By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Apr 09, 2018 at 8:16 PM

It's festival season in Milwaukee – no, not summer festival season but film festival season.

While we may be several months from the Milwaukee Film Festival, this weekend will yell action on not just one but two weekend-long cinema celebrations. The three-day horror movie-minded Twisted Dreams Film Festival hosted by the Times Cinema will begin Friday night.

Two days before, however, the second annual CineLatino Film Festival will roll film with the premiere of the splashy summer comedy "Overboard" Wednesday night at the Marcus Bistroplex before moving over to the Marcus South Shore Cinema Thursday through Sunday for a selection of Spanish-centric films, from Oscar winners ("A Fantastic Woman," "Coco," "The Shape of Water") to box office hits from abroad ("Una Mujer Sin Filtro"), along with food and festivities celebrating Latin culture – with proceeds going toward local health care and education efforts in the local Hispanic community.

Rolando Rodriguez, to stick with the movie theme, is the director of the now annual film festival, calling the shots behind the camera for his beloved big screen brainchild – one that feels like a culmination of his journey from a young child living in Cuba to now the president, CEO and chairman of Milwaukee-based theater group Marcus Theatres, watching and growing his love for movies all along the way. 

Before the opening titles roll on CineLatino Wednesday evening, I got a chance to chat with Rodriguez about the film festival, the state of the theatrical experience and his life in movies. 

OnMilwaukee: What first got you interested in movies?

Rolando Rodriguez: As a kid living in Cuba, there were a couple of things that were very popular: going to the beach, playing baseball and, with the families, every week we went to the movies. I recall the fond memories of, every Sunday, going to the theater with my parents and watching a lot of different movies. Because the U.S. had an embargo on American-made films, I got to watch a lot of Japanese, Chinese, French and Spanish movies – and films that were made in Cuba. So, as a kid, it was fascinating.

Early on, my first job was with Texas Tom’s, which was a fast food Tex-Mex type of place. I started at the age of 14 working there, and I thought, "Well, I’m not sure this is for me." (laughs) But I happened to be walking through the Kansas City Plaza at the time, and there was a theater – a two-screen theater called the Embassy 2 Theaters – so I applied and got the job. So, at the ripe old age of 15, I started tearing tickets and working behind the concessions stand. I was a projectionist for a while – and I’m kind of dating myself, but it was one of those reel-to-reel type of theaters.

Do you remember what it was like working in the projection booth back in the day?

I started to work – and now I’m really going to date myself – with the release of Warren Beatty’s film "Shampoo." So this is way back when, and working as a projectionist back then was really hands-on.

Today it’s all digital; you plug in the showtimes, the movie’s already in there and it automatically starts at its regular time. But way back then, you had mechanical projectors. You had to clean those projectors, because the film would run through it. You had to maintain those projectors. I remember the workers putting the oil in them; it was almost like running a car. And it was very hot in there, because obviously you had those projectors, and the lamp houses used to put out a lot of heat. And then there was the fun when one of those big xenon bulbs would explode, and you’d have to go in and change it. It was wonderful having that hands-on experience.

I got the opportunity to build the films. Those used to come in 2,000-foot reels to the theaters, and then you built these two or three 6,000-foot reels, splicing them together and then breaking them down at the end back into their 2,000-foot reels. But the funniest part – I’m not sure it was funny for the consumers – is I came in for my shift, and in one of the screens we were playing "Bambi," and on the other screen, we had "The Exorcist." And one of my projectionist peers made an error in the reels, so when the film changed over, you went from "The Exorcist" to Bambi walking around and then from Bambi to – boom! – "The Exorcist." (laughs)

Do you ever miss film?

I grew up with the industry, so there’s something to be said about the film itself, when you looked at the 70mm and it was double the width of the 35mm. There was a certain art to it and the passion of the hands-on and making it work.

But like anything else, I remember having a phone at home and dialing the phone. We had one of those rotary phones, and I’ll never forget the look on my youngest daughter’s face when she went to the phone and said, "Dad, the phone doesn’t work!" She kept punching the number; she didn’t know that she needed to take the nine and swing it over. And that speaks to the advancements in technology – who even thinks about that nowadays?

Film always has its nostalgia, and you have directors who still come out and play 70mm. I think that’s part of the history and the growth of the industry, which is fun to reminisce in – and every once in a while, bring it back.

Important: What is your favorite movie?

I love all movies, but there’s one – and you might get a chuckle of it – "Top Gun." I don’t know what it was about when that movie came out, but the combination of the music and the jets? I remember sitting there and thinking, "Wow, that is such a fun movie!" "The Godfather: Part II" was a great film and I could go into different genres, but every time I’m switching channels and "Top Gun" happens to be on, I have to pause. It’s hard for me to watch a movie more than once, but for that one, I can.

So how are we going to get people to stop texting in movie theaters?

That is the ongoing challenge, isn’t it? (laughs) We obviously try our best in communicating the importance of that. We live in such a technology-driven world nowadays. I’ll have my daughters sitting next to each other – and they’re texting each other. And I’m like, "That’s your sister. She’s sitting right next to you. You can have a conversation." (laughs)

I think frankly it’s not just in movie theaters. I think it’s our whole societal norms. Everywhere you go now, what are we doing? We’re on the phone, we’re checking our messages, we’re checking our texts. When we’re having dinner, you look around the restaurant and people are texting or checking their emails. God, I hope that it starts to change, but I’m not sure that the new generation is ready for that. And the older generation? My wife, she sends texts that are like a letter. I’m like, "Have you thought about just calling your daughter about this?"

