Monday, November 21, 2011

First screening: 'The Harder They Come'

Once I began to understand more fully what an opportunity my job as manager of the Biograph Theatre offered, I wanted the theater to be a place both detached from its surroundings and a good neighbor; like nothing else in Richmond, but a part of the Fan District’s bohemian milieu.

As a promoter, I wanted the Biograph to have an underdog personality that was likeable beyond whatever movie might be playing that particular day. I suppose an adman today would call all that stuff “branding.”

Still, I learned the hard way that when I made a mistake there would be a price to pay. When the wrong movie was booked, or if I didn’t promote a festival or midnight show properly, it led to losing money. If I hired the wrong person, we all had to live with the negative effect it had on the staff’s morale. As with any team effort, morale was one of the keys to whatever success we hoped to enjoy.   

Too many bad decisions and I could lose the manager’s keys to the funhouse. Learning just how far to push the envelope in Richmond, how to be ahead of the local curve without being too scary to the wrong people, was one of the keys.

*

Radio played a large role in the early days at the Biograph Theatre. For a couple of years we had a sweet deal with WGOE-AM, the most popular station for the under-35 set in the Fan District. For 30-second spots we were paying a dollar or two for each airing. 

In the fall of 1973, David Levy, then the most significant managing partner 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” (1972) shipped to me. 

In those days at the Biograph, we used to have after-hours screenings of films we obtained in one way or another. Usually on short notice, the word would go out via the staff and our friends that we would be watching a movie at a certain time. These gatherings were essentially movie parties.

A couple of times it was 16mm boxing films from a private collection. Sometimes films that were in town to play at a film society, or a VCU class, would mysteriously appear in our booth. In those cases the borrowed movies were always returned the next day, 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” at the Biograph, I do remember the gist of my conversation with Levy the next day. After I told him how much I liked the Jamaican movie, he asked me how I would promote it.

Well, I was ready for that question, because I’d done some brainstorming with friends after the screening. So, I told him I’d have an open-to-the-public, sneak preview free showing of the movie. I said I’d use radio only to promote it. He loved the idea.

So, on a Friday morning in November the deejays at WGOE began reading announcements of a free showing of “The Harder They Come” at the Biograph that afternoon at 3 p.m. Then, each time, they would play a song by Jimmy Cliff, the film’s star, or perhaps one by Toots and the Maytals. This pattern was continued maybe three times an hour, for four or five hours, leading up to the screening.

As I recall, some 300 people showed up and they loved the movie. It must be noted that at this time Reggae music hadn’t hit its stride in Richmond, yet. Although it was building a following in America, it was still a year, or so, away from becoming huge, nationally. Of course, Reggae was being heard in Richmond before that screening, but it was clearly still on the periphery of popular culture.

After the audience at the Biograph reacted so well, Levy wanted to book it to run as a regular feature, rather than as a midnight show. In most previous runs in other markets, it 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. Given our confidence in our reading of the test-screening’s effect on the audience, the Biograph’s brain trust decided to try playing it at regular hours. 

It all worked like a charm. While, it didn’t set any records for attendance, “The Harder They Come” returned to play subsequent dates at the Biograph in Georgetown, as well as the one in the Fan.

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

Over the next few years Reggae music became ubiquitous. It crossed over from niche to mainstream. For me, in this case, it was fun being in a position to see -- from the inside, out, to some extent -- how popular culture was developing, flying by the seat of its pants.

*

On the other hand, as a promoter, sometimes 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 Bu├▒uel and Robert Altman, plus those trash culture aficionados 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, it turned out “The Honeymoon Killers” mostly appealed to me … when I was in a goofy mood. I saw it as a comedy. In its two-week run, it nearly set the all-time record for worst attendance for a Biograph midnight show. As far as the sad tale of the record setter goes, that little fiasco's story is best left for another time.  

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