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Austin Chronicle The Reel World

This Is the True Story of Six Strangers, Picked to Run a Show ...

By Sarah Hepola

JULY 17, 2000:  "Welcome to The Reel Deal." Inside the studio, the noise stops. The show is about to begin.

More than 20 people fill the adjoining room, too many for the chairs set up off-camera, so some onlookers are sprawled out on the cement floor, leaning on book bags and boyfriends. White and black, male and female, high school-aged and college graduates, the common thread is that they are fans of The Reel Deal, the movie-review series which airs on cable access channel 10 every Wednesday night at 10pm. Moments ago, their voices ricocheted off the cement walls of the small studio, but they have settled into a comfortable hush, their eyes fixed on the television monitor at one end of the room, as the show is introduced:

"I'm Korey Coleman."

"And I'm Brian Smith."

And we're off.

Although the words "cable access" might conjure various images of certifiable lunacy -- the shrieking metal geeks of Wayne's World or the ranting ideologues of both right and left -- the four-year-old Reel Deal has turned free airtime into a (fairly) reputable outfit. For one, they have fans -- as the presence of these 20-some-odd onlookers proves. But there's more. Kevin Smith has appeared on this show; Kevin Spacey has appeared on this show. Last year they even won a "Best of Austin" readers poll award for Best Cable Access show. When they're on, it's a great ride -- the barbs whizzing back and forth, not a second of dead airtime between them. Of the 300 series currently offered by the Austin Community Access Center, The Reel Deal cast are undoubtedly leaders.

Leaders who could use, perhaps, a little help with the microphones.

In the second studio, where hosts Martin Thomas and Tony Guerrero will soon be joined by Nichole Worrell, the sound is fritzing. Their lips move, but as host Korey Coleman makes the segue -- "And in the other room, we have ..." -- no one can hear a thing.

Thinking this another joke, typical of their sense of humor, Korey chastises them. "Y'all say something for real."

Tony and Martin lean into the microphone, their lips circumscribing silent vowels. Their hands gesture meaninglessly. Martin's bald head, ever forecasting his emotion, scrunches up in frustration. The 20 people in the audience look back and forth as if they're watching some tennis match -- at the monitor, then the silent hosts, then the monitor again. Even when Korey finally fiddles with the right switch it's confusing, like picking up some mysterious SOS, as the sound suddenly pops on and --

"What? Hi."

"Oh, I'm sorry. That's my fault."

"Hello?"

"I'm Tony Guerrero."

"I don't hear anything."

"Martin. Martin --"

"There's nothing. Hello?"

"Martin, we can hear you."

"Can you hear me?"

"Okay. Here we go."

Thirty seconds into The Reel Deal, the show is really about to begin.


Why Not?

A 28-year-old animator whose résumé includes the weekly Statesman cartoon Eddie the Albino Squirrel, Korey Coleman is possessed of a natural, if somewhat devious, curiosity. It has gotten him into close calls -- like the time he invited a male fan who had left a string of suggestive messages on the answering machine to stop by after the show -- but mostly it has created memorable moments, constructed the stories he is so fond of sharing, fed his idea that the best answer to "Why?" is "Why not?"

So when the attractive woman wandered into the studio right before the show started taping, wanting some airtime to beg for her girlfriend back, Korey let her. And when the rambunctious neighborhood children bust onto the set, unsupervised and looking to tear things up, Korey turned the camera on them. I mean, why not? What is cable access, anyway, if not a license to take some risks? And one thing you can say about Korey Coleman is that he doesn't just talk about doing something, he actually does it. It's the same simple formula that got him on the air in the first place.

"It started out as pretty much a scam on my part," he admits. A movie fan and poor college student always scrounging for free tickets, he figured there had to be a better way than clamoring to be the Nth caller or driving across town to stand in a line at some record store. At movie premieres, he noticed the media had a sweet deal -- always first to enter, always getting in for free. And so Coleman figured, if you can't beat 'em, join the press. And through a method that should perhaps not go into print, he and his friend Ian gathered the names and addresses of distribution and promotional companies, signed up for a weekly access series, and soon became the proud recipients of their very own complimentary movie passes. Ian moved to New York, but the swag kept coming, and Korey -- never one to turn down an opportunity -- kept hosting the show on his own. "I just figured no one would be watching," he explains, "which is pretty much how it was for about two years."

But things changed. After visiting the studio a few times, Tony Guerrero joined the crew. A few months later, Martin Thomas decided to drop by to visit his friend Korey, "the only other black animator in town." The visit resulted in a cameo on the show in which Thomas, his face wiped of his warm, casual smile, came on as a militant black incensed over John Singleton's Rosewood.

Korey laughs with the memory. "We had calls from all these white women, like, 'I watch the show, but last night, it really disturbed me what was going on. I don't know who that guy was, but I had to change the channel.'"

So Martin stayed.

That spring, the three met Brian Smith at SXSW. Joel Stearns joined the team to provide sound effects and, eventually, to produce the live Internet radio show for a national audience. And what started as a scam to get free tickets began to resemble a real-live show, with characters and chemistry and running gags and an identity all its own. The only problem being: It was all guys.

"Nichole came down to the set one day to watch a taping. And she said, 'I like the show, but there's no women -- '"

"I'd never seen the show, Korey." Nichole Worrell sits beside him, her head cocked bemusedly, as he stops his reminiscence, midgesture.

"You hadn't?"

