How "Empire Records" Became The Unlikely Film Of A Generation
Engineered to be the teen-movie equivalent of the mid-'90s alt-rock zeitgeist, Empire Records flopped in the theaters, only to become a cult classic a generation later. For the first time, the people who made the movie talk about how it came together, why it bombed, and how it found its second life.
I remember watching Empire Records for the 12th time on the floor of my best friend’s basement, complete with green shag carpeting and wood paneling, and then watching it again as we fought sleep, somewhere around 2 a.m., with piles of candy. I watched it for the 20th time by myself, when I should’ve been at some cool-kids dance, and instead found myself at home, lights out, pretending I wasn’t sad or anxious or worried what this night might predict about the rest of my life.
The 27th time was with my group of three best friends, learning the “Say No More” dance the same way that Corey, Mark, and Gina do halfway through the movie. And I remember some night, halfway through college, all the friends back in our small town, bored, not old enough to buy beer and too good to sneak it from our parents, and amidst our ennui it became abundantly clear that all we really wanted to do with the rest of our night was acquire two pints of Ben & Jerry’s and watch Empire Records the way we always had and, to our minds, always would.
For our generation — a shoulder demographic between Generation X and the millennials — this was one of our movies, a film that managed, however oddly, to capture the ineffable feeling of being a (white, straight) quasi-alienated teenager in a very specific time. But Empire Records was no hit: It grossed a mere $250,000 in its two weeks in release in 1995. With a budget that topped $10 million, it’s not difficult to do the math: Empire Records was an unmitigated, unequivocal flop.
Yet like so many artistic disasters that go on to become cult classics, Empire Records flourished when it was ignored. Kids like me saw it in the video store, watched it on cable, found a random VHS copy, and thought the charm was their secret.
By the time I taught high school in 2011, the students knew the movie as well as I did. Their attraction to Empire Records (like their fixation on My So-Called Life and Clueless) had more to do with fetishizing an era before many of them were born, but it’s clear: The Empire lives on. In a vinyl reissue of the soundtrack released on Record Store Day; in internet celebrations of Rex Manning Day; in special screenings, quote-alongs, Facebook pages, endless GIFs, and truly spectacular Etsy creations.
The Empire Records plot is fairly straightforward: An employee of an independent record store, tasked with closing up the store for the night, discovers plans for a corporate takeover — a fate, as anyone familiar with ‘90s cultural politics knows, akin to capitalist colonialism. The employee thus takes the day’s earnings to Atlantic City, hoping to win enough to save the store. He fails, and the rest of the movie is ostensibly spent figuring out how to protect the store from encroaching Music Town overlords.
That’s just the scaffolding, though, on which the real charm of Empire Records is hung: For those who loved the movie, its indie versus corporate plot was always secondary. It was the movie's depiction of misfit teens — and the interactions between them, all of which seemed so pregnant with exceptional meaning — that resonated. These characters — a good girl, a slutty girl, a gothy girl, an artist boy, an adorable weirdo, a beatnik, a too-cool rocker, a hippy stoner, a wannabe — with whom nearly any high schooler could identify or toward whom they could direct their desire. It was, as one crew member pointed out, Breakfast Club at the record store — but even weirder.
Today, most think it was a little movie that slipped through the cracks before several of the leads went on to major careers. Yet the real story of Empire Records is much more complex — and, ironically, mirrors the very struggle that the Empire Records store faced in its battle against corporate takeover. And nearly 20 years after the film’s release, just as a new generation of high school students fall in love with the film for entirely different reasons, here’s that story for the first time.
IT’S REX MANNING DAY!
When Carol Heikkinen reached working age in her hometown of Phoenix, she got a job at the coolest possible place for a high school kid: Tower Records. When she was in college, she spent a summer working at another Tower Records, this one on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. It was through these experiences that Heikkinen wrote the script for Empire Records, then titled simply Empire. As she told me over email, she tried to write a story like the Richard Pryor classic Car Wash, which took place over one day at a car wash — only at a record store.
