Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Coming Attractions . . .

By Elizabeth Lemond

AUGUST 4, 1997:  In 1946, David O. Selznick produced the successful western Duel In The Sun, starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Despite being one of the most anticipated Hollywood creations of the year, it never played in Memphis. The head of the Memphis Board of Censors, Lloyd T. Binford, found the sexual situations in the film unacceptable, primarily because they involved a white man and a half-Mexican woman. According to University of Memphis film professor and independent filmmaker Steven Ross, Memphians still went in herds to see what Binford called a "story of jungle savagery" -- they simply had to drive to another state to do so.

"It's hard to think of West Memphis as being the culturally enlightened place to go, but actually in a sense, that was true in this period," says Ross. "Memphis was known nationwide for film censorship. Lloyd Binford had as much power over what films got shown here during the Crump Era as Crump had over the entire city."

Though Binford's conservative tastes were frequently challenged in court and criticized by Memphis newspapers, he was fully supported in the political arena during his 28 consecutive appointed terms. When he finally resigned in 1955 after the ousting of the Crump machine, he grieved that "the way it looks, there may not be any censor boards soon."

Though he was correct in his prediction, Binford could not have foreseen the future strength that another power would have in determining which films would play in Memphis. While movies were censored in Memphis well into the 1970s, today the content of movies seems to matter less than box-office receipts. The censors today are called accountants.

One result of today's emphasis on box-office revenue is the depressing sameness of films shown in Memphis. While Hollywood blockbusters may play for several weeks on as many as 20 screens, less publicized, independent films often bypass Memphis completely.

Meanwhile art-house movie theatres are in vogue across the nation. In cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, these theatres show independent, or "art," films and serve up everything from a trendy double latté with extra whipped cream to a foaming mug of beer to the traditional bucket of butter-laden popcorn. Why can't Memphis support a theatre with an alternative flair?

One-screen neighborhood theatres such as the Rosemary, the Memphian, the Madison, and the Ritz (which later became the Guild, the Evergreen, and finally the Movie House), once dominated the Memphis movie scene. With the advent of multiplexes, the Rosemary and Madison were demolished, while the Memphian was transformed into Playhouse on the Square. The Ritz operated as an art house beginning in the 1940s, showing foreign flicks and what operator Bill Kendall called "especially provocative" films. The theatre existed, despite controversy, until 1981 when it was purchased by Playhouse on the Square and converted into Circuit Playhouse.

As Jimmy Tashie, senior vice president of local movie giant Malco, points out, the economic strains of supporting a one-screen theatre are substantial. Ultimately the once-successful art-house-style theatres in Memphis also folded.

"It's very difficult for a single-screen theatre to exist. You need to have variety," says Tashie. "The first quartet in Memphis was at Poplar and Highland in 1971. Prior to that you just had single-screen theatres, but all that changed in the early '70s."

But many mourn the loss of the art houses of old and bemoan the relative dearth of independent films being shown in Memphis. "Somebody ought to do something about it," says Preston Johnson, a video archivist for FedEx who produced the film and media-arts program at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 1983 to 1995 and has written about film for the Flyer.

"I was involved in an effort a year or 18 months ago trying to put together a deal for an art cinema of some sort," he explains. "There's a lot of real hardball economic problems with trying to deal with that. Art-house cinemas all over the country are struggling. ... When you actually start looking at it from an economic standpoint, there is a very good reason there are multiplexes. You can spread your risk out on a number of movies at any one time."

According to Johnson, the economic landscape in Memphis adds to the problems of opening an art-house theatre.

"The market in Memphis is pretty small," he says. "When we were looking at this thing, we tried to match up demographics with cities like Portland and Minneapolis and things like that, and you sort of develop a profile of your typical art-house moviegoer. They tend to get clichéd -- he drives a BMW, he's in advertising, he makes $35,000 a year, he's 27 years old -- there just ain't that many of them in Memphis. Memphis is still a poor town.

"Although Memphis is roughly the size of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the size of the niche -- while substantial, while still there and really capable of being developed -- is still more on the size of a college town like Raleigh-Durham [in North Carolina]. You just have to look at it seriously as a concern," Johnson warns.

The University of Memphis' Ross believes a likely scenario for the future involves a large exhibitor devoting several screens within a multiplex to independent films, thereby retaining economic stability while displaying a degree of artistic diversity.

