Dade College’s sprawling Miami Film Festival, which — after eight years under director Jaie LaPlante — leans into its Ibero-American identity via a strong program dominated by Spanish-language films amid a diverse array of narratives, shorts and documentaries.
Headquartered at Belle Isle’s The Standard Spa in Miami Beach, the program plays at theaters spread over the island-dotted city, from the opening night gala at the Olympia Theater in Downtown Miami to the Regal Cinemas and arthouse O Cinema in Miami Beach, MDC’s year-round arthouse, the Tower Theater Miami in Little Havana, and two theaters in Coral Gables.
This year’s festival attendees were cheering the recent Oscar wins for Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and Chilean foreign-language-winner “A Fantastic Woman,” which not only got a box office boost in North America, but in Latin America as well. Argentinian distributor Peter Marai said that the well-reviewed film starring transgender actress Daniela Vega struggled at first from some conservative blowback, but after the Oscar win, audiences flocked to theaters.
Multiple nationalities made the Miami trek, as Paul Schrader accompanied his festival hit “First Reformed,” grand dame Isabelle Huppert and Spanish auteur Carlos Saura participated in more tributes, and “The Artist” Oscar-winner Michel Hazanavicius came with retitled Cannes entry “Godard Mon Amour.” (“You do not have to feel guilty that you abandoned Godard,” the French director said. “Maybe he abandoned you.”)
At the “Tully” (Focus Features) opening night after-party, director Jason Reitman was already looking forward to his second 2018 feature, “The Front Runner,” likely debuting at the fall festivals, starring Hugh Jackman as Senator Gary Hart, who was making a strong run for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when he was sidelined by his publicized extra-marital affair with Donna Rice — marking a new normal for press coverage. Needless to say, Reitman turned to veteran Hart campaign advisor Warren Beatty for background, and the Bron Studio-backed indie looks more timely than ever.
In the Miami festival Competition, Best Director went to Mateo Gil (who wrote Alejandro Amenábar’s Oscar-nominated “The Sea Inside”) for the entertaining English and Spanish romantic comedy “The Laws of Thermodynamics,” which “is not a comedy, it’s a documentary about the laws of thermodynamics and of love,” Gil said. Acquired worldwide by Netflix, the movie world-premiered in Miami instead of Cannes. Its high concept makes it a great candidate not only for Netflix’s global outreach but an English-language remake.
The Grand Jury Prize for Best Film went to Diego Lerman’s “A Sort of Family,” which is nominated for eight Argentinian Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and the Audience Award for Best Feature was taken by Argentinian Pablo Solarz’s “The Last Suit,” which will open stateside via Outsider Pictures on March 23rd.
Also nabbing a (shared) documentary prize was “Liyana,” a moving documentary about the power of story from Swaziland, which gives a group of AIDs orphans the chance to tell their own story via animation. Actor-director Djimon Hounsou explores his African voodoo roots in Benin in the world premiere “In Search of Voodoo: Roots of Heaven,” which takes voodoo back to the cradle of civilization in Africa and shows how colonizers and missionaries turned it into a cursed religion—and Hollywood spread a distorted view.
Gustavo Caballero/South Beach Photo/REX/Shutterstock
Voodoo is neither satanic, nor just about animal sacrifice, he said. Many people who leave Africa turn their back on their homeland when they buy into “the white way is the right way.” Hounsou hates the way the West makes Africans feel shame about their culture, and the claim that Jesus was white. “Does voodoo empower women in a way that Christianity does not?” asked one moviegoer at the Q&A. “With all those deities, at the head of them all is a Queen,” said Hounsou. “We men are small. The woman is queen!”
On-screen were ads for festival sponsor MoviePass, which is based in Miami, Los Angeles and New York. After partnering on a Sundance pickup from The Orchard (“American Animals”), two more deals are in the works. “We guarantee a percentage of moviegoers and share in the revenue,” said one executive in Miami. “We’re good for the consumer.” But are they good for theaters? And is their business model sustainable?
Those remain open questions. Next stop: Cannes, as the movie ticket subscription service continues to disrupt the theater business with its $7.99 monthly fee and goal to push from 2 million to 5 million customers. The hope, according to several executives on hand, is to gain enough leverage to work out sustainable partnerships with more big theater chains like AMC, which refused to partner with MoviePass, which now blocks AMC’s 10 highest-priced theaters. The start-up has jumped from 16 employees to 60 in one year with a main (millennial) demo 18-34.
Festival director and arthouse distributor Jaie Laplante, for one, is willing to share revenues with MoviePass because they bring in so many patrons.
“I feel MoviePass is currently the best big idea we have to reverse the excruciating, inexorable slide into the artistically and socially inferior trend of watching movies online at home alone while folding laundry or cooking dinner,” he wrote in an email to IndieWire. “As a theater operator, I am absolutely open to creating a win-win arrangement with MoviePass that would involve some revenue sharing. In the past two months at our theater, we have seen a steady and consistent use of MoviePass that is approaching five percent of our daily sales — a percent that we believe will snowball with the huge jump in audience awareness via MoviePass’ sponsorship of the current edition of Miami Film Festival.”
Screens also displayed advertisements for Spanish-language subscription services FlixLatino ($2.99 per mes) and Viendo Movies. As more platforms emerge in the crowded digital market, film festivals like Miami bringing the niches to the foreground.
Check out the Miami Film Festival award winners on the next page.