“I wanted to show how the employees were a family, and how, for some of them, this minimum-wage job would be the best job they ever had,” she explained. “I was interested in how some employees like Corey (Liv Tyler) were working for extra spending money before going off to college, while others like A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) were paying rent and supporting themselves and close to broke.”
With a premise in mind, Heikkinen began filling in the details from her own experience. At Tower, like Empire, employees chose the store music; each would put their CD in a stack that would make its way through the carousel. “One guy was putting the same Dio album in every shift,” Heikkinen added, “and not everyone loves Dio as much as this guy did, so someone finally scratched it up.” (In Empire, A.J. takes a lighter to one of Mark’s metal CDs.)
As for the main plot of the story — Lucas (Cochrane) takes the $9,000 he’s supposed to deposit after closing up the store and gambles it away at Atlantic City — that came from an apocryphal legend of a Tower employee taking the count-out money and showing up the next day with no explanation. The manager didn’t press charges; the employee didn’t even get fired. In the Tower world, getting fired was, according to Heikkinen, a “rarely used last resort” — which explains why, in Empire Records, Lucas isn’t fired for losing $9,000, Corey (Liv Tyler) isn’t fired for having a meltdown in the middle of the store, Gina (Renée Zellweger) just gets asked to go home after sleeping with Rex Manning, and no one bats an eye when Mark (Ethan Embry) gets high on the weed brownies Eddie (Kimo Wills) brings to the store.
Try to remember what the record store felt like in the ‘90s: This was before MP3s and Napster, before you could listen to all things all the time — when what you bought became declarative of taste. But the record store was also a cultural center: where you went, especially as a teen, to figure out what your tastes were; to have the conversations and embarrassments and thrilling first listens that made you feel adult and alive.
It’s easy to see why a script set in a record store, peopled with characters from various walks of life, ready-made for a blockbuster soundtrack, got picked up off the spec-script pile. According to Alan Riche, one of the co-producers of the movie, the script was first given to Riche’s producing partner, Tony Ludwig, by William Morris agent Rob Carlson. Carlson convinced the pair to give it a look by telling Riche that Heikkinen had attended the same high school, albeit several years apart, as Riche in Phoenix. They brought the script to Michael Nathanson, president of Regency Pictures, a fledgling shingle at Warner Bros. tasked with producing pictures that Warner Bros. would then distribute. During this process, director Alan Moyle — best known for the Christian Slater pirate radio hit Pump Up the Volume — became attached to the project.
According to Nathanson, Moyle’s “street credibility” with teens was part of what convinced him to green-light the project. Empire Records was low budget but high concept — everything Regency Pictures, which was beginning to amp up its production schedule from a few films a year to 10–14, wanted. Plus Nathanson’s boss, Arnon Milchan — a covert Israeli arms dealer turned international film-financing guru — loved music. It seemed, at least to Nathanson, like a surefire, albeit low-stakes hit. Empire Records was a go.
The problem — one that boomers like Nathanson and the other producers involved couldn’t quite understand — is that the film was entering into a much broader cultural skirmish between Gen-X “indie” culture and those who aimed to commodify and exploit it.
When Empire Records began filming in 1994, Kurt Cobain had committed suicide, Marc Jacobs had put grunge on the high-fashion runway, and the major record labels were throwing money at anything that might be the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Empire Records, like Reality Bites before it, was the product of a major studio attempting to reach a subculture notoriously resistant to direct address. And just look at the plot of Empire Records: It’s a movie about resisting corporate takeover that’s developed and released by a major media conglomerate, a movie about quirky misfits with the daughter of the massively mainstream Aerosmith as the lead. They were attempting to cater to an imagined idea of its audience, not its actual audience — something that Moyle had somehow managed to avoid with Pump Up the Volume.
Which explains, at least in part, why the movie might not have reached those actually invested in Gen X culture but spread like a juicy rumor amongst the demographic too young to identify as or with Gen X. When I first saw it, as a relatively uncultured 14-year-old, it matched my imagined understanding of how high school, and record stores in cool cities, would work. Once I was old enough to realize that no movie could approximate the layered experience of being a teenager, I had seen it too many times — and so thoroughly incorporated it into my cultural vernacular — to care.
