Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Dramedy of Errors: the Lackluster Rise and Inevitable Fall of the Downtown Media Arts Center

Orlando Weekly's August 3rd Happytown column scolds the management team of the Downtown Media Arts Center for their bungled announcement of DMAC's permanent closure.

From the column:

The day after the ax fell, facility director Rich Grula sent out a mass e-mail saying that the theater was merely going to be closed for a few weeks for maintenance purposes. At almost the very same moment, the associate dean of UCF's College of Arts and Humanities, Dr. Terry Frederick, was being quoted on Roger Moore's Sentinel blog - where DMAC's demise had been prematurely "reported" countless times - announcing that the school was bringing in its physical-plant staff to make some fixes for building owner Ford Kiene, and that the theater might not reopen at all.

Earlier in the article, Happytown points out that DMAC "was a study in good intentions and administrative indecision from its very inception," a generous observation at best.

My first encounter with DMAC was as a University of Central Florida film student in Sterling Van Wagenen's colloquium class in 2003. Sterling and producing professor Lisa Cook gave us a multimedia presentation on the meaning and promise of the phrase "media arts center," marking the first time I'd ever heard the phrase. The presentation focused on other media arts centers around the country, specifically the 911 Media Arts Center in Seattle, WA, and ended with the pronouncement that Orlando would soon have one of these interactive media wonder-worlds of its own. Think of it! Film school for everybody! Equipment rentals, editorial suites, production offices, HiDef screenings of rare independent films, lectures and networking opportunities, visiting filmmakers, the works!

I was so excited by the prospect of such an amazing resource that in 2004, only a couple of weeks before the facility was scheduled to open, I quickly jumped at the opportunity to join the DMAC team. I was hired by then Facilities Manager Tracy Yeager as one of two House Manager/Projectionists - my official title - along with Kia Bocko. I was surprised at the start to learn that DMAC was opening sans everything featured in Sterling's 2003 presentation save the screening room. Strictly speaking, DMAC wasn't a media arts center at all. It was a microcinema, and a poorly funded, inadequately equipped one at that.

Ford Kiene had generously donated the use of the historic Rogers Building to UCF as a gesture of his continued support for the local arts. Unfortunately, the building itself was a money pit and poorly suited to the intended use, costing the university thousands to get it up to code as a theater. Something broke down every day, and DMAC was thousands of dollars behind on paying contractors and bills. Tracy Yeager - an art teacher by trade but Facilities Manager by stroke of ill conceived hiring - spent much of her workdays begging to keep the power or phones connected. Tracy was passionate about the arts, but she had neither the natural personality nor the experience required to launch and foster a venture as difficult as this one.

Mistakes made in the filing of the tax status of DMAC meant it was technically a for profit "not-for-profit." We weren't making any money, so we didn't feel terribly bad about lying to our audiences about our tax status. We weren't making any money in part because there was no marketing budget, and in this case, marketing includes having a sign on the outside of the building that told people what was going on inside. No one knew DMAC existed, and if by chance they heard about it by word of mouth, they could never find the place because the business didn't have a sign!

The cinema itself was as big a problem as any. We projected movies on a fairly low-grade projector, more often than not from standard definition DVDs, DVDs that could usually be ordered directly from the filmmakers or rented on Netflix if anyone was inclined. In fact, technical incompatibilities between the various systems controlling the theater insured that you almost always saw the poorest quality image imaginable. Likewise, the projector hung dopily from the ceiling three feet above the center seats. The best seat in the house for sight was the worst seat in the house for sound. Every few minutes, the projector's phenomenally loud fan would cut on to cool its burning circuitry.

The philosophy behind launching a second independent art house cinema in Metro Orlando was somewhat inspired by Chris Anderson's Long Tail theory. The problem with this is that the Long Tail works best on the internet, where anyone who wants anything can get to the anything that they want. Niche marketing works best when you can immediately reach your niche. We had no marketing budget, and in fact, in most cases programmer Jason Neff had never watched the movies he was programming. The Long Tail survives on the recommendations of trusted opinions. Jason was throwing cinematic spaghetti at the wall every week and waiting to see if it would stick. Even if word of mouth did build, Jason was intent on programming a new movie every week. By the time anyone knew what we were screening, we were screening something else.

