After a 1997 marketing study determined the best use for Macon’s historic Douglass Theatre would be as a venue for showing classic independent and foreign films, the board of directors had little success in promoting the endeavor.
Frustrated by the absence of those films in local movie theaters, Robert Burnham, president of the board, enlisted the help of Camp Bacon, a long time executive in the kaolin industry, in fall 2000 to determine the reasons behind the failed attempts to bring them to the Douglass. He asked the right man, for Bacon, a keen observer of human behavior with an analytical mind, knew where to find the answers.
To keep their seats filled and the bottom line in the black, mega movie theaters must appeal to young audiences who are more interested in action than in drama. Distribution companies that supply the multi-screen theaters with film are not interested in small, unknown, non-profit fine arts theaters with limited audiences.
Bacon was familiar with the Sarasota (Florida) Film Society, which operates Burns Court and Lakewood Ranch, two theaters in the Sarasota area, and nurtures the growth of independent theaters in other cities.
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Bacon agreed to contact the SFS to see if it would agree to sponsor the Douglass Theatre Film Guild for a six-month trial period to see if interest could be sustained. Bacon agreed to work with Dick Morris of SFS to select the films and to handle all advertising and marketing for one year, without obligating any other local, guild board members.
For the new launch of the theater guild, “The Color of Paradise,” a 1999 movie produced and directed in Iran, drew a meager audience, but one that enthusiastically embraced the poignant story about a foreign culture — and, they wanted more.
When Burnham called on volunteers to form a board of directors for the Douglass Theatre Film Guild in 2001, he knew their diverse backgrounds — from artists and professors to engineers and real estate agents — would be a good mix for increasing membership from the Middle Georgia community. Even though the guild was given generous advertising by The Telegraph in its early years, the experience shared by the first core group of supporters — of seeing films from unknown directors with lesser known actors that addressed some challenging topics — was the most successful marketing strategy. By 2003, the average attendance had increased from 120 to 230 per day.
Bacon was elected president of the board, an office he has held since 2001, and has shepherded the guild through its growing pains and through its separation from the auspices of the Douglass Theatre in 2003, when it was incorporated as the Macon Film Guild. The movies are still shown at the Douglass, a cooperative and mutually beneficial arrangement, on the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Surviving on peanut M&Ms
On July 10, before the 2 p.m. screening of “Marguerite,” an award-winning French comedic drama, members of the Macon Film Guild honored Bacon, who is finally stepping down to enjoy semi-retirement.
Gina Ward, the executive director of the Douglass, recognized Bacon’s dedication to the guild and commented that about 250 independent and foreign films have been seen at the Douglass that would not have come to Macon had Bacon not persevered in his commitment to an alternative to mainstream movies.
Burnham, a professor of history at Middle Georgia State University, who has worked with Bacon since the genesis of the guild, praised his persistence in keeping the guild afloat in the early years — many times using his own money when coffers were low. Bacon was given a standing ovation by a group that has known no other leader and was presented a replica of an Oscar, custom engraved for the founder and president emeritus of the Macon Film Guild.
For a little comic relief, Robert Fieldsteel, president of the guild, told the audience that Bacon survived his all day stints at the second Sunday screenings by eating bags of peanut M&Ms, then presented him with a huge basket overflowing with boxes of the peanut treats. Bacon and his wife, Nancy Terrell, will continue to support the guild and attend the movies with their lifetime supply of M&Ms, without stopping by the concession stand.
During Bacon’s tenure, the Macon Film Guild has partnered with other events in Macon. This year, the guild, Bragg Jam and the Macon Film Festival are bringing the documentary, “They Will Have to Kill Us First,” to the Douglass at 7:30 p.m. July 26. Like all films shown by the guild at the Douglass, the admission is an unbelievable $5. For more information, visit maconfilmguild.org.