Cinema Paradiso Chases Out Top Managers
Photo by Eric Barton
If you hit Cinema Paradiso's Italia Film Festa this past weekend you might have been lucky enough to catch Come Undone, a steamy flick about an adulterous affair set in Milan. After seeing it in December, Village Voice reviewer Nick Pinkerton wrote: "The hot sex has the rhythm of actual hot sex, and quotidian life is rendered convincingly in every detail."
Since that review, Netflix reviewers haven't been so generous, giving it on average just two stars out of five. "The sex scenes were so tame you did not even have to watch," one viewer commented on Netflix.com after renting the DVD or streaming the movie live over the internet.
Here then lies the problem with the Italian film festival and Cinema Paradiso itself -- many of its movies nowadays have been out on video for months, sometimes years. Because of that, membership to the downtown Fort Lauderdale theater has fallen off in recent years, insiders say, and the non-profit that owns it has seen a steady decrease in donations.
At the heart of all these problems is Gregory von Hausch, president and CEO of the
Broward County Film Society, which runs Cinema Paradiso. Critics say von Hausch runs the theater for a few key members and has chased out employees who tried to make the theater appeal to a broader audience.
Those are tough accusations, but there are indisputable problems with the theater, including shaky finances. Meanwhile, von Hausch has plans to expand and wants to open a second Cinema Paradiso theater in Hollywood, perhaps in as little as a few months. More South Florida locations could be next.
Von Hausch contends that the theater isn't having financial or membership problems. He paints a rosy picture of how things are going and said membership has leveled off at about 1,000 in the past year. "Things are looking up, and the theater has never looked better," he says. "If people are complaining, they aren't mentioning it to me."
Von Hausch has been with Cinema Paradiso since the beginning, back when it opened in 2000 in a renovated church on Southeast Sixth Street. His wife, Bonnie Lee Adams, is the senior programmer, and together they pick the movies that run at the theater and during the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival held every fall. Adams' salary isn't reported on federal tax documents the theater must file with the government, but von Hausch pulls in $100,000 a year plus benefits, such as trips to film festivals around the globe.
In 2006, the couple bought an $825,000 home in St. Augustine and began spending much of their time there. About two or three times a month, von Hausch flies or drives to Fort Lauderdale for meetings, usually at the expense of Cinema Paradiso. Asked about whether the theater should be paying his expenses to get to work, he said it's not uncommon in his business.
After they moved, they handed off day to day operations and programming of the theater to Hal Axler, who was brought on as executive director that year.
Axler, along with general manager Frank Wolf, had a new vision for the theater as a center for the arts. They aimed to bring in a new audience in addition to the retirees who dominate the membership rolls. They attracted events like the Auteur Explosion, which was held every few months and featured an eclectic lineup that included local films, bands, and burlesque dancers.
They also increased the number of new-run alternative movies, often showing the art-house flicks that had recently premiered in Los Angeles and New York.
But in early 2010, von Hausch took the programming duties away from Axler. He told Axler and Wolf to stop seeking the artsy events that they had been attracting and didn't want their influence on the lineup of films shown at the theater.
Wolf said he simply couldn't buy into von Hausch's vision for the theater as a home to a mostly senior citizen audience. Von Hausch's new lineup was mostly second-run art house movies that are, in many cases, already available on video and therefore cheaper to run.
Wolf quit shortly after the change in programming, something that was difficult after 4 1/2 years at a theater he believed in. "I've only been to a couple places that felt like home, and that was one of them," he said from Long Island, where he's now managing a small movie house.
Axler held out until December, when he got a job as development director at the Young at Art museum. Axler didn't want to go into the differences with von Hausch but he said: "I wish the best for the theater. I enjoyed my time there, but they're the bosses and they wanted to take it in another direction."
After the last Auteur Explosion on April 1, organizer Dawn Dubriel was informed by the theater staff that her event would no longer be welcome. She was told it was because artist Steve Case, who goes by Kelo, had allegedly vandalized the theater -- spray painting the walls and carving his name in mirrors and sinks. (Case denied that charge, and when asked about the fact that there used to be photos on Facebook that showed the graffiti, he would only say "I didn't do it. That's it.") Dubriel was surprised by the reaction, especially since her event had brought in over $20,000 in revenue. She's now looking for a new home for the event.
Von Hausch denies that the departures of his key staff had anything to do with a disagreement about the theater's direction. He says Axler got another job and Wolf decided to move away -- excuses that don't agree with the recollections of theater employees.
Asked about the theater's switch to movies that are cheaper and already on DVD, von Hausch said he wants to "show movies our viewers wouldn't see otherwise." He mentioned the film-going experience that you can't get at home and that most of the theater's members likely aren't aware that most of the Italian film festival movies are already available from video rental companies. "Business is good. Things are good," he said.
But the theater's financial forms filed to the IRS paint a bleak financial picture. The Broward Film Society lost $87,000 in 2008, and did just better than break-even in 2009, the last year information is available. Broward County, which owns the theater, is one of the biggest contributors to the theater, chipping in about $150,000 a year. But overall donations, grants, and membership fees have also dropped off from $571,000 in 2005 to $355,000 in 2009, while expenses have continued to rise. An internal audit of 2010 finances shows the theater breaking even again, but that's in part due to a $65,000 line of credit it took out from Wachovia Bank. Cinema Paradiso used about $45,000 of the money to stay afloat last year.
Von Hausch isn't worried about the drop-off in donations. He's thinking instead about expansion plans. The theater's management has a location picked out in Hollywood for a second Cinema Paradiso location, which could be finalized soon. Meanwhile, he and his wife are programming other film festivals around the state.
"We're not your typical movie theater," he says. "We're not even your typical art house."
There's no doubt about that if you look at the theater's typical lineup. Most movie theaters and art houses usually avoid films already available from your local video rental kiosk.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.