Working for DMAC in those early days was a miserable experience. Morale was terrible. It's one thing to work for a failing business when working there is fun, but working at DMAC was not fun. Everybody hated everybody and talked behind everybody else's back. The café staff, mostly holdovers from Guinevere's (a coffee shop that was never profitable but definitely had its niche), resented DMAC for eliminating everything that was the character of the original Guinevere's. Their loyal friends and customers stopped coming in and were replaced by the strange gaggle of characters that were Tracy Yeager's social circle. Tracy made the mistake of hiring some of these friends and likewise had a habit of casually allowing her non-employee pals to do employee-like things. There was always someone hovering behind the coffee bar that shouldn't have been, which always made the café staff nervous and more resentful. Some of these folks, employees and non-employees alike, had a knack for inappropriate and crude behavior, particularly around certain female café staff members, and when complaints were made, they were either ignored or the incidents were blamed on the plaintiffs.

At the heart of all the unrest was the public relationship between Tracy Yeager and Ted Keller, our all-around handyman and technician. Tracy and Ted were close friends who had no idea how to work together in a professional capacity. They fought and screamed 75% of the time, even throwing things at each other in the café on at least one occasion. Both of them were kind, warm-hearted people, but together they were like fighting 2-year-old siblings. It was embarrassing to be around, especially since it often transpired in front of our paying guests.

I had my own chip on my shoulder. Kia Bocko and I were hired at the same time with the same job title, but she was almost exclusively given managerial duties while I almost exclusively received projectionist duties. I took the job at DMAC because I believed in a vision that Sterling Van Wagenen had pitched to me. My job had nothing to do with that vision, and I hated it with a passion within only a few weeks.

I worked at DMAC for only three months. I took time off to work on a movie, and when I came back, Tracy and Kia told me that they couldn't afford to put me back on the schedule right away. By this time Jason Neff and Ted Keller had left, and within a short amount of time, DMAC had hired what seemed like a dozen managers. Everyone had a title. I suppose I should thank Tracy for not "firing" me. She threatened to once, and it was a fair threat. She knew I had a bad attitude about DMAC, and I'll be the first to say any employee with a bad attitude is a bad employee, regardless of the circumstances. I was a bad employee at DMAC. Honestly, never going back to DMAC was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Instead of slowly going mad, I spent my time directing and producing several highly successful short films, growing my company, making contacts in the industry, and generally not hating my life.

Several months ago, Rich Grula approached me about handling marketing and programming for DMAC as part of my MFA graduate work. By this time, Tracy Yeager was long gone from DMAC and had found a job more fulfilling and better suited to her talents (and she honestly has many). In fact, almost no one was left of the employees I once knew, so I felt comfortable stepping back in with a clean slate. However, around this same time, the first rumors of DMAC closing began to circle. Many people were being laid off. I didn't hear from Rich again until early July when he told me UCF was trying to pull out of DMAC. John Thiessen - by now the last fulltime DMAC employee - wanted to find another job before it was too late, so he and Rich wanted to phase me in as his interim replacement until UCF finally pulled the plug.

So that's what DMAC had come to. It was like having your dad give you the keys to the Porsche, saying, "The bank's repossessing this in a few days. Might as well run it into the ground." In 2003 Sterling's vision for DMAC inspired me. In 2006, I was being asked to stroke that vision just long enough for someone to shoot it and put it out of its misery. Of course, I only worked two weekends before Rich called me to help him close shop and move out.

I never supported DMAC. After my tenure as House Manager/Projectionist ended, I never saw another movie there. The thought of walking into DMAC made me nauseous. It brought back bad memories and a bad taste in my mouth. I guess I can feel bad for being a lousy employee in 2004, and I can feel worse about being a lousy supporter of the arts in the two years since. But DMAC was just a shitty little theater that never lived up to the dream of a downtown media arts center, despite the best efforts of a sad few, and I'm honestly relieved to see it go. The unfortunate part of the story isn't the demise of this DMAC, but the death of the DMAC that could have been.


  1. Angelyn Pratchios Gay8/12/2006 11:32 PM

    Just wanted to let you know I read it :)

  2. Expertly scribed post-mortem, AKG.

  3. It sounds like a primary failing was lack of a solid business plan; had the endeavor been reviewed by serious "investors" (a.k.a. art patrons with $$, or other such deep pockets), it would have been panned from the get-go. Never mind the whole issue of personalities and loyalties. It takes a lot of smarts to turn a dream (which is what was presented to you) into a reality with viability; not only organizational smarts, but business smarts as well. I'm guessing the whole venture wasn't understood as a cash-flow entity all along (the only things without cash flow live in the wild), which meant the whole thing would have to be managed from a business perspective as well as a thematic or functional one. It's too bad. At this point, I'm not aware of any such thing in Austin, but I'll keep me eyes open.