Dick Morris, the founder of the Sarasota Film Society, is like a sand spur lodged deep under the skin. He's abrasive. He's demanding. He doesn't go away. His personal traits, along with the bottom line, may have had something to do with American Multi-Cinema Inc.'s decision to cut his Sarasota Film Society's art film series from the Varsity 6 in Tampa on Feb. 9 and the Clearwater Mall 5 this coming May.
Morris, who has no connection with the Sarasota French Film Festival, hassled theater managers about the quality of presentation.
He harangued AMC executives over the locations they chose for his program of imports and alternative movies.
Morris' films demanded more coddling than commercial releases grossing 10 times as much. They required advance critics' screenings, which meant prints had to be shipped and assembled early each week.
Special morning screenings meant staff had to be scheduled when theaters would normally be dark. The film society's Focus on Film newsletters had to be stocked in cinema lobbies. They had to be swept up with discarded soft drink cups and popcorn boxes after each show.
Morris is a hardballer. As the only full-time art film programer in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, he demanded preferential treatment from movie distributors. And got it. Tampa Theater officials often complained they lost bookings to the Sarasota Film Society.
Nurturing a film program is never easy. Morris was committed to making his work. He was bucking a national trend. Alternative theaters and specialty film programs are dying across the country as college students - previously the lifeblood of these series - flock to Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade instead of Story of Women and Sidewalk ALTERNATIVE 2D Stories. Yet, the Sarasota Film Society grew from a weekend to a daily program.
In addition to the Tampa Bay series, AMC is pulling the plug on four other film programs booked by Morris Projects Inc., a consulting service founded by Morris' wife, Sue Morris. Morris Projects will continue to manage 16 full-time art programs around the country.
AMC says it plans to book alternative films on its own when the Sarasota Film Society is phased out. Good luck. As fickle as the commercial film industry is, it's nothing compared to the import/art market.
Time and again, exhibitors like AMC, Cineplex Odeon and General Cinema have tried booking art films on a limited basis and failed.
Most exhibitors drop specialty film programs after only a few months, sometimes weeks, because of poor public response.
If AMC decides their art film program isn't viable, the only local theaters presenting these films regularly will be the Tampa Theater in Tampa and the Beach Theater in St. Petersburg Beach. The Beach is primarily a second-run house and rarely shows art films on a timely basis.
This is the ugly truth: Dick Morris was the first person to found a daily art film program in Tampa Bay. (This would not have been possible without the support of AMC, the only company willing to dedicate screens in Clearwater, Tampa and St. Petersburg, the last discontinued last summer.) The Sarasota Film Society, now in its sixth year in Tampa Bay, has
maintained the highest profile and done more to foster interest in alternative cinema than any other organization.
Morris has sustained a following, albeit meager at times, for two reasons. Most importantly, his pictures play the same theaters each week. Viewers know where to go. Secondly, he screens his pictures in advance so timely reviews appear in newspapers.
In the past, when the theater chains have attempted to launch film programs of their own, something has always gone wrong.
Bookers move selections from one theater to another to fill slots when commercial releases bomb. Press materials never reach the papers.
Movies arrive too late for review. Esoteric films open unheralded because no one thought to call the film critics. Our crystal balls don't tell us when a booker in Atlanta is planning to show a particular movie in Pinellas Park.
An alternative film series must be nurtured like any arts program.
It takes particular attention because its quality is dependent on the slate of movies chosen. Admittedly, the past couple of years have not produced a bumper crop of outstanding alternative films.
That's where someone like Dick Morris comes in. He gets the job done. He knows how to choose and promote films. He made alternative cinema a part of daily life in Tampa Bay.
With Morris' departure, it's up to the area's film critics and viewers to be particularly vigilant. With the loss of the area's most vociferous art film promoter, it might be too easy for theaters to revert to mainstream movies and overlook the alternatives.