WHAT’S WITH TODAY, TODAY?
As Nathanson recalls, he green-lit Empire Records on a Tuesday. Two days later, he received a call from Amy Heckerling’s agent, who told him that Heckerling, already well-known for Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Look Who’s Talking, had an idea for a new screenplay. She came into Nathanson’s office and pitched him the idea of an updated Emma set in a Beverly Hills high school — the script that would eventually become Clueless.
Nathanson loved the idea, but he’d just bought his teen movie; if he took another one, he’d risk pigeonholing the developing production company as a “teen company.” He reluctantly turned Heckerling down, thereby earning the dubious distinction of being the first — and only — production company to pass on Clueless.
When Clueless hit theaters and became a word-of-mouth sensation, earning $10 million its opening weekend and over $56 million overall — an incredible number for a teen movie in the mid-‘90s — Nathanson would find himself on the receiving end of an irate call from Milchan, demanding, “How stupid could you be?” But at the time, it seemed like the logical move: Empire Records was Regency’s teen movie.
And they funded it accordingly: This wasn’t some indie production where the actors work for scale wages, and the filming is guerilla-style, sans permits or permissions. Instead, Empire Records would be shot on a set designed, top to bottom, to resemble an independent record store down to the most minute detail. The scaffolding on the roof, the beautifully arched ceilings, even the 20-foot mural of Gloria Estefan that graces the top of the building (and with which Mark has an extended, unaccountable make-out scene) would be built from scratch on location in Wilmington, North Carolina, where famed producer Dino De Laurentiis had built a facility (which had most recently — and somewhat ominously — hosted the production of The Crow, where Brandon Lee had died on set).
Working with casting director Gail Levinson, Moyle, along with producers Tony Ludwig and Alan Riche, began searching for the patchwork of personalities that would fill the record store. For the role of Corey, Liv Tyler was young, beautiful, and instantly recognizable to the MTV demo, having just starred in the now-iconic video for Aerosmith’s “Crazy” with Alicia Silverstone.
As Moyle recalls, even after Tyler was cast and arrived on set, it was unclear if she could act or was just “being herself.” Rory Cochrane had played a long-haired stoner in Dazed and Confused but was unsure if he wanted the part, or even wanted to continue acting. Like his character, Lucas, he was, in Moyle’s words, a “real existential dude.” According to one source, he asked for a price so high he was sure that they’d never say yes — and was astonished when they did. He also encouraged his girlfriend, Renée Zellweger (whom he’d met on Dazed and Confused, in which the Austin-born Zellweger had played a bit part), to audition, and she was eventually cast as “slutty” Gina — a character who, on all accounts, couldn’t have been more different from Zellweger.
Johnny Whitworth, who’d had only small roles in commercials, read for both Lucas and A.J.; Tobey Maguire, who was good friends with Whitworth, was in the running for Lucas and Marc. But Ethan Embry (who’d been acting for years, most visibly with Reese Witherspoon in A Far Off Place) came in and stole the part of Mark. After touring conflicts made it impossible for Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to take the role of Berko, Coyote Shivers — then married to Liv Tyler’s mother, Bebe Buell — took the role.
According to Whitworth, the casting process involved various configurations of the cast assembling for table readings and one possibility after another cycling through for different roles. Jenny Lewis read for a number of roles, as did Angelina Jolie, who was originally pegged for the role of Deb. As Riche recalls, Jolie came in like “a force of nature,” with an “insane powerful energy” that blew everyone away. They tried to fit her into any of the three lead female roles, but she was just too much; she would’ve eaten those roles alive. Instead, they found Robin Tunney — who arrived, in Moyle’s words, as a “real, legitimate” actor with the exact amount of gravitas to pull off the complicated role of the suicidal Deb.
As for the adults, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) was the kind of cool dad figure everyone wanted as their boss/teacher/mentor (only recently, past the age of 30, did I realize that Joe is actually hot), and washed-up '80s rock star Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield, forever immortalized as the lead in Grease 2) was like realizing that your teacher, or your parents' friend, was a sexual being: equal parts hilarious and completely nauseating.
