Friday, February 27, 2009

Time-Warping, Again

In its first weekend of operation Richmond’s newest movie theater, Movieland at Boulevard Square, will make a connection to a local cinema house forerunner.

On Feb. 28, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which originally premiered at the Fan District's Biograph Theatre 31 years ago, will make its Saturday late-night debut at Movieland, 1301 N. Boulevard. The screening will be accompanied by a live floorshow, I’m told.

The long-lost Biograph also happens to have been the last new movie theater to open within Richmond’s city limits. That was way back in February of 1972. It seems the decades long trend that had new cinemas only being built in the far-flung suburbs has finally ended, resoundingly, at least in the Richmond area.

Larry Rohr rides to celebrate "Rocky" breaking the local record for longest running movie (Mar. 1, 1980, Biograph Theatre)

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was produced by Lou Adler and released by 20th Century Fox in 1975. Adapted from the British stage musical, “The Rocky Horror Show,” the movie version was an absolute flop in its original release. Even with a young Susan Sarandon cavorting about in her undies and a catchy rock 'n' roll soundtrack, the film didn't draw much notice.

Fast forward to its second life as a midnight show at the Waverly Theater in Manhattan: During the spring of 1977 audience members began calling out sarcastic lines at the screen. The practice caught a wave; it became a game to make up new and better lines. Costumes appeared and props began to be tossed around.

Later that year the unprecedented interaction between audience and screen inexplicably jumped to other cities where “Rocky Horror” played as a midnight show -- chiefly, Austin and LA.

By the spring of ‘78 “Rocky Horror” was playing to packed houses in a few bookings, it had not done well at others. The national press was yet to discover it as a cult phenomenon. As manager of the Biograph I wanted to book “Rocky Horror” as a midnight show. So did my bosses at the Biograph up in Georgetown.

Fox, the distributor, was skeptical about the prospects for “Rocky Horror” in Richmond. In those days Richmond was generally seen by most distributors as weak market, a backwater -- not a place to use limited resources.

When I spoke to a Fox publicity man about it, he told me they had had nothing to do with starting what came to be called the “floorshow.” With all of its prints of the movie then being used, the decision-makers at Fox felt unwilling to risk money on striking any more prints to cater to a weird fad that might fizzle any time.

Over the telephone, I was told we would have to wait for a print to become available; there was no telling how long that would be.

So, the Biograph’s management team got creative. We offered to front the cost of a new print to be made for our booking in exchange for a guarantee from the distributor that the Biograph would have the exclusive rights to exhibit the title in the Richmond market as long it held onto that same print. As I recall it, the print cost about $6,000. So, we would pay no film rental until the 40 percent we owed Fox from each screening cumulatively added up to pass what had been fronted.

Fox went for the deal and “Rocky Horror” played at the Biograph every Friday and Saturday night for five straight years (1978-83).

According to Variety, through 2008, the mother of all midnight shows had grossed over $140 million. Yet, in spite of all efforts, no attempts to duplicate its wild success, or copy the audience participation aspect of its cult following, has ever gained much traction.

Note: For more on this story click here.

-- Photo by Ernie Brooks

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