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‘Heartbreaking’: City of Miami terminates Tower Theater contract - but supporters hold out hope

 The Miami Dade College Tower Theater
Miami Dade College
The Miami Dade College Tower Theater

“It makes no sense,” said Nicolas Calzada.

The executive director of Tower Theater said that, for 20 months, Miami Dade College had been working with the City of Miami to renew the contract to continue running the beloved Little Havana arthouse cinema.

But last week city officials notified them that the deal would be terminated at the beginning of next year. The news sent shockwaves through the community – a petition and a protest have already been organized.

“We thank you for your services in managing the Property for the past few years,” said Jacqueline Lorenzo, the interim director of real estate and asset management for the City of Miami, in the notice sent to the college.

Miami Dade College had a five-year lease on the property since 2016 with the option to renew it for an additional five years, according to Calzada.

But the written notice received on Sept. 19, did not even provide an explanation for the city dissolving the arrangement with MDC.

“The stewardship of the college has just been impeccable,” Calzada said. “No one has anything bad to say about how Miami Dade College has managed and operated the building for 20 years.”

Over the years, the college has put more than $1 million into capital improvements in the building and spends about half a million dollars annually to maintain and operate it, according to Calzada.

“They've done this without city funds for 20 years and the results speak for themselves,” Calzada said. “They've created this beloved cultural institution of international renown.”

The letter came three days before a City of Miami commission meeting. Two resolutions on the agenda were sponsored by Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo to waive bidding on the property and allow the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association – Brigade 2506 – to manage the property.

But the group has since said it is not interested in Tower Theater. Rather, its members are focused on the parking lot behind it, to build a museum commemorating the attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961.

Chris Molina, a filmmaker and programmer, started a petition on change.org to advocate for the impact Tower Theater Miami has in the community, in hopes that it would reach local government officials. Since then, it has gathered almost 6,000 signatures.

“The College has done so much for me, so much for so many other filmmakers in Miami,” said Molina, who obtained an associate’s and bachelor’s degree in film, television and digital production at MDC.

“And to see the Tower Theater kind of just dissolve the way it is away from Miami Dade College, where it has thrived so well, is really heartbreaking because we know how much potential the theater has under their management.”

Filmmakers in the community have also come together to organize a protest on Oct. 4, at 11 a.m., in front of Tower Theater.

“I hope that the city realizes that this is what the people want, and are able to reverse the eviction that they put forth,” Molina said.

Calzada, the executive director of the theater, added: “I have to think the city will ultimately make the right call and allow Miami Dade College to continue to operate, so that cinema can continue to thrive in Little Havana.”

The art-house cinema, located at 1508 SW Eighth St., has a long history of supporting local filmmakers. It first opened in 1926 as a state-of-the-art theater on the prominent Calle Ocho and now serves as one of Miami’s oldest cultural landmarks.

In the early 1960s, films at Tower Theater were an introduction for Cuban families to American culture. Adapting to its audience, the theater modified its programming to include Spanish subtitles in its English-language films and began displaying Spanish-language films. However, the theater was closed to the public in 1984.

In 2002, the City of Miami allowed MDC to reopen the venue and manage it. Since then, the theater has become home to the Miami Film Festival, GEMS Film Festival, Brazilian Film Festival, among others.

Tower Theater will host the GEMS Film Festival from Nov. 3 through Nov. 10. Like in previous years, the Miami Film Festival will be partially held in March at Silverspot Cinema, but the College is also looking for alternative sites in case Tower Theater is no longer an available venue.

Ammy Sanchez, the Morning Edition producer for WLRN, studies communications at the Honors College at Florida International University.
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