July 17, 2008

Springs’ Premier Movie Critic Going Hollywood: ?Dark Knight’ Camp Out May Be Last Before Move to L.A.

By Andrew Wineke, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Jul. 17--When "The Dark Knight" opens in Colorado Springs at midnight, it might be the last hurrah for Alex Billington's home away from home outside the Cinemark Carefree Circle off Powers Boulevard.

Beginning with tents and sleeping bags when they were still in high school, Billington and his friends have built ever-more-elaborate sets on the sidewalk outside the theater, where they camp out to snag the best seats for the summer's biggest movies. For "Dark Knight," the production resembled a bachelor pad more than a campsite, with couches, coffee tables and carpet.

But what started two years ago as Billington's simple blog about the joys of camping at the movies has grown into a full-fledged movie review and news site, First Showing (www. firstshowing.net). The site is now such a thriving business that it's taking the 22-year-old away from his hometown and to Tinseltown.

"I love Colorado Springs," Billington said. "Colorado Springs has a stronger film community than most cities its size, (but) unfortunately, it can't compare to Los Angeles."

First Showing now attracts 1.5 million unique visitors a month, Billington said. Although he's the only full-time employee and the primary news reporter, he's developed a stable of contributors who provide reviews and other content.

To stay on top of Hollywood news, Billington flies to Los Angeles at least once a month for interviews with celebrities and to keep his ear to the ground for the latest scuttlebutt. Moving the operation there is key to growing the Web site, he said. Plus, it will get him out of his parents' basement.

"It's not that I can't successfully run it out of Colorado Springs, which is what I've done for two years now," he said. "It's just that I'm interested in moving to Los Angeles to progress it."

Of course, moving to the big city carries its own risks. There probably won't be any monthlong camp outs to be the first to see a blockbuster, as Billington and his friend Mark Rantal did this summer for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and "Dark Knight." Too dangerous, Billington said.

And he'll suddenly be a small fish in a very big pond.

"Right now, I am the No. 1 movie site in Colorado," he said. "When I move to Los Angeles, I'll be the No. 50 movie site (there). I am unnerved about that."

Traffic on First Showing has doubled nearly every month of its existence, led primarily by 18- to 34-year-old men -- a prime target for the advertisers who provide the site's revenue. Just six months after starting the site, Billington dropped out of Carnegie Mellon University to run the business full-time.

The site's big break, ironically, was reporting a bad tip: Billington posted a rumor that IMAX prints of "Superman Returns" wouldn't be finished in time for the movie's release in June 2006. That didn't actually happen, but it was the hot news for a short time and brought a lot of attention to Billington's site.

"One big story put us on the map," he said. "People eat up rumors on the Internet."

Movie studios, he said, are still figuring out how to best use the Internet as a promotional tool. Some get it -- Billington cites Paramount's guerilla campaign that turned "Cloverfield" into a hit earlier this year -- but most don't.

"The Internet is this new, scary thing and they don't know how to use it to their advantage," he said.

Billington and Rantal have tried to turn their Cinemark campsite into a side arm of the business -- giving away promotional materials and staging scavenger hunts to add some fun to premiere night.

The latest Batman sequel, however, may be the end of the road. Billington plans to leave for Los Angeles in August. Since "Dark Knight" is likely to vie with "Iron Man" to become the summer's biggest blockbuster, it's a fitting note to end on (although he might stick around for the fanboy fun of the animated "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" release in mid-August).

"All we're focused on now is finishing the summer as best we can," he said. "We're not sure what the future holds."


To see more of The Gazette, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.gazette.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.