Archive for August, 2010

Memories of a Film Distribution Internship

August 2, 2010

It was 1990. I was 19 years old, and had just finished my sophomore year at Virginia Tech as a Communications major, with an emphasis in Film/Popular Culture. Summer arrived, and I headed home to Northern Virginia.

Aspiring to a career in film and needing a three-credit internship, I turned my attention to the one D.C.-based film shop I knew of: Circle Releasing Corp. Ted and Jim Pedas ran Circle, which had owned several local movie theaters and had also tried its hand at film production. In the early 1980s, Circle had bankrolled a small film called Blood Simple, by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Blood Simple was a success, but in D.C., its local connection qualified the film a mini-sensation. Arch Campbell, the movie reviewer on D.C.’s NBC affiliate, raved about the film, which I managed to see at a packed screening at the AMC Skyline 6 theaters. It was my first exposure to modern film noir, and the Coens’ dark humor was instantly appealing.

Then, in 1987, came Raising Arizona. I declared it my favorite film after first viewing, and it held that slot for several years. If it’s not still at the top—I’m not sure which film is—it’s close. Twentieth Century Fox distributed the film, which was financed, again, by Circle.

Two wildly diverse films, both outstanding, and unlike every other big-filmmakers-in-the-making stories of that era, Washington, D.C., played a critical role. Any student with film-related goals but too intimidated to move to New York or Los Angeles had one avenue—Circle. It was all or nothing.

So, late in my sophomore year, I decided to look up the number of Circle Releasing Corp. It wasn’t the production arm of Circle. I wasn’t sure exactly what Circle Releasing Corp. released, given that the Coens’ films were being distributed by Fox. There was no Internet, no easy way to research the company, but I knew it was part of Circle, it was film-related, and it was the only thing that interested me as a possible summer internship.

I cold-called, introduced myself to the woman who ran the operation, Fran Speilman, and asked if an internship would be possible during the summer months. I figured it was the longest of long shots, and braced myself for the inevitable “no.”

Instead, Fran, in her husky voice, quickly agreed to take me on as an intern. I was thrilled!

The summer of 1990 was an interesting one for Circle. If I had to choose a word to describe the day-to-day business environment there, it would be “slow.” My internship progress report, which I recently came across and which inspired this post (pictured at left, although the pic isn’t really legible), indicates that I spent 13.5 hours a week at Circle. If memory serves, that was three 4.5-hour days each week. I would take the Metro into town but, because I left late in the morning, never had a chance of finding parking in the Metro lot. Instead, I had to park more than half a mile from the local station and hoof it in the summer heat.

Years of staying at home, watching movies and generally nurturing a lack of physical activity had caught up with me. Add to that the “freshman 15” I put on a year earlier, and the walk to the train, as well as the walk from the destination station to Circle Releasing HQ, always left me sweaty and, I’m quite certain, smelly. The Circle employees never mentioned my overheated appearance, and if I stunk up the place, they never said anything about it.

My days consisted of sitting in Fran’s office, reading Variety and the Hollywood Reporter cover to cover, and listening to any conversation I could between Fran and the company’s full-time employees. There was Bruce, Hap, Liz and Carolyn. An accountant from another area of the office would sometimes stop in to chat with Fran. I once heard him say that Raising Arizona had, that very summer, finally broken even as an investment for Circle.

The distributor wasn’t having lots of success with its films that summer. Releases that had opened earlier in the year were played out. At least that’s my memory. IMDB is telling me that some of the movies I thought had opened and closed by the summer of 1990 didn’t release in the U.S. until late summer of that year, or until the following year. IMDB has been known to screw up sometimes, but so has my memory, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

A Gabriel Byrne/Nick Broomfield movie called Dark Obsession has received some notoriety because of a sex scene that led to an NC-17 rating, but the film hadn’t done much business. Bye Bye Blues, from director Ann Wheeler, had received some decent reviews but not much attention from audiences. A Polish drama, Interrogation, included a stunning lead performance and had yet to be released. I was able to see some of these films, as well as earlier Circle releases like Guy Maddin’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital and Vincent Ward’s The Navigator on videocassette, after Fran flattered me by asking for a “young man’s opinion” of some of the distributor’s titles.