It’s something we are cognizant of. It’s something that we try to communicate as much as we possibly can. And we certainly don’t want it to happen. We want to see people hopefully take that two-hour break. 

Obviously Netflix has disrupted the entertainment and film business; how do you either push against that or keep theatrical a major outlet? What is the future of the theatrical experience?

It starts with the social experience. The only thing Netflix can’t duplicate, the thing you can’t duplicate at home, is 200 people sitting with you and having that wonderful experience in a room together. Like a concert, you can have the best sound system at home, but you’re enjoying that music and that experience with other people. You sit in our movie theaters and you’ve got another 150 people laughing with you as a joke comes across, instead of sitting by yourself and looking around because you want to see if somebody else saw the joke and had the same reaction. We always use the restaurant example: There are plenty of great take-home food options, but people still go to dine at restaurants.

Secondly, for us, I’m super excited about the diversity and inclusion we’ve been talking about. I want to see more female leads. I want to see more great African-American films. I’ve been joking that I want to see El Tigre Latino as the next superhero. (laughs) And I think as you bring those, people can see themselves on the screen. That’s what you’ve seen with the African-American community, with these kids who can now say, "Wow, that’s a superhero that looks just like me, that I can aspire to be in my own way." So that’s something that, coupled with the social experience inside the theater, has a wowing effect.

Finally, there is the responsibility for the experience itself, meaning there has to be a total entertainment experience: the DreamLounger recliner seating, the Take Five lounges, the Zaffiro’s Express restaurant concept. We just started a Mexican kitchen concept in one of our theaters. So when you combine great food and beverage, nice remodeled buildings with the latest amenities, large-screen formats, it’s hard to duplicate at home.

There’s been a lot of talk recently, with films like "Black Panther" and "Coco," about diverse audiences finally feeling seen by Hollywood, that they’re seeing their experiences and cultures on screen – in many cases, for the first time on this scale. Do you have a memory of finally seeing yourself or your culture or experience on the big screen?

If you look at the evolution of our industry in how it’s dealt with diversity – in gender, in ethnicity – if you thought about African-American films, they were typically action-oriented or scary movies. It’s almost like you had been segmented in a certain category. Hispanics through the course of film were always the bandito, the bad guy, the drug dealers. Females never played the lead.

Fast forward to today, I take great pride in seeing our industry get to where now I can say that I do at times see myself represented on the screen. I have four daughters, and I now see that the three biggest films of 2017 were female-led. Or the fact that the biggest film this year is "Black Panther" with an almost entirely African-American cast, the fact that "Coco" won Best Animated Film and "A Fantastic Woman" won Best Foreign Film, that a Hispanic director won Best Picture and Best Director for "The Shape of Water."

We live in a more accepting world. Do we have a ways to go? Absolutely. Do we have many things that are still happening? Sure. But boy, when I think back and reflect on where I’ve been – the journey I’ve been on in particular in our industry – it’s nice to see the changes happening. More importantly, it’s nice to see that film companies have recognized that there’s economic value in bringing diversity and inclusion to the screens. That’s all powerful – and that’s what CineLatino’s all about. We believe that, when we talk about CineLatino, in our own small way, we’re introducing cultural education to the community. It’s not intended for just Hispanics; this is intended to really share a richness in culture through food, through entertainment and through the wonderful art of movies.

Think about "Coco," right? If you saw "Coco," you might’ve said, "I didn’t even know what the meaning of that holiday, the Day of the Dead, was all about," and the importance of how it ties into the value system that the Hispanic and Mexican families place on that day and the importance of reminiscing on their elders and families. It’s certainly something to be educated on and share – all while you’re having fun and enjoying a great film.

You’ve got one ticket for CineLatino. What movie do you see?

Well, there’s actually two.

I think I can allow the guy who runs the festival to have two.

I definitely want to see "Overboard" with Eugenio Derbez. That was a fun movie when the original one came out, and I think this one’s going to be very fun. The second one I want to watch is "Una Mujer Sin Filtro," which translates to "A Woman Without Filter." The story is a woman who’s very quiet, very timid and very taken advantage of by her kids, her work and her husband, and then she hits her head and it triggers almost a filterless-ness where she says what she’s always wanted to say. I really got a kick out of it, so I’m excited about that one.

What was it like seeing yourself on the big screen in the promo ads for CineLatino?

It’s probably more embarrassing for my daughter and my wife as they sit next to me. My daughters just start laughing. We live in a descriptive society, and I think in particular for Hispanics, it’s important that they hear from somebody who’s telling them what we’re about to do. And I felt this was a good way to tell our story, not just to the Hispanic community but to the entire community, and about why I felt this was important. Rather than just having a message on the screen, we could actually try to communicate as an actual human being that this is for a good cause.

I’m passionate about this particular cause. I want this festival to be one of the most successful ones in the U.S. I’ve been part of the Miami Film Festival, the Dallas Film Festival and the Sarasota Film Festival, and I think we have the makings and the type of community that can make this one of the most successful festivals in the U.S. So we’re very eager and excited to see that success come through – and that it’s something we can build on. I look forward to the day where it’s not just the entertainment, food and culture experiences, but we’re bringing in directors and stars and we grow the festival into a seven-day experience. We’re building the blocks – and if it helped a little bit for me to be on the screen and share that message, then that’s OK.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.