"No."

Korey's hands drop to his lap. "Well, you tell the story then."

"Okay," she says, smiling, drawing her knee into her chest: "I was working on that show Asian American Austin, and you were on as a guest, and you told me to come on by. So I did. And you pulled me on camera and told me you wanted the female perspective."

"Oh," Korey says, nodding, his eyes still fixed on the table. Which might make it a good time to bring up Korey's sometimes controlling impulses, his tendency to finish others' sentences, the behavior of a talented person used to being in charge. Fans of the show are familiar with this, and so are the show's hosts. "Yeah, Korey's a little controlling sometimes," Nichole admits, "but it's for good reasons. He knows what he wants to do every week. I think he wants it to be fun for us, so we'll keep coming back."


But Seriously, Folks --

The Reel Deal is basically a forum for reviewing films. And in its structure, it follows a familiar formula: Set up the film, show a clip, discuss it, rate each one. What comes in between, however, is something less predictable. Critiques run the gamut -- from Martin Thomas' thoughtful commentary to Tony Guerrero's guttural pronouncements that "It sucked!" (Enraged at the ridiculousness of Spice World, Guerrero took a photo of Scary Spice and pantomimed wiping himself with it.) It is an approach that engenders a love-them-or-hate-them reaction among viewers. Those enamored of Pauline Kael -- hell, those enamored of Siskel & Ebert -- might clench their teeth at the irreverence and the occasional fumbling. But for those hungry for bottom-line wrapups and the kind of reviews they don't need a dictionary to understand, The Reel Deal can be a welcome change. "When Korey first started doing the show," Brian Smith explains, "he was trying to act like he had a Ph.D. in film, using a lot of big words that he didn't know the meaning of. That did not work for the show at all. It totally made it seem pretentious and phony." These days, that approach has long been tossed aside, and the result has been that people, in ever-increasing numbers, tune in. "I think we appeal to the normal, everyday Joe who pays his cable bill and enjoys watching TV late at night," explains Guerrero. ACAC producer Marion Nickerson, who has worked at the station for nine years, admits it's one of his favorite shows on cable access. "They're having fun," he says. "It's not real serious. That's why they're so popular."

Another reason is that they do more than review films. Most weeks the reviews are fleshed out with various sketches put together by the hosts themselves. A viewer probably wouldn't approach Korey these days to congratulate him on his review of Muppet Treasure Island, but they do still comment on the skit he ran along with it, a spoof on Hugh Grant's auto-erotic dalliance with Miss Divine Brown, in which footage sent from an anonymous source shows Kermit the Frog soliciting a prostitute and later confronting Korey on the air. Or there was the Halloween episode one year, an homage to Dawn of the Dead, in which the studio is taken over by zombies. More recently, a mysterious, wealthy movie executive named Richard Roundtree III shows up, offering to make a movie with The Reel Deal cast. The two-minute film, titled Aaaagh!, is a hilarious black-and-white ode to the spine-tingling slasher film of yore, full of over-the-top close-ups and jangling music swells. Robbed of their context and the details that make them original, these scenarios may not sound funny; they are.

They are also surprisingly polished. So much so that to a casual viewer they might seem too costly or professional to possibly be the extracurricular product of a cable access show. But, the cast explains with a smile, they are.

"Anybody can go to any Web site and read reviews," Coleman explains, "it's all about the personality that goes behind it." So the Reel Dealers try their damnedest to strut a little sparkle. "Everybody has their own wit, and everybody has their own manner of speaking." With all five trying to cram their jokes in, watching the show can be a little like walking in on some dysfunctional family picnic. While some access shows must contend with the invective of on-air callers, the only sniping on The Reel Deal set exists between the hosts themselves. "Everyone thinks we hate each other" is a common refrain among them -- and not without good reason. Just see if a show passes in which Korey doesn't make a pass at Nichole, insult Brian, interrupt Martin and Tony, or refer to sound effects operator Joel as a drunk. "I don't mind if people think I'm an asshole," explains Coleman, "if they're entertained by it."


Poker Night

It is 11:30pm at Waterloo Brewing Company. After the show, the gang comes here to kick back, have a few beers and buffalo wings. It is a low-key affair, where people stop by to talk about life, about the taping, about movies, where no one gets too sloppy but everyone hugs as they exit.

"Put it on my tab!" Korey sometimes yells from his chair as people filter in. People come up to say hi -- mostly people he already knows, although the crew does get recognized occasionally ("Just enough to make you feel like a pretty girl at a party," Martin explains). Ten, 15, 20 people mill about, faces changing and seats shifting as the night wears on. Suddenly, the person sitting beside you isn't the person who used to be sitting beside you. It's itchy and uncomfortable for a moment, and then you hear a question, like this one:

"Hey, man, did you see The Perfect Storm?"

And voilô: instant conversation.

"Since I've started," Brian says, "the show consistently has more fans. The quality of the show gets better, almost exponentially. And there's nothing in the foreseeable future that would slow that down."

But this is the best part. Friends who are fans; fans who become friends -- hanging out, talking about movies.

"I couldn't imagine what else I would be doing on a Wednesday night," Brian says.

"It's just our poker night," says Korey Coleman, kicking his feet up on the chair across from him, taking a sip of beer, and finally relaxing.


The Reel Deal airs every Wednesday night, 10pm, on Austin cable channel 10. Weekly Internet radio shows can be accessed at www.thereeldeal.com.


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