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FW Weekly Movie Man

Michael Price's obsession with film leads to the first Fort Worth Film Festival.

By Joe Leydon

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Michael H. Price may be the only man alive who can appear graceful while lugging around a 16mm projector within the cramped confines of a projection booth. The model of sartorial splendor in a gambler's fedora and an electric tan suit, he moves the bulky device here and there, this way and that, at the direction of a prop-conscious photographer. All the while, he continues to play the role of witty raconteur, never allowing a trace of impatience to darken the tone of his folksy wordspinning.

"You know," he says in his unaffectedly easygoing drawl, "I'm the kind of somebody who gets homesick 10 miles down the turnpike. So I tend to stay in one place for a heck of a long time.... Every time I get out to Hollywood, I admit, I think, 'Well, you know, maybe this would be a cool place to work.' But then I get on the freeway, and I think, 'Whoa, hold on. Maybe not.' "

Price is upstairs at the Caravan of Dreams, surrounded by film canisters that contain favorite movies from his own private collection. (Look closely, and you see titles - Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Phantom Creeps, The Invisible Man's Revenge - that reflect the taste of a shameless movie buff, not a stuffy cineaste.) The screening room downstairs is one of three venues he will be using this week for what's billed as the first annual Fort Worth Film Festival. It's the sort of event that, not so long ago, he would have written about, and thousands of faithful readers would have read about, in the Star-Telegram. Last spring, however, Price surprised his readers - and, to a large degree, himself - by ending his 13-year tenure as the newspaper's lead film critic to accept a new job with American Multi-Cinema.

At 51, he has yet another addition for a formidable resume that already includes reference-book author, comic-book writer, trading-card illustrator and recording-studio engineer. Which is why, for a change of pace, he is the one doing the talking and posing for pictures, while an interviewer scribbles notes.

"This darn thing just kind of came to me at the right time."

Price is seated behind the desk of his Main Street office, just a brief jaunt away from the two AMC multiplexes - the Sundance Square and the Palace - where he operates the local version of the theater chain's Gourmet Cinema program. The framed movie posters that line the walls are even more eclectic than the tidbits from his movie collection: The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, Exorcist III, Kung-Fu Halloween, and La Horde Sauvage (the French edition of The Wild Bunch).

"You see," Price continues, "for the past 20 years, I've been wondering, 'Where's my mid-life crisis?' It feels like everybody else is getting theirs, and I've been deprived. And suddenly, I've realized this is my mid-life crisis. I've made drastic changes, and I've leapt into a field at which virtually no one has any experience. I mean, you can't very well go to the art-programming gurus of the film industry, because even those guys are still trying to figure it out." Price is responsible for the booking and promotion of "alternative" film fare - independent productions, foreign-language imports and other niche-market merchandise - that plays on AMC screens side-by-side with more mainstream movies. As he sees it, the new job is a logical outgrowth of the proselytizing he did for serious cinema back when he wrote reviews for the Star-Telegram.

A couple of years ago, Price took it upon himself to lead the charge against Castle Rock Entertainment when the studio was readying release patterns for Kenneth Branagh's four-hour-plus film of Hamlet. At the time, there was much loose talk about preparing a stripped-for-speed, 2 1/2-hour version of the Shakespearean tragedy, for release in "smaller markets." That is, markets like - well, Fort Worth. Fearing the worst, Price launched a pre-emptive strike.

"I wrote that we really didn't want to get this Podunk version of Hamlet," Price recalls. "Evidently, I made so much noise that it attracted the attention of the Sundance Square people. And the next thing I knew, they were inviting me to lunch to discuss the development of Gourmet Cinema. Which I did as a volunteer for a good, long while. But finally, we got so serious about it that they said, 'Well, you better come on over here and do it full-time.' " For Price, accepting the offer meant ending a 30-year career in journalism. But the timing could not have been more fortuitous. Long before he left the Star-Telegram, he says, he was feeling vague stirrings of discontent. And not just because he felt frustrated by deadline pressures and shrinking news holes.

