Wed, Jul 12, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Cult film puts Idaho backwater on the tourist trail

The surprise popularity of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ has translated into prosperity for the town where it was shot, but some residents worry that Preston is being derided as a comic ‘hicksville’

By Laura Holson  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PRESTON, INDIA

Jon Heder starred in the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite, which was shot for US$400,000 and featured no Hollywood stars and won no big awards. The film struck a chord with moviegoers, particularly college students, racking up US$44 million at the US box office.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Big J Burger on State Street here could hardly be mistaken for a hip Hollywood club. But on Saturday afternoon, a 16-year-old wearing moon boots and a T-shirt with the slogan “Vote for Pedro” jumped out of his seat and began mixing it up on an improvised dance floor. With a boom box blaring behind him, he shimmied between the restaurant's tables to the 1999 dance hit Canned Heat while more than 100 people whooped and cheered.

The dancer, Bryan Demke, from Fort Worth, Texas, was recreating a pivotal moment from the 2004 cult movie Napoleon Dynamite which was filmed in Preston. And the crowd attending the second annual Napoleon Dynamite festival loved it. “You rock!” shouted a young girl, raising her mobile phone to take a picture. “I love you, Napoleon!” added another, blowing the dancer a kiss.

“I thought the movie was stupid,” said a smiling Craig Smith, who showed up with his brother Gordon and teenage son Kyle. “But that kid is killing me.”

More than 300 people traveled from as far away as California and Connecticut for the chance to embrace their own inner Napoleon. The movie, written by the husband and wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess, was directed by Hess, a native of Preston who lives in Salt Lake City. Now Preston, with a population of 5,000 in the mostly rural county, hopes to capitalize on the film's cult status.

Other towns have done the same and prospered. Field of Dreams turned little-known Dyersville, Iowa, into a tourist haven when that movie was released in 1989. Now about 65,000 people visit yearly. The Santa Ynez Valley in California became a popular vacation spot after Sideways was released two years ago. Even Metropolis, Illinois, experienced an increase in visitors after Superman Returns was released in theaters last month.

Preston, however, may be the unlikeliest backlot in recent memory. Napoleon Dynamite was filmed for US$400,000, featured no Hollywood stars and won no big awards. But the film, distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, struck a chord with moviegoers, particularly college students, garnering US$44 million at the domestic box office.

“Some of the people here don't like it, but they are accepting it,” said Penny Christensen, the executive director of the Preston Area Chamber of Commerce, who organized the first festival after 15,000 visitors stopped by her office last year asking for a map of the movie's sites. “I mean, why shouldn't we show off our town?”

Napoleon Dynamite is the story of an awkward small-town outsider trying to survive high school. He is a member of the Future Farmers of America (called FFA) where he is milk taste-tester. He eats tater tots for lunch in the school cafeteria, plays tether ball and dances alone in his bedroom after school. Napoleon finds newfound popularity after he shows off his Michael Jackson moves in the school auditorium, helping his friend, Pedro Sanchez, win the election for class president.

Gordon Smith, a fire sprinkler salesman, drove an hour and a half from his home in Utah to attend the festival with his daughter, Mariah. Like his brother Craig, he did not care for the movie at first, but it took on a new meaning after several viewings.

“I can relate to it,” he said. “In high school it's the cool kids and everybody else. I was part of the ‘everybody else' crowd. But in the movie the geeks, like Napoleon, support each other. You know, there was a very good message.”

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