"It's always struck me that that would make the most sense, because you've got all those other screens to help support it," Ross says. "And this way it will draw people in that wouldn't normally go to that multiplex. When you think of downtown Memphis and all of the medical facilities and all these doctors that are there, both research doctors and practitioners, this is the kind of educated audience that art houses are supposed to appeal to. I can't imagine that with everything built up on Mud Island now and everything going on South Main that you couldn't have a screen that would be supported by the people that live in downtown and Midtown."

The Muvico Peabody Place theatre, which will open downtown in late 1998 or early 1999, will most likely adopt this practice of reserving one or two screens for independent or art films, according to Hamid Hashemi, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Muvico.

But what about Cinema Showcase 12, which has done, in effect, just what Ross advocates? Since Ambarish Keshani bought this multiplex at Summer and White Station in 1985 and began expanding it, he has regularly mixed independent flicks with popular releases. But Ross laments the theatre's technical problems. and hardly considers the venue an acceptable fusion of mainstream and alternative movie choices.

"The Cinema Showcase 12 has such poor projection standards that I find myself not going," he says. "Ulee's Gold is playing there; I'll wait for it to come out on videotape. ... I guess we should be grateful that they are showing the films, I just wish they were showing them better."

In addition to the practical problems suggested by Ross, the Cinema Showcase 12's offerings are frequently indistinguishable from those put forth by Malco. As Malco shows increasingly popular and profitable independent films like Brassed Off and The English Patient, and Cinema Showcase 12 shows only one or two alternative film choices each week -- often those which Malco is also playing -- it appears that Keshani's theater is becoming less of an alternative choice.

Keshani defends his movie-selection criteria. "Most of the time you go by what the bottom line is. I mean, if it's not going to make money, you're not going to stay in the business too long," he says. "And if you can't stay in the business, you can't show any movies. So we've got to draw a line somewhere."

Keshani is currently building another multiplex in Bartlett which will feature 20 screens with digital sound, stadium seating, and projection standards which will undoubtably be higher than those at the Showcase 12.

Johnson suggests that while reserving screens at a multiplex for alternative films is a step in the right direction, it is simply not enough of a change from the status quo.

"I think that that's a good idea, but it's not just setting aside screens," he says. "It's setting aside effort, programming, marketing, and so forth. If you just create a couple of Miramax screens in a 25-screen theatre, sure it's going to be a better situation than it is now. But I think that people would like an alternative to be an alternative experience, as opposed to just `Screens 13 and 14.' Look at what happens at The Orpheum. People don't go down there to see those movies -- they can pick them up in the video store. They go to see The Orpheum." In some cases, Johnson stresses the value of the movie-going experience over the importance of the film selection.

Kevin M. Lee, a film buff and nursing student, spearheads a group called Standing Room Only. SRO hopes to achieve non-profit status and raise enough funds to renovate an old movie house to its former glory. The group is focusing on the former Linden Circle Theatre at the corner of Linden and Somerville. Lee hopes to create a moviegoing fantasy inside the now-vacant building, while bringing jobs and money into the neighborhood.

"We're wanting to have it completely renovated to back when it was done in 1925, with all the gold leaf and everything that could have possibly been in it, and have the people from the neighborhood run it," says Lee, while staring wistfully at the outwardly shabby theatre and the run-down shops that flank it.

"We're going to have ushers, we're going to have people behind the candy counter, all in period uniforms from the '20s. It's going to show not just some art films, but you know, like Priest, which never came to Memphis. And things like that that are shown everywhere around the country but here, we can bring them here and have a venue for it. We're also going to have a week where we have a B-movie film festival, and a silent film festival. All different themes."

Lee hopes his theatre will help renew neighborhoods within the heart of the city and help counter the sprawling migration of movie theatres to the suburbs.

"Everything's going out east, there's no theatres in Midtown at all. I know there's talk about doing one downtown, but it's going to be just like those generic kind of places out east," Lee asserts. "We want something that's special for the neighborhood and special for Memphis."

Despite Lee's lofty plans, the larger picture could be more complicated than he anticipates. SRO has not yet bought or leased the space from its current owner, Anthony Barasso, and most of the group's plans are on hold until they achieve non-profit status. Their initial proposal was sent back for what he calls "some revisions," and even if the approval is granted, SRO will have to raise money for renovations. Lee does stress that if the Linden Circle location is too expensive or if other complications with the location arise, SRO is prepared to consider other sites.

"We've kind of had our ups and downs just because of the funding issue and getting people interested," Lee says. "It's going to be a multimillion-dollar renovation. The building itself we could probably get, I don't know how much, I don't even want to talk about that, how much it's going to cost to get it."

