Larry Porricelli has been on the southern California movie exhibition scene for some thirty years.
He has seen it all and in many cases been in the thick of the innovations we now all take for granted. Before coming west from New York he was a teacher and writer. Larry has worked for Mann which was acquired by Edwards which was acquired by Regal and eventually left to join Regency. During his tenure, he has seen movie exhibition business grow into Megaplexes and in recent years back to smaller venues. His passion for film and screenwriters runs deep and is respected and well liked by everyone in the business.
SOCAL: Where were you born and raised? What occupations were you involved in before you got involved in the movie exhibition business?
Larry: Born and raised in Bronx, NY. The Bronx itself provided for any number of occupations, from hawking souvenirs and food at Yankee Stadium to being a counselor at Boy Scout camp in summers. I also drove a taxi on Martha’s Vineyard one summer during production of “Jaws”, and that got me hooked on movies. College at Southern Connecticut University and Michigan State provided a key to teaching.
SOCAL: What bought you to California?
Larry: I was working for Times Mirror Corporation as a business journalist, and transferred to California.
SOCAL: Where did your love for the movies come from?
Larry: My grandparents often took me to the drive-in, and I remember many an adventure at the drive-in, as we packed enough food for ten families, and I still could get a Sweetheart orange soda and a pizza from the concession stand. My grandfather was particular to westerns, and I watched more John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy than anyone, and Rio Bravo is my favorite Wayne picture because old Walter Brennan stole the film, just as he did from Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. I could sing the theme from High Noon at six years old. My first film memory, though, is when my Uncle Frank took me to a revival screening of Frankenstein and I was terrified for days, or should I say nights, and though I didn't wet the bed, I had to battle my way through monsters I was sure were hiding in the shadows to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
My father was a film historian, and he knew every actor and all their films, as well as great supporting actors, musicians, set designers, and he was often contacted to verify film history. His favorite film was Casablanca, and throughout his life, he asked everyone official, from the IRS to motor vehicle departments, if they could provide him with Letters of Transit. As a family, we often sat around on weekends playing trivia games before there were any and they were always centered on film and the people that made them. And on school snow days or rainy days when we couldn't go out, my brother and sisters would always play movie trivia, and we called it, Eye Gaga Yeye. Don't ask me why, I think some actor said it in House of Bamboo. when I was 14, we saw Dr. No as the add-on picture late at night at a drive-in, and I told everyone about James Bond, and he became a worldwide hit, and of course, I take the credit for it. But as I grew older I realized what love was - for I surely was in love with Elizabeth Taylor - she defined sexy; and Marilyn and Arthur Miller lived in the next town, Westport, CT, and I had loved her since Some Like It Hot, and we saw her and Miller on the freeway one day and we kept waving from Connecticut all the way to New York and she waved back and laughed the entire time. Of course I loved her. And in August of 1962, I was at Boy Scout summer camp, and a friend came and told me my girlfriend had died and I had to go out into the woods and cry.
Movies always moved me, and that's how they should be, and whenever I need a pickup, I watch Blazing Saddles, (Which I represented to my grandfather as a Western and he watched it.) as no one can be funnier than Mel Brooks, and a high point in life was speaking with him on the phone a year ago when we were screening Blazing Saddles at the Regency San Juan Capistrano and sold out three theatres, and he called just to thank us. I must have sounded like a blithering idiot to him because I love him and his work and I was just so at a loss for words I was so overcome. Big films in life for me were Clockwork Orange, which still blows me away; Harold and Maude, which redefined romance and was side-splitting; The Exorcist which I saw with friends in a theatre in San Francisco and an older woman I didn't know was sitting to my right and grabbed me and held on to me the entire movie; and The Godfather. What kind of good Italian boy would I be if I didn't like this. But like is a weak word, we Italians live this movie, we know every line, and we use them throughout our lives. Once at a movie industry convention in Las Vegas, I went into the banquet early, and Francis Coppola was walking around, and I introduced my self to him and told him how my entire family would watch his film together over and over and it had become an icon. He thanked me, but he thought I was waiter and asked me if I could get him some food. Of course I said yes, and though there were miles of tables piled with everything imaginable, I filled a plate with pasta and salad, and brought it and a glass of red wine to a table where he sat alone, and conversed with me for a few minutes, until the doors opened and he was surrounded with his friends. Lastly, Jaws was and is my all-time favorite, as working on Martha's Vineyard as a cab driver one summer when they were filming, I used to have to go and pick up some crew every morning at 5:00 AM and get them to the set, as the whole crew partied very hard every night. Mr. Spielberg didn't give me any screen credit for that work, but the tips were outrageous.