But the most unique casting story comes from Kimo Wills, who eventually won the role of stoner Eddie. Wills, who was from Chicago, had appeared in bit parts in a number of mainstream movies, but the audition for Empire was his first as an unaccompanied adult. He flew to Los Angeles, read for the part, and listened while all the “cool kids” talked about their callbacks, which he hadn’t yet received. They also told him that the director was the director of Pump Up the Volume, one of Wills’ favorite films. He’d had no idea. A night came and went with no word of a callback, and a downturned Wills went to the airport to board his flight back to Chicago. Suddenly, there was an announcement over the PA, the kind, in the age of cell phones, we never hear anymore: “Kimo Wills, you have a call waiting.”
Wills ran to the phone, and there was Moyle’s voice on the line, telling him he got the part. Wills launched into a long speech about how important Pump Up the Volume was to him, basically word-vomiting all over the place, to which Moyle, at least in Wills’ memory, was like, “OK, kid, I gotta go, but welcome to the film.”
WHO KNOWS WHERE THOUGHTS COME FROM, THEY JUST APPEAR
With the cast in place, the production relocated to Wilmington, where a crew of 100 was busy readying the soundstage and scouting exteriors. While the set was prepared, the cast — which was to include Tobey Maguire, who’d been promised a part of some sort — began to rehearse and settle into their characters. Each cast member was put up in a duplex on the beach; no one was more than a five-minute walk from anyone else. Moyle hosted huge dinners at his house on a nightly basis, where his two standard poodles would dart in and out of the action. He instituted a morning Pilates session (years before Pilates was even close to cool), during which several members of the cast would take drags off their cigarettes between poses.
They all took mushrooms together; weed was omnipresent. Maguire showed up, felt aimless, may or may not have consumed a psychotropic drug, and somehow ended up in the basement of Moyle’s beach house eating a giant bowl of cereal. Moyle found him there, they talked for several hours, Maguire asked to go back to Hollywood to figure his life out and write a screenplay. Moyle agreed to buy it; Maguire returned to Hollywood — and, as far as Moyle knew, never wrote the script. But two years later, he was the star of The Ice Storm; eight years later, he was Spider-Man.
And slowly, as a record store began to take shape on the stage, the characters began to come into focus — in part through the wardrobe. Because Empire Records was to take place over the span of a single day, the costume designer, Susan Lyall, had to find outfits that would effectively communicate — but not scream — the inner dynamics of each character. For Corey, she wanted a mix of preppy and sexy: the straight-A student who yearns for something larger than her circumscribed, good-girl experience. Thus: the short schoolgirl kilt, reminiscent of the kilts that Tyler and Silverstone eschew in the “Crazy” video, and a cropped mohair sweater (which any '90s girl will tell you seemed like the straight-up epitome of cool). In an early cut of the film, Gina gifts Corey with the red bra — an extension of her sexually forward persona — that Corey then wears when she attempts to seduce Rex Manning and, later, takes off and sets on the table during her lunchtime fight with Gina. That scene was cut, but the pairing of the red bra (with white panties) lived on.
Deb’s look was not only dark, but receding: Her character wanted to hide away, be invisible. As the “anti-Corey,” she was put in a tiny child’s hoodie paired with old-man pants; under the hoodie, a tiny tank top, a set of visible, fuck-you bra straps, and lots of tattoos. Debi Mazar based the character of Rex Manning’s off-kilter assistant — who pairs suspenders with an orange wig, heavy makeup, and a newsboy cap — on Madonna’s longtime publicist, Liz Rosenberg. And for the scene in which Gina dons a Music Town apron — and little else — Lyall simple added a dart or two and secured it tightly to Zellweger's body.
The men’s costumes were more straightforward: Mark’s orange Chainsaw Kittens shirt showed up in a box on set, and he shaped his hair into a helmet of curls himself. Johnny Whitworth’s grandpa sweater was his own, and he found the old-man checkered shirt on a vintage rummaging trip to a woman’s attic with Liv Tyler. Whitworth linked two wallet chains for the old-man pocket watch he’d use to prepare for 1:37 — the exact time he plans, and fails, to tell Corey he loves her.
