A crazy radio contest, climbing the economic ladder and the pitfalls one goes through to achieve success are just a few of the many themes at the heart of Mountain Marquee’s latest attraction “Billboard.” The movie opens today and continues through the weekend.
The film, described as a “cine-experience” by Pennsylvania filmmaker Zeke Zelker, centers on Casey Lindeweiler (John Robinson, “Lords of Dogtown”), a cartoonist who returns to his hometown of Allentown, Penn. to take over his late father’s AM radio station, WTYT 960. Drowning in debt upon arrival and in desperate need of a ratings boost as the town’s only independent station, Casey decides to run a whacky event – the oldest trick in radio – and host a billboard sitting contest, with four contestants taking refuge on a catwalk until one remains. Whoever can last the longest will walk away with a mobile home and “nine-sixty” thousand dollars.
As the contest launches and days turn to weeks turn to months, Casey – as well as his four determined contestants – undergo a litany of challenges, from smear campaigns by his more lucrative rival station to lack of resources, illness to dwindling finances and, more prominently, the ebb and flow of public scrutiny via social media.
“At the heart of the story, it’s really about an entrepreneur trying to succeed in today’s environment and also to what lengths people will go to succeed today,” said Zelker in an interview with The McDowell News.
“Billboard” also features performances from Heather Matarazzo (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”), Leo Fitzpatrick (“Kids”), Alice Wills, Lawrence Kochoa, Oscar nominee Eric Robert (“Runaway Train”, “The Dark Knight”) and, in her final film role, Carlene Cates (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”).
The film, which Zelker claimed is loosely based on a radio-sponsored billboard contest in 1980s Lehigh Valley, Penn., began production in 2016 and was shot over the course of nine months to reflect seasonal changes, wrapping in 2017 and screening around the country in 2019.
A sneak preview was shown at Mountain Marquee on Friday, May 17, with a handful of audience members in attendance. Following the screening, two viewers – Old Fort residents Keith and Michelle Pittman – offered their thoughts on the film as it related to the protagonist and the doomed radio station.
“I think it showed the real struggles that a little guy has competing with a corporate business world,” said Keith, who said he was celebrating his 22nd anniversary with his wife. “It’s kind of tough for the small guy to survive and I think that was played out well in the film.”
“It was very real to life” Michelle added. “As he was saying about the corporate world, corporations are trying to overtake everything and it’s very hard for the small business man, whether its radio or anything, to survive. It’s a very accurate portrayal of where we are in today’s society.”
In regards to the film’s theatrical run at the Marquee, the Pittmans were favorable that “Billboard” was being shown locally.
“It was a very good movie and one you can’t find anywhere else around here,” said Michelle. “It was totally worth driving to Marion for this movie rather than going to Hickory or Morganton or Asheville.”
However, what makes “Billboard” just a fraction of Zelker’s cine-experience is its elaborate world-building beyond the silver screen into multi-platform storytelling technique called “transmedia.”
“Transmedia,” Zelker explained, “is a way of creating the story world where, instead of just a typical, linear storyline, it envelops the audience in a single story.”
As such, in addition to the feature film, told primarily through the eyes of Casey and the radio station, the “Billboard” story is also expanded into a web series, “The Billboard Sitters,” which conversely explores the perspective of the billboard contestants, as well as a virtual AM station, the fictional WTYT 960, the latter of which is currently operating online and serves as the film’s soundtrack in and out of the narrative world.
“There’s always two sides to every story,” said Zelker. “To be well informed, you need to know both sides, and that’s kind of what we’re doing with all the media we’ve created. The other side of it to is how us as individuals hold a lot of responsibility – although not many of us think about it – by us carrying little electronic devices in our pockets where we could really affect people while we’re doing social media as well. So there’s the underlying theme of how media affects one’s success and failure.”
“Billboard” opens today at Mountain Marquee, located at 31 West Court Street in Marion. For tickets, showtimes or further information on the theater, visit http://www.mountainmarquee.com/.
For more information on “Billboard,” “The Billboard Sitters” or WTYT 960, visit https://billboardmovie.com/.