SOCAL: You worked for Edwards Cinemas for many years. What was that like? Tell us about Mr. Edwards, his vision, his style.
Larry: He was an amazing man. He knew his business and paid attention to every detail. We once talked about hot dog buns at midnight for two hours. The first theater he opened was one he and his wife went to but closed at the beginning of the Great Depression. He arrived one night and there was a For Sale sign on the door. He also opened the country’s first multiplex – two screens under one roof in Alhambra, California, and the site is marked by the city. He also had a vision for the Irvine Spectrum, which has become a prototype in the industry and even led to the building on a grand scale such as City Walk, and LA Live, which are simply larger expansions of the Irvine Spectrum idea. But most of all, he was a showman, and loved marketing. I heard the tale that during the Depression, to get attention to a new Tarzan movie, he had a lion in the backseat of a Model T, and two trainers dressed as natives, drive all around the San Gabriel Valley to draw attention to the film.
SOCAL: Tell us about the creation of the Megaplex concept. What were its pros and cons? How is it changing and why?
Larry: Don’t fix it, get a bigger hammer, so to speak. Actually, the megaplex was founded because it could be run for the same cost of payroll as a ten-plex and tapped into the American Dream of a greater and bigger success, and also drew heavily on Hollywood magic. It gave moviegoers more than one showtime to see a film. If you missed the 1:00 showing, you could attend the 2:00, and it provided for the big screen image, as in Imax. Imax was in bad shape, when we first ran film in the Imax at the Spectrum late at nights on weekends. They were then and are now a huge hit, and has been copied by many circuits. The first studio to produce a feature film for IMAX was Disney, which premiered Fantasia 2000 in the Imax, and it was also a huge hit.
SOCAL: Please tell us about the transformation from film to digital and all the offerings surrounding digital exhibition.
Larry: Digital exhibition is amazing and offers so many marvelous opportunities. Films are usually downloaded from a hard drive, but special interest events, from sports to opera, can be broadcast live through satellite or web. It brings a whole repertoire of options to theaters to be not only on the cutting edge of exhibition, but also can reach out boldly where it hasn’t gone before and reach special interest audiences. From a practical standpoint, digital prints can’t be scratched, so that ends a big issue with 35mm film prints for exhibitors.
SOCAL: A couple of years ago you joined Regency, a quality regional chain. What do you do for them? Described how you got involved with them. Talk about the owners and their and philosophy.
Larry: The owners are a young couple, Lyndon and Monica Golin. I knew Lyndon as an acquaintance as I had worked with his brother, Andrew, who is also a partner in the business, about 20 years ago. Also I bought DTS Digital Sound Systems from his sister, Susie for many years with Edwards. When Lyndon asked me to come to work for them, I had a single mission, to work with the Lido Theatre, and thus we instituted surf movies, art films, festival screenings, and connecting with a great many companies in the area who utilize the Lido, which culminated with the premiere of Step Into Liquid.
But Lyndon is also a showman, he won the James Bond Aston Martin car in a promotion he did when he was only twenty, and I knew him then from studio contests. He gave encouragement and pretty much free rein to be creative with any promotion. He came up with the Blazing Saddlebag and it has been so much fun working with individual theaters on their operations, and customer service, and to also promote their events and films with blessing from Lyndon and Monica.
Lyndon reminds me a lot of Mr. James Edwards, Sr., who founded the Edwards Chain twice, once in San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles, and then sold them and retired to Orange County, where he started the most successful chain of theatres. Lyndon knows and loves the details of the exhibition business, from equipment to computers to concessions to everything from the minutia to the big details that make the movie-going experience a successful and memorable experience for the moviegoer, and he only asks that we all do the same. So it is a high standard, and if you love movies, you love raising the bar for moviegoers to enjoy the film.
When we were going to open the San Juan Capistrano theater, Lyndon wanted a theme from Casablanca, and so we have that done in spectacular fashion as never seen in a theater, we used elements from the 1940’s in the décor and design and it works so well. Also, having Classic Movie Night at our Regency South Coast Plaza Village Theatre each Wednesday night has been Lyndon’s idea, and I just carry out promotion to bring people into the theatre to enjoy everything from Bogie to Belushi and more.
Working with the Golins, we brought the first discount theater to Orange County at the Regency Charter Center in Huntington Beach, where people were provided a beautiful location to see movies at a good price. All seats there are just $3, and it has been a great success. We also have turned theatres that closed into art houses, playing the best in art, independent, foreign and specialty film. We were the first to play Slumdog Millionaire in the county and that was a blast! It caught on in two seconds and we played to full houses for two weeks before any other chain could get a print to play it.