For Joe’s shirt, Lyall chose the unbuttoned white shirt to convey that he was at once cool and a person of authority, while Lucas’ leather jacket may, if Moyle's memory is to be trusted, have come from his own collection. Lyall found a perfectly textured shirt for Berko at Barney’s — but when Coyote Shivers was getting fitted, he made the very astute observation that “we’ve obviously got to cut these sleeves off.” Thus: a very expensive sleeveless rocker shirt. Warren’s giant P&B coat, perfect for hiding pilfered CDs, was the then-14-year-old Brendan Sexton’s favorite; his hair, a veritable stronghold of gel.
And for the best costume of all — Rex Manning — Lyall went foraging at the famous store Trash & Vaudeville on St. Marks in New York's Greenwich Village, where she found the purple satin cowboy shirt, added the fringe, and came up with a look that was “Tom Jones + Rod Stewart + Trash & Vaudeville.” Add an overdose of bronzer and a heavily blow-dried pompadour, and you have a ridiculous former teen idol (whom, according to everyone involved, Caulfield was incredibly game to play).
The set was a marvel — as John Huke, who worked as the art director, recalls, it was the collaborative vision between himself, Moyle, and renowned production designer Peter Jamison. This was no shoddy simulacrum of a music store: There were two floors, ornate ceilings, 20-foot ceilings. Moyle, working with director of photography Walt Lloyd, loved to set the camera at weird angles, fully exploiting the beauty of the set.
When you look at the interior shots, it’s easy to believe that they’re in a store, looking out the window — but all of those interiors were inside the warehouse — they built a street with curbs, blacktop, even a sidewalk, and used forced perspective to approximate the line of cars in the used car lot that was supposed to be across the street. Not a frame of CGI in sight.
During the weeks of rehearsal, the cast improvised several moments that would become foundational to the narrative: Tunney argued, persuasively, that her character should shave her head — and that the only way to make it convincing was to have her do it for real, in real time, while the camera was rolling. Everyone was a bit unsure — you don’t know what someone’s bald head is going to look like until it happens — but the scene, which was filmed with three cameras, is a pivotal, beautiful moment...and hundreds of thousands of girls, this one included, wondered what they might look like with an exquisitely shaved head.
Whitworth improvised the scene in which he comes up with a bunch of ridiculous analogies for how he feels about Corey while talking to himself on the rooftop (“You’re like … when you first get out of a warm bath?”), and Embry filmed at least a dozen different setups of the scene when he catches the ballerina’s leg (played by Caulfield’s stepdaughter, Melissa, who was visiting the set). Indeed, as Embry recalled, most of the crazy shit that Mark does was simply an exponent of his ADD personality. And the scene that’s lived in my memory for years — when Corey finally figures out that she loves A.J. back, and swoons on the rooftop — was the result of Moyle’s insistence that the scene not play like a cliché.
SHOCK ME SHOCK ME SHOCK ME WITH THAT DEVIANT BEHAVIOR
Behind the scenes was about as crazy as one would imagine with a set filled with teenagers and early twentysomethings transplanted into a small coastal town with nothing to do but work on the movie and play on the beach. Twenty years after the fact, some were quicker to reveal stories than others, but a few anecdotes remained constant: Sexton crashed a golf cart into Anthony LaPaglia’s brand-new — as in not even a day off the lot — SUV. Everyone was in love with Robin Tunney. And as Johnny Whitworth recalled, “I think Kimo went to jail, like, three times?”
In truth, it was just once, and it wasn’t for weed or booze — but “hindering and delaying an officer.” The arrest was all Embry’s fault: He’s the one who got his mom, who was on set as his chaperone, to drive him and Wills to Walmart, where he had a secret mission of acquiring a pellet gun. Walmart wouldn’t sell it to a 16-year-old, so he bought a cap gun instead — a bright blue and red one, probably something like this. (Remember, this was 1994; everyone and their brother had a cap gun.) Being a typical 16-year-old boy bored in a Walmart parking lot, he got on the little quarter-operated carousel — the type usually reserved for toddlers — and began shooting the gun in the air.
