Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Biograph Times: Chapter Two




Note: This is the second chapter of Biograph Times, a work in progress that will hopefully become a book.

Midnight Shows

In the 1970s, during what some film aficionados call "the golden age of repertory cinema," double features ruled. Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license to combine disparate elements. The presenting of midnight shows was also an integral aspect of the programming for many such movie houses.

Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the '70s. While most of what was done at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, it was somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the methodology of promoting and presenting midnight shows.

The formula for how to do it consistently had yet to be codified when a twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), was the first special late-night attraction we presented. On April 7, 1972, the show actually started at 11:30 p.m. and was called a "late show." 

Over our initial year of operation I came to understand the sort of pictures that would appeal to the late crowd. So although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw an audience at midnight. On the other hand, “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw. When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.

A 16mm bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some rock ’n’ roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden -- maybe not allowed during regular hours.

In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.

We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.

By showing “Animal Crackers,” we may have been breaking some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.

In the first couple of years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and even feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.

My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists, or rightful distributors any money. Instead, they saw it as liberating those films for people to see. Anyway, we didn’t get caught.

A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.

When the Biograph started running midnight shows in 1972 the bars in Richmond closed at midnight, so there was a lot less to do at 12:01 a.m. than when the official cutoff time was extended to 2 a.m. in 1976.

Another reason midnight shows caught on when they did was that drive-in theaters, which had done well in the '50s and '60s, were going out of style fast. Some of the low-budget product they had been exhibiting found a new home as late-night entertainment in hardtop theaters. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. Once into the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely go straight to video, skipping a theatrical run.

By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” in June of 1978, going to a midnight show was no longer seen as an exotic thing to do in Richmond. Multiplexes in the suburbs ran them all the time. Which ironically made the timing perfect for a kitschy spoof of/tribute to trashy rock ‘n’ roll and monster movies to become the all-time greatest midnight show draw.

The midnight show craze of the ‘70s could only have flourished then, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s. It came before cable television was widely available and video rental stores had popped up in nearly every neighborhood.

Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the Biograph's rent. On the other hand, as a promoter, there were times when I bit off more than I could chew.

On October 22, 1982, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969) opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman, plus those who had adored previously popular midnight shows, such as “Eraserhead” (1977), or “Harold and Maude” (1971).

A droll murder spree movie in black and white, “The Honeymoon Killers” fell flat. Unlike most people, I saw it as a comedy. Mostly, nobody else saw it at all.


After-Hours Screenings

Still of Jimmy Cliff as Ivan.
In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most active managing partner/owner of the Biograph Theatres in Georgetown and Richmond, asked me to look at a film to evaluate its potential. From time to time he did that for various reasons. In this case he had a new 35mm print of “The Harder They Come” shipped to me.

In those days we had frequent after-hours screenings of films we came by, one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially impromptu movie parties. A couple of times it was 1940s and '50s 16mm boxing films from a private collection.

Sometimes prints of films that were in town to play at another venue, say a film society, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In such cases the borrowed flicks were always returned before they were missed ... so I was told.

Although I don’t remember any moments, in particular, from that first screening of “The Harder They Come”, I do recall the gist of my telephone conversation with Levy the next day. After telling him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question. I had smoked it over thoroughly with a few friends during and after the screening. So, I told David we ought to have a free, open-to-the-public, sneak preview of the movie. Most importantly, we should use radio exclusively to promote the screening. Because of the significance of the radio campaigns for the Biograph's midnight shows, over the last year, he liked the idea right away.

In this time, long before the era of giant corporations owning hundreds of stations, a locally-programmed daytime radio station with a weak signal played a significant role in what success was enjoyed at the Biograph. For a while we had a sweet deal -- a dollar-a-holler -- with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District and environs. In the first half of the 1970s, the station at the top of the dial, 1590, owned the hippie market. 

Subsequently, on a Friday morning in November the DJs at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” that would take place at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then they would play a cut by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, from the soundtrack. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, leading up to the time of the screening.

Note: “The Harder They Come” (1972): 120 minutes. Color. Directed by Perry Henzell; Cast: Jimmy Cliff, Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw. In this Jamaican production, Cliff plays Ivan, a pop star/criminal on the lam. The music of Cliff, The Maytals, The Melodians and Desmond Dekker is featured.

Of course, Reggae music was being heard in Richmond before our free screening, but it was still on the periphery of popular culture. As I recall, some 300 people showed up for the screening and the movie was extremely well received.

In previous runs in other markets, “The Harder They Come” had been treated more or less as an underground movie. As it was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its American distribution, it had a grainy, documentary look to it that added to its allure. Upon hearing about the test-audience's approval, Levy got excited and wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show.

While it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” did fairly well and returned to play several more dates at the Biograph, at regular hours and as a midnight show. 

Levy became a sub-distributor for “The Harder They Come.” When he rented it to theaters in other cities within his region, he advised them to use the same radio-promoted, free-screening tactic.

In 1973, watching a virtually unknown low-budget Jamaican film after operating hours in the Biograph had seemed edgy, almost exotic. That night we had no idea how popular Reggae music was about to become.

Over the next few years Reggae music smoothly crossed over from niche to mainstream to ubiquitous. Bob Marley (1945-81), dead for over 30 years, still has a huge following to this day. Reggae's acceptance opened the door for the popularity of the still-fresh fusion sound of the 2 Tone bands, like The Selecter, The Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, and so forth, in the early-1980s.

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