"I think it really began with the summer of '97 - the summer of Con Air. There seemed to be one picture after another like that. And it got to the point where I felt, 'I want my time back. I don't want to be weighing in thoughtfully on this kind of garbage.' That was a definite factor in my considering the Sundance prospect.

"And then, with the incorporation of the film festival last winter, I also sensed that, sooner or later, I could find myself in a real conflict of interest. And I'd better take steps to divorce myself from any semblance of that."

So now Price has a nifty new job and daunting new pressures. What he doesn't have, however, is a clear idea of how receptive Fort Worth will be to a film festival. Indeed, he and his fellow festival founders - filmmakers Sheila and Dwight Greene and Ryan Brennan - don't even know what sort of festival programming local audiences might prefer. Which is why, at least for the first edition of the event, they're offering a little bit of practically everything.

At first, Price says, they considered a festival devoted entirely to Westerns. The more they thought about it, however, the more they expanded their self-imposed restrictions. "We considered the whole idea of what 'frontier' meant," he says, "and we thought about the frontier mentality of the independent filmmaker, who forges a new frontier each time he makes a movie without major studio backing.

"Of course," Price adds, grinning at his own double-talk, "I suppose you make these words expand to cover anything you want, really."

One thing led to another, entries were solicited in regional and national magazines. Pretty soon, Price and company were trying to cram more than 60 shorts and features into a four-day exposition. The lineup is nothing if not diverse. But the uncertainty remains.

"Basically," Price says, "it's up to the community to tell me if we need a festival. And I want to know the answer pretty quick."

Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, Price spills the beans: "I got that old movie jones at a very early age." While he was growing up in Amarillo, his favorite uncle was regional manager for the Interstate Theater Circuit. "And he died before there was such an ugly word as 'twinning,' so everything he ever managed was a movie palace."

Better still, "Thanks to my uncle's connection to the business, I had cute usherettes as babysitters."

The elder of two sons born to an industrial wholesaler and his wife, Price was quick to develop an enthusiastic appreciation for all sorts of cinema. As a horror-movie buff, he was delighted to discover that Vincent Price was a distant cousin. ("Several times removed, perhaps, but kinfolk just the same.") As connoisseur of more high-brow entertainment, he managed to find fulfillment in unexpected places.

"When Blow-Up played Amarillo during its first American run, it played at a drive-in theater on one of the shabbier sides of town, and the newspaper ad said 'Girls! Girls! Girls!' And yet, at the same time in nearby Canyon - which, of course, is a college town - there was a thriving art theater all through the '60s."

Price earned a B.A. in journalism and English at West Texas State - now West Texas AandM - in 1970. Thanks to what he describes as "just a hometown fluke" he began his journalism career during his sophomore year, when he applied for a job as "cub reporter" at the Amarillo Daily News. If someone ever gets around to filming "The Michael H. Price" story, the dialogue for this key scene will be simple yet direct:

GRUFF EDITOR: Can you spell?
YOUNG MICHAEL: Yeah, I can spell okay.
GRUFF EDITOR: Can you write a sentence?
YOUNG MICHAEL: Yeah, I can write a sentence okay.
GRUFF EDITOR: Are you shy about talking to people?
YOUNG MICHAEL: Well, I walked in here, didn't I?

"By the time I got home," Price recalls, "they had already called, asking me to come to work, so I guess they must have been desperate. The bug kicked in, and took hold real quick."

While earning his stripes as a beat reporter, Price befriended veteran feature writer and film critic George E. Turner. The relationship has continued to be mutually beneficial. After "helping out by doing some typing and reading some galleys" while Turner prepared a book on the making of King Kong, the cub reporter was invited by the older writer to collaborate on a book on scary movies. The 20th-anniversary edition of this joint effort, Forgotten Horrors, is forthcoming from Midnight Marquee Press. Also coming soon to a bookstore near you: Price's long-in-the-works biography of his celebrated cousin, the late, great Vincent Price.