Cut to five minutes later, when a police car, sirens blaring, pulls over the car. “We’ve got reports that there’s someone in here with a gun,” says the first officer. Embry gets out, shows them the cap gun; more cops come to the opposite side of the car, where Wills is trying not to lose his shit. “I hope you don’t think this is funny,” a cop says to Wills. “I don’t think this is funny, I think this is stupid. I told him not to buy that cap gun,” says Wills.
Wills was thrown in the back of the patrol car, but they didn’t even search Embry — which was fortunate, because as Embry recalled, he almost certainly had a bag of marijuana on his person. The production attempted to get Wills off the hook by immediately paying the fine, but the officers insisted he go through standard booking — and stay in general population for several hours before releasing him. “People always review my relationship with Ethan like I was the bad influence,” Wills told me, “when in reality, I’m the one who’s like, ‘Ethan, we’ve got to get off this bridge.’” Just not that one time.
IN THIS LIFE THERE ARE NOTHING BUT POSSIBILITIES
A movie about a record store has to have a perfect soundtrack — which is part of the reason that the producers chose Moyle, whose taste had been well-established with Pump Up the Volume, to direct. Mitchell Lieb was brought on to executive produce the soundtrack, and Karen Glauber, who’d headed up new music marketing at A&M Records, served as music consultant.
The soundtrack for Empire ended up a collection of B-sides from prominent artists, covers, and new finds, but as Glauber explained, most directors just want to put on “the stuff that they loved when they were 23 or 28 — everything they ever wanted on their college radio station.” Moyle’s taste, however, was much more expansive; indeed, he wanted the soul of the entire movie to be about music, with wandering diatribes about specific artists to anchor scenes and our understanding of various characters. His original director’s cut had a scene with a five-minute discussion of The Shaggs, for example, and a scene highlighting the small vinyl shop that Eddie maintained within the store, including an extensive, razor-sharp breakdown of the various Clapton recordings.
Much of that sort of deep music wonkery was evacuated from the final cut, but the vestiges remain on the soundtrack: Between the cuts from major artists (Gin Blossoms' “’Til I Hear It From You,” The Cranberries’ “Liar”), you had what Glauber called “the very best Toad the Wet Sprocket song” (“Crazy Life”) and the crazy catchy song that would become the album’s second single, “A Girl Like You” from Scottish artist Edwyn Collins. Glauber chose The Meices’ “Ready Steady Go” to capture a bit of lingering Gen-X punk ethos, and she’d heard Evan Dando cover Big Star's “The Ballad of El Goodo” on KUCI and arranged to have Liv Tyler sing backup for the soundtrack version. “Free” came from The Martinis, a side project of Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago with his wife Linda Mallari. And, of course, Coyote Shivers’ “Sugar High” — only the version that made it onto the soundtrack lacked Renée Zellweger's vocals from the finale of the film.
One of the most bizarre scenes in the movie — and one that straight-edge high school me did not understand — comes when Mark devours a plate of weed brownies and finds himself inside the GWAR video he’s watching on one of the store's television screens. It wasn’t in the script — but when Wills saw a flyer advertising an upcoming GWAR show in Wilmington, he knew that it was precisely the sort of death metal Mark would be into. Thus: Mark’s “guest appearance” in the GWAR music video, complete with on-set devourment. (The original plan for the soundtrack was to emulate the popular format of the time, in which snippets of dialogue and commentary functioned as bumpers between songs — think Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Romeo + Juliet, Natural Born Killers. After filming wrapped, Embry and Wills were flown to Los Angeles and spent a week recording extemporaneous conversations to be inserted between songs, but that version never saw the light of day.)
I WONDER IF I’LL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS
Everyone I spoke to about the filming of Empire Records agrees that it was one of the best experiences of their careers. You had a cabal of young people, an innovative and collaborative director, and the sort of rehearsing time necessary to let characters and performance develop organically; they were actually friends. The isolation of Wilmington meant that the actors had no other choice than to hang out with each other, developing the sort of convoluted backstories, connections, and dynamics that would accompany a dozen teens working at an actual music store (many of which were deemed, during our conversations, as too private for public broadcast).
