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Independent Theaters Struggling
in Atlanta

By Spencer Moon

Aug. 8, 2006 — Atlanta's a tough audience for independent theaters these days. Recently, we have seen the disappearance of Cinefe 8 in Lithonia, the Lefont Plaza in midtown, and El Cine Mireles in Marietta.

  • Cinefe 8 is currently closed, but their website promises a return. (Owner Lee May did not return our calls in time for this article.)
  • You may have also noticed that the venerated 50-year-old Lefont Plaza Theatre in midtown has been mostly dark for over two weeks. Owner George Lefont has sold Lefont Plaza, but he promises that the new owner intends to reopen as an independent theater.
  • El Cine Mireles, an independent theater for the Latin American community, has closed after just one year.

Laura Mireles wanted to bring Latin American and Spanish-language films to her Latino community. To that end she opened the El Cine Mireles film theater in Marietta, Georgia. I spoke with Mireles by phone.

Laura Mireles

When did you decide to close the theater and what was the last date?
Mireles: June 16, 2006 was our last day of operations. We were open June 17, 2005 until June 16, 2006. I had problems with the building owners the entire time that I was there. They sold the building and took me to court to have me evicted. We reached an agreement, a settlement. Part of the settlement was that I would have the opportunity to negotiate a new lease with the new owners. However, the new owners wanted to raise the rent by an additional $1,000 a month. They wanted me to buy new furnaces for the building and do all the repair. I felt like that wasn't an offer made in good faith. They really did not want the Spanish language community there. They have no other plans for the building. It is empty and exactly as it was when I left it. The show times for films are still on the marquee. They would rather have the building empty than have the Spanish language community there.

What was the last film screened at the theater?
Mireles: The Omen 666
with Spanish subtitles and Ice Age 2 dubbed in Spanish.

What was your attendance like?
The numbers were pretty dismal, pretty low. Part of the reason for that was the location was not the best for the Latino community. We did really well with special events, premiers, and special screenings. It was really difficult because the bulk of the Latino community is out in Gwinnett, in DeKalb, and the Buford Highway corridor. They are also down in Smyrna in Marietta, but closer to the Square. We do have Latinos out in Woodstock, Canton, and Kennesaw. The location was not great because there is no public transportation there. For people without cars, it cost a lot to take a taxi that far. The attendance was kind of dismal, even though it was increasing every month.

What are you doing now?
I am actually in discussion with investors to open in another location, doing the same thing but in a better location. The plan is to open someplace closer to a large Latino community, somewhere with access to public transportation. I have all my equipment in storage right now. I'm just re-grouping basically.

One of the other things I'm doing is film exhibition in rural areas. There are large Latino communities in rural areas throughout Georgia. These communities have experienced considerable difficulty with issues such as immigration, employment, racial profiling while driving, and difficulty getting driver's licenses. Recently, some Mexicans were killed in Houston, almost a year ago. Many immigrants can't open bank accounts because they do not have social security numbers. So as a result they carry large amounts of cash. This makes them vulnerable to crime. So on August 19, 2006, I'm taking my equipment to a community in Piston, Georgia. With the help of a local priest I'm going to be showing two films; one for the children and one for the adults. I'm still figuring out which titles based on what I can negotiate with the distributors.

What was your biggest surprise as a novice film theater owner?
I had a big surprise everyday. There was always something. I guess the biggest surprise was how friendly the large studios are. Originally I used a booking service as most large movie theaters do. I realized. I'm paying a lot of money to an agency to book the films. I'm doing all my own research and booking the movies based on that research. The booking agency was based in California. Why pay them when I could do it myself? So I started doing that. I did cold calls and introduced myself to distributors, and I was surprised that they would work with me. It was fabulous. They were very cool. That was my biggest surprise. I expected to be totally blown off by the Hollywood distributors and I wasn't. That was my biggest and most pleasant surprise.

What was your best experience; describe a special moment that you remember?
Oh my god, there are so many. Well, the community that I served, the Spanish speaking community, many of them have not been into a movie since they have been in this country. There a lot of children who came here as babies or were born here. So they would walk in the door and then look around with their mouths agape like they were in a museum. My theater was very modest, it wasn't the Fox. But they would walk around saying "…un cine, UN cine…," totally excited.

Everybody got candy. If people could not afford candy, I had suckers that I gave to everybody, so they could get the most out of the experience. But the kids would go down and sit in the front and watch the movie from there. Then they would go all the way to the back, and then they would try watching from the side because they had never been to a movie before. They wanted to just absorb the entire experience.

For me that kind of enjoyment was special, because people here take going to the movies for granted. The movie-going experience is not often enjoyed by the Spanish speaking community. To bring that kind of joy and excitement to my community was awesome. I was dirt poor and really struggling personally but it made it all worth it.

Do you think Atlanta can support independent film theaters?
I definitely think so because even though my theater was primarily a Spanish language theater, a lot of people from Cobb County came to my theater for independent film shows and midnight screenings. Those were independent film screenings and we had great turnouts for those. Unfortunately one of the problems I had with the building owners was that we did not have heat. The building was freezing in the winter. We discontinued those at the end of December because people were sitting there with numb feet.

I think part of the challenge for independent theater owners is that major chains have the big marketing machines that sell their films. You have say, a great independent film, but who has heard of it? Sure lots of people would love the film if they had heard of it. But the only people who are going to come see it are people who actually seek out independent cinema. The independent theaters tend to be smaller than the larger film houses. The large Hollywood film distributors have requirements regarding how long you have to show a film to get it. It is difficult because you do not have the budget to tie up your screen to a particular film like the larger circuits have.

But I think it is possible. Once I open up my theater again, I would like to hook up with the other independent theater owners and do some collective advertising and marketing. The main problem is marketing, just getting the word out there about what we have. Atlanta is becoming a more culturally sophisticated city and I think there is a market there. We just have to make what we have known to people. I know that it will be better when I open in a better location.

Everyday when I run into to people they ask "When are you going to re-open?" I've had taxi companies call me from Lawrenceville and say when they tell people how much it costs to get to my theater by taxi, people say they can't afford it. When I get into a better location I'm going to be OK in the Latin American market, but I also really love the independent film community and independent films. I want to do that as well, through Midnight Indies or some other scheduling where I can serve the art community .That is something I really believe in and I enjoy independent film and giving them a venue for their work.

Any parting comments for our readers?
I cannot express enough the response I got from the Latino community when I announced I was closing. But what I did not expect was the overwhelming response from the independent film lovers and makers in the area. They would use my theater as a set. We had a crew come and use the theater for the 48 Hour Film Festival. We had people come and do screen tests here. The independent community felt like it was venue for them and they were totally comfortable. They liked the Latino flavor of it. It was overwhelming.

I really love the independent film community here. I really want to be able to open up and support their work more. I'm really motivated by their dedication to their craft.