On Tuesday morning dozens of local filmmakers and residents gathered outside the historic Tower Theater to protest the City of Miami’s decision to terminate its contract with Miami Dade College, which has operated the venue since 2002. The controversial move stirred outrage among supporters of the theater who view it as a beacon of the local film community.
In a notice sent out by the city’s Department of Real Estate and Asset Management on Sept. 19, MDC was informed that the city would not renew their contract with the theater when it ends on Jan. 2, 2023. While no reason was given for the decision, local filmmakers and residents who support MDC’s management are doubtful of the city’s plans.
“MDC does so much for the film community down here. It has enriched the lives of so many people and the community of Little Havana, and nobody here wants to see that go away,” said local filmmaker and protest organizer Chris Molina.
The termination came three days before the city commission met with two resolutions on the agenda aimed at handing over control of the Tower Theater and its parking lot to the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Brigade 2506. When news broke of the city’s decision to terminate the contract Molina created a petition on change.org with the intent of urging city officials to allow MDC to continue operating the theater. As of today, the petition has garnered over 6,000 signatures.
The resolutions were sponsored by City Commissioner Joe Carollo, who pushed the veteran’s association to take control of the venue and “better operate it”. The measures included a plan to build affordable housing on the property and a museum commemorating the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. However, the veterans group was not interested and the two resolutions were withdrawn from the September 22nd agenda.
“It’s short-sighted,” said Rebecca Mendizabal, a local resident. “I don’t think it’s taking into account the history the tower has and the impact it could have in the future. I’ve seen so many local films that have really been blowing my mind, and they’re recent too so that shows the film community is alive.”
At a press conference on Monday afternoon, Carollo offered details concerning the city’s plans for the theater. While insisting that the city had invested too much money into the theater to demolish or replace it with a commercial property, Carollo said that it would function as a visitor center for tourists to come and watch documentaries promoting attractions in Miami and Little Havana. Under the city’s management, the theater could also serve as a venue for art exhibitions. MDC began its own art exhibition program at the theater in August.
While Carollo’s announcement was meant to assuage residents it only exacerbated tensions among residents who already feel undermined by city officials who have expressed little interest in nurturing the film community.
“Tower Theater offers an opportunity for local filmmakers to come out and show their films on the big screen, especially local student filmmakers who are the lifeblood of the local film community,” said local filmmaker Gerald Varela. “It’s frustrating to see a representative who is so adamant about removing something that is so beneficial to young filmmakers.”
The Tower theater first opened its doors to guests in 1926. In the 1960’s it became a major cultural hub for Cuban refugees eager to watch American films, and later gained recognition for showing English-language films with Spanish Subtitles as well as Spanish-language films. After a prolonged closure MDC reopened the venue with permission from the city to operate it. Since then, the theater has been home to the Miami Film Festival, and a destination for up-and-coming filmmakers to showcase their work.
“It’s an opportunity, a landmark, to display our work, to come together, and to see projects and see passion that we wouldn’t see elsewhere,” said Senior Filmmaker at MDC, Manuel Fernandez. “We all want to use our voices collectively to come together and kind of show support for the Tower Theater.”
The next city commission meeting will take place on October 13th. Supporters of the Tower Theater are encouraged to show up in support of MDC.
Austin Torres is an English major currently finishing his master’s degree on the Literature track at FIU. His pastimes and hobbies include watching films, reading books, painting and swimming.