The philosophy of Regency has been personal from the owners, and that has made it fun to work, because you are in constant touch with them and working together. That is a very hard thing to find in our corporate world these days. So when you are working with them, you feel as if you really are working together to build a company that loves movies, and if you are in this business, no matter what area, from creative to exhibition, you love movies. I love film exhibition, because there is a wonderful feeling on a Friday night, when auditorium doors open, and an audience pours out from the first night of a new film, and they are laughing and smiling, or serious and dramatic, you know they have enjoyed the night and you have helped bring that enjoyment into their lives. People always remember where they saw a film, and we try to ensure that that memory is wonderful and filled with Hollywood Magic.
SOCAL: Please tell us about some of the major promotions you were involved with, including special challenges and how you overcame them.
Larry: We ran a film festival at Regency San Juan Theatre in August, and it was a success, with most shows filling and selling out. The prime issue was connecting with studios and then presenting to the public what they had to offer, as for example, Warner Brothers not only gave us a restored digital print of Ben-Hur, but they also were generous and brought Charlton Heston’s son down to screen a special he had produced and directed on his dad. That show sold out also, and connecting to media is very difficult when you have little budget, but interest and special connection with the Orange County Register and The Capistrano Dispatch did the work.
Over the years, themed promotions, from Jane Austen films to surf films have been fun. For the premiere of Dana Brown’s Step Into Liquid, we decked the Regency Lido Theatre and its surrounding outside as a surf spot, with cool huts and even a surf company provided a wave rider to stand on and take pictures of yourself surfing what looked like a gnarly wave about to enclose you. But the coolest thing was lining up about 20 Woodys, and instead of limousines dropping off the film’s stars and guests, they each arrived in a classic Woody with a classic board on top. We also had a special guest who blessed the event as they do in Hawaii with sacred burnt offerings. It was very special. There have been so many movies and events to work with, right now each month we do and Italian Film Night and have a great group arrive for some wine and film, and we also have Cosmos Night. It isn’t about the drink, but about Carl Sagan’s series, and we play an episode a month, and have a noted astronomer present to additionally show us what we have learned about the same subject since the show was broadcast in early 1980’s. It is spectacular to see that up on the big screen. We do so many promotions as each good movie has a heart that lends to sharing its soul, which is called Hollywood Magic. For a Jane Austen film we would set up a tearoom, have readings, and such. The key to any promotion is connecting to the groups you want to reach. For a screening of a film on a deaf couple who were in their 60’s and were able to hear for the first time, was heavily promoted at Laguna Woods on their television network because it brought news to a lot of potential people who could be helped with the discovery. Doing the Premiere of Robert Kline’s Ronald Reagan was also a highlight, as we found people who were great speakers who worked in the Reagan White House, and we tied it into the president’s birthday in February with a huge birthday cake, and sold out three auditoriums. But perhaps my favorite is always Blazing Saddles. We did it for a charity for the Rancho charities of the rodeo in Orange County, and we themed everything western. Our owner and president thought up the Blazing Saddles Saddlebag, which included a cap gun and a whoopee cushion, and it was such a hilarious success, with everyone in three theatres blasting cap guns and whoopee cushions!
SOCAL: You’ve met many celebrities and industry executives. Please tell us about some of your favorites.
Larry: During the Blazing Saddles screening last year, was the day of that screening, I had just walked into the theatre lobby and a manager said there was a call from a “Mr. Brooks.” At first I didn’t believe it was him until he spoke a little and then I knew I was speaking to one of my all-time favorite directors who had given me so many hours of laughs. He was hilarious and kind and thanked us for screening his film! To me, it doesn’t get any better than that. I couldn’t believe it! I had just walked into the theatre lobby and a manager said there was a call from a Mr. Brooks, I thought it was a friend and when he asked who this was, I replied, Lili Von Schtoop, who is a main character played by Madeline Kahn in the film. When I realized who he was, I said “I must sound like a complete schmuck”, to which he replied, “not complete, only half.” I want those words as my epitaph.
SOCAL: What do you see as the future of movie exhibition business?
Larry: Making movies has become cheaper, and many films are made for far less than previously, not counting tentpole features, because the digital camera technology is now affordable and available and editing can be done on laptops. Film is no longer needed so to speak. For the future, which is now, we are seeing so many films self-produced, just like self-publishing, and they are getting better and better, with many finding distribution. Take a look at Film Festival lineups – look at the current New York Film Festival – WOW! So more is better, and we will see more specialty audience films playing one-night screenings, etc, to give the public at every level an option for watching movies. We now show concerts, Kentucky Derby, Oscars, there is something to show for everyone.
The Last Word: People have asked if we worry about Netflix, and the answer is, every home has a kitchen, but the restaurants are packed.