Once upon a time in Key West, we had two movie theaters; two dark, cavernous establishments in which to seek respite from the blazing summer sun and indulge in a supersize popcorn (extra butter, please, and thank you) and either a box office blockbuster or an art house film about people who are cooler than you will ever be. Then, on a dark and stormy day (literally), Big, Bad Hurricane Irma came and blew one of those cinematic havens down.
All dramatization aside, a little over a year ago we lost Key West’s Regal Cinema to the ravages of a storm that wreaked devastation from Key Largo all the way down to Mile Marker 0. And although the Keys have bounced back from Irma and are stronger than ever, Key West has gone from a two-theater town to one that relies solely on the Tropic Cinema (416 Eaton St., www.tropiccinema.com), one of the shiniest gems in Key West’s crown of interesting attractions, for its motion picture education.
The Tropic Cinema opened as a two-screen nonprofit theater in 2004 with the singular goal of bringing independent and international films and cinematic classics to Key West’s artistically diverse island community. Over the last decade and change, the Tropic has evolved into not only a respite from the tropical heat, but a relaxing refuge from the barrage of noise, traffic and turmoil outside the welcoming cinema doors. The films are top-quality, the special events are plentiful, and the popcorn is always popping in the lobby. Oh, and did I mention you can grab a glass of wine or a beer and bring it to your seat with you? Let us not discount the therapeutic qualities of a gorgeous glass of pinot noir, a gourmet bar of chocolate, and a film that transports you to another world altogether.
For 14 years, Key West’s Tropic Cinema — consistently voted one of the best in the state of Florida, thanks to its dynamite mix of special programming, charming décor, dedicated volunteer staff, curated film schedule and mouth-watering concessions — has soared under the watchful leadership of its tight board and the diligence of its impeccable staff. And Michael Marrero, the newly appointed executive director, intends to maintain the Tropic’s sterling reputation.
After a tiny facelift, that is. Beginning Oct. 1, the Tropic will be closed for minor renovations. But fear not. When the theater reopens (tentatively at the end of October, though management hopes to complete the upgrades even sooner), moviegoers will once again be able to catch the summer festival season’s indie darlings, Oscar favorites and all of the upcoming holiday blockbusters.
Uniquely, most of the people who work at the Tropic are volunteers. They typically rotate during the course of the year, but the Tropic Cinema has about 200 active volunteers who do everything from take tickets to pop popcorn (served with real butter, natch). The huge volunteer base is a real testament to the community’s love of cinema in general and the Tropic in particular.
For such a small cinema (the Tropic has one large screen, typically reserved for Hollywood blockbusters and special events, and three smaller screens), the quality and range of films the Tropic screens is impressive. As more and more people seek out comfort and theater quality, movie studios have had to evolve their historic film distribution practices. For decades, studios and big commercial movie chains have engaged in an unwritten practice called “clearance exclusives.” This means that commercial cinemas, like the oft-maligned Regal Cinemas out in New Town, have dibs on the initial release of big studio films, and independent cinemas like the Tropic don’t get to show them until they’ve left the chain cinema. For example, the Tropic finally got to show “The Revenant” from 20th Century Fox after Regal Cinemas had screened it for six weeks. Today, four major studios, including Fox, have rejected clearance exclusives, so film goers have the opportunity to have a choice where they see a movie. And since the Regal Cinema has been closed since September of 2017, the Tropic is now the only game in town for all new releases, no matter the budget.
In addition, small distributors are increasingly releasing amazing films most cinemas have never had access to before. The Tropic has been screening filmed ballet and opera for some years, but now they also screen filmed museum tours, architecture programming and artists’ monographs. A couple years ago, the Tropic also began screening Broadway musicals and plays and more. And just about every season, the Tropic hosts niche special events like the always sold out screenings of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” — props included, costumes highly encouraged.
One of the most wonderful things about the Tropic is its magical community component. Sure, you can watch a movie at home, but there’s something about watching a film in an auditorium with other people — even strangers — that brings it to life, and that makes it more true and real. And it bears repeating that the people are what make the Tropic unique: Volunteers, members, the board of directors and staff, visitors from all over the world all bring the Tropic to life. The Tropic really does belong to the people of Key West, and that’s a special place to hold in a town so populated with transients and visitors year-round.
The Tropic is so special because it is all about our community. The Key West Film Society started with a simple idea: show good films for people to watch together. That core idea is at the center of all the Tropic does, but it has grown so much over the last decade plus. The theater hosts film education programs, visiting filmmakers (unsurprisingly, filmmakers love to come to Key West), birthday parties, concerts and, of course, they like to say that they show the best films in the world. Sure, they might be a little artsy or independent, but don’t forget that the Tropic curates films for Key West in all her eccentricity. From Art House and independent films to Hollywood blockbusters, no cinema I know has a better range of films than the Tropic.
And the icing on the cake? Freshly popped popcorn topped with actual, real, made-with-milk-from-a-cow butter. It might sound trivial, but after trying the Tropic’s popcorn you’ll never be able to eat commercial movie theater popcorn ever again. So, grab your glass of wine or an ice-cold beer, a snack, and enjoy the show at the Tropic Cinema. ¦