Wednesday, August 17, 2011

“It’s Just A Movie”

To temper our youthful exuberance for movies (and books) my Dad was famous for rolling his eyes and muttering to my two sisters and me, “oh for hell’s sake, it’s only a damn movie.”

That’s been my reaction to people asking what I think about the soon-to-be-released movie, “Main Street,” with a fictional setting in Durham. They have heard rumors and reports about what I’ve known since I read the script during the filming and they wonder if I think its unflattering and stereotypical depiction will mean for Durham’s image.Main Street

“It’s just a damn movie,” I have said and expect I’ll say it again and again.

For those of you not familiar with Durham, the community has an excellent image nationally and regionally and the best image in the state of any of the major cities.

But over the past two decades we’ve reversed a negative image among and perpetuated by a significant proportion of residents in surrounding communities and to a lesser extent within the boundaries of the 22-county viewing area for television stations. This included fighting off the detrimental effects on visitors, meeting planners, newcomers and relocating executives.

The movie looks good on the trailers but it is one of those films with a good director, an excellent cast including now-Academy Award-winner Colin Firth and Orlando Bloom and several other excellent actors. The movie was penned by Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Horton Foote, who soon after passed away at 93 years old.

Everything should have clicked but I’m judging by the limited release that it got tripped up in editing as many movies do and won’t be a blockbuster.

Mr. Foote was not only nowhere near the form he was when he penned two of my favorites films, To Kill A Mockingbird released in 1963 and Tender Mercies released in 1983 but prior to penning Main Street his head had been filled with many of the stereotypes of Durham from several decades ago along with a good dose of “Raleigh to the rescue” B.S. that I had to overcome when I encountered it on a daily basis from the moment I was recruited here more than two decades ago to jumpstart Durham community/destination marketing until I retired nearly two years ago.

Part of my job included building on the reputation as a film location that Durham had inherited as the location for Bull Durham and also defending and protecting and updating the community’s image in the minds of visitors, newcomers, relocating businesses and investors.

I know something about community image having pioneered a scientific-best-practice approach for how to unwrap and then address one.

Other than an isolated anecdote here and there that I’m certain will be on the OMG grapevine, the movie isn’t a threat any more than Kiss the Girls and Bull Durham didn’t give Durham a reputation for sex and serial murderers.

If movies determined community image, New York City certainly wouldn’t be the dynamic place it is and the television series CSI would have been the end of Las Vegas and Miami.

Below are a handful of things to remember about a communities image:

  • Community image isn’t about promoting positive attributes and suppressing troubling issues. True image rests on being genuine and celebrating and amplifying the positives while acknowledging and working to improve areas of improvement and eliminating myths.

  • Of true danger to community image are “water-cooler” myths that can only be addressed by empowering people with facts that will inoculate those who are neutral from purveyors of the myths. This is particularly important if a large number of people commute to work in a community but don’t live there.

  • News stories have no role in community image. By nature the news deals with troubling issues. News can undermine a community only when coverage is imbalanced compared to nearby communities and/or when negative stories are specifically attributed to a community without context or perspective while at the same time positive stories taking place there are attributed to either rival communities and/or general areas, effectively “damning by faint praise.”

  • Of greatest threat to community image and identity are things such as inaccurate or truncated airport arrival and departure greetings, inaccurate postal street delivery designations, predatory real estate agents and homebuilders, a high proportion of people who work but don’t live in a community, absentee landlords and unethical economic developers.

For more information on community image, click here and here as well as several other posts elsewhere on this blog (

As for “Main Street”, “it’s just a damn movie” but it sure does showcase the depth and diversity of Durham as a visual goldmine for location scouts for films, advertisements and videos and a community that is cooperative and hospitable to filmmakers.

The real and lasting impact of film productions on a community and the reason DCVB pursues and facilitates them as Durham’s Film Office are the visitor dollars spent while filming and a reputation as a visually intriguing location with a memorable and unique sense of place.

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