In downtown Fort Lauderdale is a small, charming church turned movie theater (with a bar!) called Cinema Paradiso. Too bad many locals don't even know about it, as it's virtually hidden behind towering condos near the courthouse. Also underappreciated is that Broward County has a big-deal film fest, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival — a prestigious affair that's been attended by Michael Moore, Martin Scorsese, and Kevin Spacey over the years. Cinema Paradiso is FLIFF's home and one of just a few destinations for independent films in Broward and Palm Beach. In fact, many films that have been seen nowhere else but Cannes make their U.S. debuts here.
Finally, though, Cinema Paradiso is realizing a dream years in the making. It is expanding to a second — and much more visible — location, in downtown Hollywood.
Greg von Hausch, executive director of FLIFF and its 501c3, the Broward County Film Society, says the expansion has been a long-running endeavor for him and, at times, seemed like little more than a pipe dream. Von Hausch says his team is "about three years into our quest to do this. The project has ebbed and flowed a lot. We had at least one other location we were ready to move on that fell through."
A former pottery store, the new location, at 2008 Hollywood Blvd. — next to the Native Florida Tap Room and Music Hall, in the heart of the downtown area — has been redesigned by architect Joseph Keller. Although this new site may not have the charm of the original converted church, it will have some marked advantages.
Though the 110-seat Hollywood theater will be slightly smaller, it will actually be able to show more films per week. That's because the Fort Lauderdale venue has no daytime parking, so it can't show afternoon matinees. Since the City of Hollywood provides plenty of free street parking during the day and there is a decent-sized lot about 50 feet away, Cinema Paradiso Hollywood will be able to do almost 50 screenings a week versus 20 at the existing location.
Even so, this latest art-house incarnation is in no way meant to steal from the glory of the current one.
Von Hausch and the FLIFF board chose Hollywood in no small part because of its distance. "It's close enough for us to manage and far enough to reach a new audience that wouldn't necessarily be willing to journey to Fort Lauderdale a couple of times a week," von Hausch says. "And Hollywood is kind of central to gain traffic from Dania and Miami. We do draw people from those areas for FLIFF, so we figured they would be interested."
But that wasn't the only reason. The new theater is being built with financial support from the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency.
"The Hollywood Downtown CRA approached us with the idea of doing this, and they said that if we did this, they would help support us financially," von Hausch says. "In this economy, it was too much to fundraise, but with the city's help, it became much more palatable, so they should get the credit for making it happen."
Lisa Liotta, the CRA's redevelopment manager, says, "In 2004, we surveyed the public as well as the businesses. The number-one business requested was a cinema. So from that point on, we started to look at different properties and, coincidentally, we started working with Gregory. In the meantime, we built our own event, the Downtown Hollywood International Film series — this is going back a number of years — but we had a nice audience going, and moved it to the Arts Park during the offseason. That series doesn't exist anymore, but we found that international films and documentaries were desired."
International films and documentaries just happen to be FLIFF's bread and butter, along with art and independent films. So Von Hausch says he has no plans to stray from Cinema Paradiso's art-house roots. "Now we're in a position to show more films, but we're going to stick to our demographic," he says.
He describes the Hollywood movie-going public as "our prime demographic: articulate and aware, knowledgeable about cinema, literature, art, and current events, and they enjoy going out."
The theater will offer beer and wine in addition to traditional concession staples such as popcorn and candy. But beyond that, it will not be serving food. After all, the CRA goal in bringing the theater to the downtown area is to bring in more customers for the existing businesses. The majority of the downtown businesses are restaurants.
In turn, the foot traffic from the bars, restaurants, and art galleries will send more potential customers strolling past the front doors of Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. Such mutually beneficial business relationships are what CRAs are all about.
"The specific spot is right smack dab in the middle of downtown Hollywood," says Liotta. "It will give the patrons the opportunity to also frequent some of the other businesses and restaurants downtown, and when you walk outside, you're in a community; you're not in an isolated location. So on a rainy day, if you're visiting Hollywood Beach and you don't want to be stuck in a hotel room, you could easily jump on a trolley, come downtown, have a bite to eat, and, now, see a movie."
The CRA has negotiated a ten-year lease for the space. On January 9, the City of Hollywood voted to contribute $30,000 a year for the next ten years in the form of ticket purchases. Those tickets will then be dispersed to area hotels, convention centers, and cruise lines to be given out to visitors. The first $30,000 injection from the city will seed the $100,000 needed to get the theater up and running.
To that end, on Thursday, February 28, the Hollywood CRA will host a kick-off party launching a fundraising effort from 5 to 7 p.m. at Face Restaurant, 2022 Hollywood Blvd., just a few doors down from the location of the new theater. For $20 admission, attendees can play their own part in seeing the project come to life. In addition to cocktail and hors d'oeuvres, guests will see renderings of the cinema-to-be and go on a group walk down to the future space.
Work has not yet begun on the former pottery store, though Von Hausch hopes for a midsummer opening.
Come fall, when the 28th-annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival returns, it will incorporate the new Hollywood location, and hopefully, the expanded audience will reach into South Broward, North Miami, and Canada — or wherever the Hollywood Beach tourists are visiting from.