In 1980, the same year Michael and Christina Price were joined in wedded bliss, our hero landed a job with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"Essentially," Price says, "I was a bureau chief for Southwest Tarrant County. After that, there was a patch of writing about banking and finance." Throughout this period, however, "I was edging ever closer to the entertainment desk." It took four years for Price to reach his goal. When features editor Jane Marshall took time off for maternity leave, he took over the job on a temporary basis. "Then she came back, settled into her familiar patterns - and I stayed right there and started assuming arts and entertainment responsibilities."

Early on, Price decided that improving the paper's film coverage would be a top priority. Until he took charge, Price says, "There really hadn't been a lot of attention paid to opening-day reviews and things like that. The whole attitude about attending preview screenings in Dallas was, 'God, that's way the hell over there!' And my attitude was, are we in a competitive market? Yes. Are we competing? No. So what can we do to get there?"

When the time came to designate a film critic, Price took enormous pride in assigning humor columnist Michael Ritchie. "But then I made the gosh-awful mistake of telling Mike, 'Yes, go ahead and cover the Telluride Film Festival.' He came back and announced he had bought some land up there, and was fixing to move.

"So it turned out that the only person I could afford to replace him was me."

Does he miss it? Does he regret his decision to walk away from full-time film criticism?

Price thoughtfully considers the question as he dawdles over a third cup of cofffee. While devoting almost every waking hour to starting a film festival and running the Gourmet Cinema program, "There really hasn't been a lot of time to miss where you came from." On the other hand, however, "When you've spent that many years building a relationship with your newspaper - and with your readership - you don't throw that away easily."

Occasionally, he writes a full-length movie review, just for grins, on his home-office PC. And making weekly appearances on a KRLD radio talk show, "has allowed me to sort of keep my hand in. I'm able to talk about movies there - but it's very conversational. I've never cared for the NPR approach of speaking an essay on the air."

As for the Star-Telegram, "I miss the bustle of the newsroom. But I'm at the newsroom so constantly, working with the people there on festival-related material, that I get a contact high. So that's one compensation."

What about receiving direct response from readers? Price has decidedly mixed emotions about giving up that part of his high-profile job. "I caught a lot of flak for liking Showgirls a heck of a lot better than everybody thought I should have. Before that, there was a great deal of backlash because I liked The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. And there still is backlash, I guarantee you, because I had kind things to say about Howard the Duck.

"But I got the most hate calls over a bland, mixed review of Forrest Gump. And I mean real vituperation. Like, 'You're going to hell because you didn't like Forrest Gump." Of course, it didn't endear me with some people that, during that very same season, I had very kind things to say about Natural Born Killers. I consider Forrest Gump to be a very pernicious, evil film. It's a picture that has incredibly passive-hostile violence against women."

All things considered, there's only one element of his former job that he doesn't miss at all: Arguments with editors over the best way to educate the masses about the mass medium of movies. Like many film critics on most metropolitan newspapers, Price rages against the shorter, snappier fluff that often passes for film criticism. But when pressed on the subject, he's happy that he no longer has to fight the good fight. "We've all heard the expression, 'Dumb it down.' I, however, believe that is a fashionable but ultimately suicidal approach. Because if we're all so concerned about the survival of the print medium, well, I think the print medium will endure - though under what circumstances, I don't know. But if we alienate the people who like to read, the ones who don't like to read aren't going to come to your rescue.

"And I also think that in today's climate, whatever it may be like, there is a segment of the population that wants thoughtful, provocative and analytical - though maybe not long-winded - film criticism. We've all had to deal with shrunken news holes. We simply must figure out a way to put some meat on those few bones.

"You know going in, that that's the challenge. It's sort of like, when I got into cop reporting, I knew that, at one time or another, sooner or later, I was going to be shot at. And I relished the experience.

"But I sure am glad I got out of that."

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