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Box-office mojo 

The guys behind firstshowing.net have taken the opening weekend to new heights in Colorado Springs

click to enlarge Rantal hams up an interview for a Web site video. - PETE FREEDMAN
  • Pete Freedman
  • Rantal hams up an interview for a Web site video.

At the moment, Alex Billington and Mark Rantal couldn't be more pleased. Their smiles are huge, and their chests are puffed a little more than normal. They're standing tall, and there's a certain swagger to their gait well, as much of a swagger as a fanboy can carry with a straight face.

Here's what just happened. It's Friday afternoon, and these friends part of the brain trust behind firstshowing.net, a Colorado Springs-based Web site dedicated to all things film-related just got recognized. In plain sight, no less.

By their fans.

A handful of kids camped out among the bookcases of the Barnes & Noble Booksellers on Briargate Boulevard, patiently awaiting the release of the final Harry Potter book (a solid 11 hours beforehand), just spotted the duo entering the building. They pointed directly at Rantal in particular, mouths agape, and shouted out their find for all to hear.

Rantal, the more extroverted of the two, slid into his element, flashing a smile and running over to return the greeting.

It's just another confirmation that the 21-year-old Billington and 22-year-old Rantal have officially reached local celebrity status.

"Did you see that when I came in?" Rantal excitedly asks, sitting down at a table in the bookstore caf.

It's good to be appreciated.

For 12 weeks, since the release of Spider-Man 3, Rantal and Billington have been mainstays at the Cinemark Carefree Circle movie theater complex on Powers Boulevard. They've forgone their Thursday and Friday (and sometimes Tuesday and Wednesday) nights to take up shop in a "living room" they constructed outside the theater with plywood walls, carpets, couches, stereos, TVs and video game consoles. Thanks to the sponsorships they've received from local franchises of Lowe's, Game Crazy, Chipotle and, most importantly, Cinemark, Billington and Rantal and their friends have been holed up here, hyping up and emceeing the hours leading up to this summer's biggest releases.

Tonight, they'll host another opening-night showing in one of Cinemark's theaters this time for Hairspray. It'll be similar to what they normally do for each release, Billington says. They'll prepare gags and games and distribute film studio swag to early-arrivers at the theater.

"It's all about promoting the movies and promoting Cinemark," Billington says, explaining that he and Rantal have become an integral part in the opening weekend hype machine, at least locally.

"The whole idea," Rantal adds, "is that there's a huge group of people that are all excited for a movie. And we try to get them to feel like a group."

In a summer that was all filler and no killer when it came to blockbuster releases (the summer's three biggest earners to date, Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, were critically panned across the board), Billington and Rantal just might be the lone bright spots that will pop up when people (try to) recall The Summer That Could Have Been.

Again, at least locally.

click to enlarge PETE FREEDMAN

Ups and downs

What's surprising, though, is that, despite the critical disdain toward this summer's blockbusters, 2007 will more than likely go down as the biggest summer box-office season in history. Moviegoers have been showing up to theaters in record numbers.

So far, no film has hit the iconic $400 million mark (Spider-Man 3 is the closest, at $335.6 million) reached by only seven films in history. Nonetheless, as of Monday, this summer's top 10 grossing films are just a combined $100 million shy of matching the earnings of the record-setting top 10 films from the summer of 2004.

That year, behind the strength of Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the top 10 combined to earn a whopping $2.2 billion.

This year's earnings are hot on the trail and without any showing yet from unreleased, no-brainer high-earners like The Simpsons Movie, The Bourne Ultimatum and Rush Hour 3.

(Oh, and for the record: It's not inflation doing the trick in '07. When factoring in the average $0.18-per-year increase in ticket prices over the past four years, the numbers show that this summer is only 44,000 tickets sold behind 2004's summer total placing it well beyond where the film industry stood at the same point three summers ago.)

But this wasn't exactly unexpected entering the blockbuster season. Indy film reviewer Scott Renshaw saw it coming way back in April ("The blockbuster cometh ...," csindy.com/csindy/2007-04-26/film.html), saying this season's numbers would be "unprecedented" and recommending readers look into purchasing popcorn stock.

Billington saw it, too. In a post on firstshowing.net, he called 2007 the "$10 billion summer," looking at international grossings and predicting that more than one film would earn at least $1 billion worldwide this summer.

So far, none has. But Billington isn't ashamed to admit he was wrong. And he thinks he knows why: "The films haven't been as big as everyone was expecting, because the films haven't been as good as everyone was expecting."

Passion of the moviegoer

What no one expected was just how successful Billington and Rantal would be at entertaining local moviegoers.

(Cinemark managers denied comment on their participation in the firstshowing.net events, but it has clearly been a mutually beneficial relationship.)

Aside from becoming instantly recognizable around town, the guys from firstshowing.net have seen a direct correlation between their Cinemark success and their Web site numbers. Billington boasts that his site garnered 750,000 hits last month. More impressively, a note he posted on the pre-Transformers trailer for the untitled 2008 J.J. Abrams (Lost) project has amassed over 1,200 on-site responses since it was initially uploaded June 29.

This feedback has Billington and Rantal convinced that this summer will be remembered mostly for the undeserved excitement generated by the film industry. They point to what they've seen from the Cinemark promenade, and the number of fans who have shown up, costumed as their favorite Spider-Man, Pirates and even Transformers characters.

They hope they'll be remembered, too, for being the guys who encouraged those actions. And, if the Barnes & Noble scene was any indication, that bet looks good.

"You can't forget the passionate people, even if you forget what they were passionate about," Rantal says. "It's something that was real. And real fun."

pete@csindy.com

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