But money is a concern that SRO cannot ignore, even though the organization will be a nonprofit one whose goals center around helping the community rather than generating cash flow.

"You've got a big tall order to try to get somebody interested in investing in something like that," cautions Johnson. "Particularly if you want to do it up right and not just hang a sheet on the wall and run a projector and kind of do that hippy-dippy `underground' movie-theatre-type of thing."

"It's interesting that people say it's economically unfeasible considering that I don't know that it's been attempted in years," says Lee, defending his proposal. "You know the economy changes every year and people have not even tried it. And since we're going for nonprofit status, we're hoping to use the revenues from the events we offer, plus money from donations and grants.

"I think a lot of times people are too hung up on money. A project like this means so much to the neighborhood and the community and culturally for the whole area," he adds. "It just bugs me every time people start talking about money. I know money's important, but I think the end will justify the means of getting it."

In decided contrast to Lee's quixotic vision of independent films and urban renewal are Malco's plans for a four- to six-screen art-house-style theatre in Overton Square.

"We're on track," says Tashie. "We're going to build one that's very neat, and I think that everybody will feel very comfortable with it. It will not be our typical theatre. There are a few more details to work out, but it could be [open] within a year."

Though Malco has not historically been known for showing independent films, Tashie believes that the national popularity of such movies could signify a change at the Memphis box office as well.

"We feel that the market, in recent times, has really shown that it can support a facility just for that purpose," he explains. "The Guild ran art product and the Memphian ran art product, but back then I don't think there was a big enough audience to really support [an art house] the way it could be supported today. Plus there are more of those movies being made, there's more interest in them, there's more quality in them now.

"As our plans are now to build an art theatre in Midtown, we feel that it's a convenient enough place. I think it would draw from a pretty good radius at that location. We feel and hope that that's the right audience for that type of venue."

Malco's attempting to fill the void in Memphis' movie programming does not sound like a panacea to Lee. "It would be interesting to see what Malco considers an art house," he snickers. "I think getting movies into the inner core [of the city] again is a great idea, but I don't think Malco would be doing it because they're into culture or into helping out people in Midtown or people in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. They're doing it because it's going to help themselves."

Lee does not fear any competition from Malco's Overton Square project. "It's just two completely different things, I think. We're not going to be for-profit. It's not just shove you in at 7:10 and get you out by 9:30 and get the next show in. We don't care if five people come in the door or 500 people come in the door. We're doing it for purposes beyond making money," he says. "Putting something as dense as a four-screen movie theatre in Overton Square, good luck to them!"

Keshani shares Lee's nonchalance about competition from Malco. "There is room for everybody. The more people who show these movies, the more people who get aware of it, and it will generate even more benefit for everybody involved, including the public as well as theatre owners like me," Keshani says.

Controversy surrounding independent film content could be an issue for Malco, Memphis' largest film exhibitor. Ross says that Malco already suffers from public pressure regarding controversial films.

"I think that they've tried to do things. It just causes such an uproar that they're just alienating their constituents. We're in the Bible Belt," says Ross. "If Malco does it, Malco has to be concerned with [consumers] doing what they're doing to Disney, boycotting all Malco theatres. And so I guess that's where the pressure would come in."

Tashie agrees that public concerns often affect exhibitors' decisions to run movies. However, he is quick to add that it is not always the independent or offbeat films that generate such controversy:

"Striptease and Last Temptation of Christ, these were not art films, or some obscure distributor," he points out. "These were major movie distributors that made a controversial film that offended people."

Even smaller-theatre owners like Keshani must deal with the controversy a movie generates. Often, contentious movies are not shown both because of questionable content and because the content translates into reduced revenue.

"We didn't show Showgirls because it was controversial; Malco did and they had to pull it after a week," says Keshani. Though it is simply a matter of speculation, some have suggested that if Showgirls had not been a box-office disaster, exhibitors might have turned a deaf ear to complaints about the film's content. Johnson maintains that controversy often helps films from an economic perspective because of the free publicity generated by the protests.

"Any showman worth his salt, as Miramax has shown many times, wants a few pickets," he says.

"It's tough for exhibitors to co-exist in communities where there are a lot of people who are offended by subject matter and such," says Tashie, less enthusiastic about a public outcry. "Check with a video rental store. They don't get the heat that an exhibitor does because we're on the first wave. By the time it comes out on video, things have calmed down, and it's quietly rented. But we get the brunt of the criticism."

But Tashie does not indicate that Malco has any desire to mindlessly bow to all public pressure, as others have suggested.

"You're always going to have groups that are opposed to something," he sighs.

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