“THE FILM PEDDLER” (Playing at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22, at the Screenland Crown Center.)
I’ve known John Shipp for more than 30 years, but it took this lighthearted, utterly charming documentary for me to truly appreciate the guy.
In recent years Shipp has been known as a film booker and as a moving force in Kansas City FilmFest, the Film Society of Greater Kansas City and CinemaKC.
But this film, made by his nephews, Devin and Shannon Kelley (their first effort, and it’s a keeper), opened my eyes to Shipp’s wildly colorful backstory.
More than four decades ago, we’re informed, Shipp became the youngest MGM branch manager ever. But working for a big company wasn’t precisely what this ambitious guy was looking for.
Shipp wanted to be his own boss. And he more or less created a job at which he could excel: independent film distributor.
We’re not talking Oscar-bound art here. No, Shipp specialized in Roger Corman exploitation, cheapie horror flicks (“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”), women-in-prison movies, naughty nudies and car chase epics…along with the occasional classic like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and the original “Halloween.”
The wheeling and dealing Shipp was good at his job. At one point in the ‘70s he and his associates controlled more than half the indie movies shown in the U.S.A. (Among the great pleasures of “Film Peddler” are the many clips and trailers from these cinematic turkeys.)
Along the way Shipp pioneered the saturation bookings that are now commonplace in Hollywood, opening films simultaneously on 150 regional screens, thus guaranteeing a quick payoff and minimizing marketing costs (why advertise piecemeal over months when you can do it all in one weekend and attract a regional audience?).
As “Film Peddler’s” narrator tells us in mock stentorian tones, Shipp “climbed the precarious mountain of the motion picture industry and sat at its very top.”
He got rich, then lost it all.
“I made around $22 million distributing independent films in the ‘70s,” he reports. “Unfortunately, I spent $23 million.”
Like all good dramas, there are reversals. We follow Shipp to penury and burnout (at one point he ran a bait shop in Florida) before once again climbing into the film distribution ring.
Packed with old photos and home movies (and a few goofy re-creations of events), “Film Peddler” also serves as a mini-history of KC’s heyday as a film distribution center.
Particularly fascinating are tales of Show-A-Rama, a precursor to Show West held every year at the Crown Center Hotel which attracted stars like Clint Eastwood (the ladies loved him), Jack Lemmon (who outraged Diana Ross by allegedly relieving himself in a water pitcher), the immortal George Burns (who looked out over a sea of swimsuited young women organized for the occasion and advised that “some of you are going to be disappointed”) and Paul Newman, who didn’t ask for much more than a fridge full of Coors.
There are plenty of stories told by Shipp and his buds Butch Rigby and Jack Poessiger.
In short, “Film Peddler” is a nifty tribute to a local hero…my advice is to visit this month’s CinemaKC meeting Friday night at the Screenland Crown Center. It’s gonna be a blast.
| Robert W. Butler