When Claude Lanzmann's 9 1/2-hour epic "Shoah" opens today at the Balboa Cinema in Newport Beach, Orange County audiences will finally be able to see the French journalist's acclaimed documentary about the Holocaust.
Culled from 350 hours of filmed interviews with survivors of Nazi death camps, "Shoah" represents an unprecedented cinematic undertaking. Likewise, its arrival in Orange County is the result of an unusual lobbying effort by officials at Landmark Theaters, owners of the Balboa and a chain of repertory movie houses.
The Balboa originally planned to screen "Shoah" in January, but it has taken nearly four months for Landmark officials to persuade the film's distributor--New Yorker Films--to show it in Orange County.
"There was a bit of a problem," said Dan Talbot, president of New Yorker Films, one of the country's leading distributors of foreign and art films. "It was a question of priority. There are only six prints in the United States, so it's very difficult to book. There is a lot of demand."
Even though "Shoah" played for three months in Los Angeles early this year, Landmark co-owner and film buyer Gary Meyer said he had to convince Talbot that there was a sufficient separate audience to warrant an Orange County engagement.
"I think he felt there wasn't enough demand in Orange County," Meyer said. "With the limited number of prints, he has to be very selective about where bookings are put to maximize the return from those prints.
"So I sent him maps of Orange County and figures showing that there are more than 100,000 Jews living in Orange County. But obviously the audience for this film goes beyond just the Jewish population. The success of the Los Angeles run proved that."
Talbot agreed, saying, "A lot of Christians have seen the film--absolutely." While "Shoah" has played primarily in major cities, Talbot said it has also been screened in suburban markets such as New Brunswick, N.J., and Rochester, N.Y. Response around the country "has been tremendous," Talbot said.
Talbot rejected the notion that Orange County's reputation of political conservatism played any role in the delay in bringing "Shoah" to the Balboa.
"This film has no politics," Talbot said. "It's about the destruction of Jews 40 years ago, and there are no politics to that--conservative, radical or otherwise.
"The only problem is the number of prints," he said. "If there were more prints, it would have been there sooner."
Meyer predicts that "Shoah" will reach an even wider audience later this year, when the film is scheduled to be released on videocassette by Paramount Home Video--for around $300.
When Talbot finally agreed to show "Shoah" in Orange County, Meyer said he didn't know that it would be replacing "a record-breaking engagement" of the theater's current attraction, the British comedy of manners "A Room With a View."
"When we selected a date that a print (of 'Shoah') would be available, I figured that by then 'A Room With a View' would be finished. But three weeks ago business started to pick up again and we're going to make about $12,000 on it this week.
"We're paying the distributor a lot for 'Shoah,' so we don't expect to make money on it. But this is one of those instances where money be damned. We're going to go ahead and do it because we believe in 'Shoah,' " Meyer said. "And as a co-owner, I'm in a position to make a decision like that and pursue it."