My biggest “get,” however, was finding a copy of the Coen’s screenplay for Barton Fink, and reading it well before that film released. My love of the Coens had reached fever pitch that summer, and the most memorable aspect of that internship was being invited to the D.C.-area premiere of Miller’s Crossing at a local theater. Although it has strong competition, Miller’s Crossing to this day remains my favorite Coen Brothers film, no doubt in part because of the circumstances in which I first saw the film. If memory serves, the premiere took place an evening or two after the film had premiered at the New York Film Festival, and after it had been reviewed negatively by Vincent Canby in the New York Times. I can still picture the man introducing the film at the D.C. premiere, who mentioned that the film had received “almost unanimous praise” from critics who had seen it.

The Coen films were perks—opportunities to see Circle productions that, as far as I understood, Circle Releasing Corp. had no hand in distributing. But the distribution arm had its own treat to come that summer: The national release of John Woo’s The Killer. Woo was a favorite of those who had managed to see bootleg videotapes of his Hong Kong action films, but the rest of us had to wait for a legitimate release of his work. I had just completed a course at school on the Western genre, and was at the apex of my admiration for Sam Peckinpah’s stylized violence—a style that Woo had said in interviews that he was attempting to emulate with The Killer.

My experience watching The Killer did not approach Miller’s Crossing-level ecstasy. I saw a videotape version of the film, panned-and-scanned, and, sadly, dubbed! That was the way Circle planned to release the film in a test market in Texas: Dubbed, and aimed at the action-movie crowd.

I protested. Woo’s movie was full of action, but his reputation was that of an auteur, and his natural audience were arthouse film fans who might be willing to give a bloody gangster film a shot, as long as it wasn’t dubbed. That, I argued, would be the kiss of death.

But what did I know? Circle was hoping to find a broader audience for The Killer. To reach that audience, two poster designs were assembled. Mr. Pedas brought the two into the office, and asked the employees what they thought. I chose the artsy-fartsy design, with a silhouette image of a man with a gun. Mr. Pedas preferred the other image, which depicted the Asian protagonist. “This one shows you what you’re getting,” he remarked to Fran and the others. I started to object, “But the other one is more evocative…”

That was when Fran pulled me aside. “Chris,” she said, quietly but sternly, “the decision has been made.”

And, indeed, it had been.

The film played in that Texas market, but the first-week grosses were squat. I recall a second week, which showed the usual dropoff in attendance. After that, I don’t recall what happened. I think the distributor pulled the film and rethought its strategy. My internship progress report notes, “We eventually released the film in a dubbed and subtitled format,” but also that the film “never took off quite the way we hoped it would.” I do remember that as soon as Criterion issued the title on laserdisc years later, I bought it, laying out a cool $100 for the film. (And that was 20% off retail! Those were the days, weren’t they?)

One of the highlights of my time at Circle was being given the task of comparing the newly struck subtitles for The Killer to the dubbed version, making sure no dialogue was left out of the subtitles. Why the dubbed version should have been the basis for this I can’t quite figure—maybe the dubbed version left off sections of dialogue in the original language!—but that’s what my internship progress report states: “Before we made the subtitle band, I was asked to compare the dialogue from the dubbed version with what we were going to print on the subtitle band. This was done to check for any continuity errors or breaks in the film’s action.” The report also reminds me that I helped to send out 500 letters to exhibitors across the country alerting them to the days and times The Killer would be screened.

I helped find and clip reviews of Circle films for the films’ respective press kits. I answered telephones. I helped set up “opinion-maker screenings” for Winter of ’54, a film about which I remember nothing at all. I also did some filing, a task I cited as “least beneficial” in my progress report. A lowlight was once taking a call for producer Ben Barenholtz, and trying, unsuccessfully, to transfer the call from my office to Barenholtz’s. I stared at the flashing line for several seconds after completing—or so I thought—the transfer, only to see a shadow fall over the phone and then see the hand of Barenholtz himself reach down as he said, “No,” and completed the transfer himself.

So, what came out of the internship? What did it all amount to? It helped me earn my college’s award for Outstanding Achievement in my area of study (my film professor cited the internship when presenting me with the award), but no job came of the experience. Fran had written on my report that “we would be happy to hire this student, should there be a job opening,” and that “His personality is such that it would be a pleasure having him in our group.” However, when I called Circle Releasing Corp. after graduating to see if there were any openings, the person then running the company—a budding author by the name of George Pelecanos—politely told me the company had no position to offer me at that time. A few months later, I called again. Pelecanos again told me—politely—that the company still had no openings.

I fell out of touch with everyone at Circle Releasing Corp., although in recent years I’ve briefly reconnected with one who’s now managing a local movie theater. I’m left with memories, mostly positive, of my brief fling in the film industry. It led to my only academic award, and it earned me those three credit hours I needed to graduate. And now it’s been the subject of this lengthy blog post.