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Beach's indy icon going Hollywood

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published April 12, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Michael France, who wrote Cliffhanger and The Punisher and lives in Pass-a-Grille, plans to show summer blockbusters and to have free screenings of classics.

ST. PETE BEACH - If you saw Cliffhanger, GoldenEye or The Punisher, you know Michael France's work. But if you saw those movies, you didn't see them at the Beach Theatre, which France now owns.

Last month, the screenwriter paid $800,000 for the art deco cinema on Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach.

The white building with blue trim is known for its independent and foreign films. Under new ownership, however, it will branch out to include blockbusters, popular classics and even live music.

"I don't think this has been a family place for a long time, and I want to increase that audience," France said.

During the summer - when fewer high-brow flicks are released - the theater will host blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and Spider-Man 3. There will also be free screenings of classics like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Adventures of Robin Hood, movies that today's kids have never been able to see on a big screen.

On April 29, France is planning a day to commemorate 1939, the year the theater was built. He'll show newsreels and films of the day such as The Wizard of Oz and His Girl Friday at 1939 prices.

"This is really the only theater for miles around," said France, "which is why I want to expand the audience."

The 45-year-old France has a mop of gray-and-black hair and a goofy grin. He walked around the upstairs offices at the theater on Monday in top-siders, blue shorts and a blue collared shirt.

A St. Petersburg native, France grew up coming to the Beach Theatre. His father sold insurance, and his mother worked as a speech therapist.

Goldfinger, the James Bond classic, was France's favorite movie. When he saw it, he knew he would be a screenwriter.

He attended the University of Florida in the early 1980s and worked in the evenings as a projectionist at a small theater in Gainesville. He also had a role in the programming for the theater.

"Back then it was before every classic was on DVD, so the only way I could see them was to screen them," he said.

France earned a graduate degree from the film school at Columbia University in New York City and then moved to Los Angeles where he quickly sold his first script, Cliffhanger.

Everyone was doing Die Hard takeoffs, and he thought, why not set his in the mountains?

After Cliffhanger, there was GoldenEye, Hulk, The Punisher and Fantastic Four. He's currently working on a TV project and a movie script, but he wouldn't say what they're about.

France now lives in Pass-a-Grille, a bike ride away from the theater, with his wife, Elizabeth, and their three kids.

One day in January, he saw a small item in the St. Petersburg Times saying that the Beach Theatre was for sale.

"I walked in and said to my wife, 'Honey, I'm going to buy a theater," France recalls. "She took it up and said, 'Great.' "

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 12, 2007, 01:28:41]


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