That’s the thing about Empire Records: Even it fails to coherently indict “the man,” it nevertheless manages to express the way teenage relationships tread that knife edge between love and hate, disgust and desire. And no matter of studio edits (of which there were many) could detract from that overarching feel. For example, after screening Moyle’s cut — which began with Lucas pulling up to the record store on the motorcycle — Regency felt that the film as a whole was lacking in exposition. They requested a prologue spelling out exactly how Lucas lost the money, including establishing shots in Atlantic City and a decked-out casino constructed out of the Coconut Grove room at the Ambassador Hotel (the woman who weirdly tells Lucas, “You’re sex” = Regency President Michael Nathanson’s then-girlfriend).
There were additional trims and edits; in Moyle’s words, “The studio was in a cocaine mentality, while we at the movie were in a pot mentality.” Part of the feel of the film was also lost via Regency’s insistence that it remain PG-13, rather than have the R-rating of the original script; that’s why none of the characters could be shown actually smoking cigarettes or marijuana, why they couldn’t swear like actual teenagers, why Eddie couldn’t run his weed operation on the roof — why they couldn't, in other words, fully behave like the teens they were meant to portray.
Watching the film today, the missing connective tissue, much of it cut after Moyle gave over his director’s cut to Regency, becomes clear: Some story lines float in the wind (Why does Jane leave Rex Manning? Who is Berko? Does Eddie actually work at the store?) while others, like Lucas’ trip to Atlantic City, feel ham-fisted. There’s also a tonal disconnect between the more obvious attempts at Gen X authenticity and the sentimentality of various scenes and the film’s ending.
Still, even in August 1994, the plan, according to a Billboard article, was to release Empire Records in 1,250 theaters on Sept. 22. Regency decided to test the re-cut film on teen audiences — a common practice for any film, no matter the genre. The first screening took place in a white, middle-class area of the San Fernando Valley — and the audience loved it. Moyle was pleased, but Regency wanted to test it again. This time, however, the screening was in a lower-class, Hispanic neighborhood in the Valley — and the results were disastrous. It’s easy to see why: The cast, their character’s concerns, and the music itself are all lily-white.
Regency and Warner Bros. saw the audience scores and balked: Even with the success of similarly teen-centered Clueless, they decided to dramatically downsize the wide release. And so, in industry parlance, they “dumped” the film: Instead of 1,000-plus screens, they put it on 87. Instead of flooding malls in cities across the country, it showed in four. There was no premiere; no national advertising campaign. The soundtrack had two hit singles, but few had even heard of the movie. The film was an unmitigated bomb, grossing $150,800 the first week and $74,850 the second. Warner Bros. yanked it entirely.
I DO NOT REGRET THE THINGS I HAVE DONE, BUT THOSE I DID NOT DO
The story of Empire Records might have ended there — one of hundreds of films put out to VHS pasture after the studio decides the expense of a legitimate release isn’t worth what the film would gross. But then kids like me discovered it on the racks of the video store and rented it a dozen times, while others bought a copy and played it until the VHS tape began to drop out and skip — fulfilling, as Variety had prophesied in its original review, its enormous teen rental potential.
It’s difficult, however, to substantiate a generalized feeling of a movie’s cult status: I know that this movie was incredibly important to me, and hundreds of conversations over the last two decades echo the same sentiment. When I asked for testimonies of the movie’s resonance and social currency, the responses flooded in:
I distinctly remember a friend showing it to me in middle school, and as soon as Ethan Embry swans down the staircase and squeals, "It's Rex Manning Day!" I was hooked. It was like Monty Python or Neutral Milk Hotel: If somebody liked Empire Records, I knew I would like them. —Maura Foley, 26, Philadelphia suburbs
I'm from Australia, a tiny little town where it always felt like we were the last to know ... [but] we were OBSESSED with Empire Records. We knew every word, every song, and almost wore out the VHS. We wanted to be Corey, we wanted to be with A.J. It just made us feel like we had discovered something so secret and cool and underground and special. —Kellie Bright, Castlemaine, Australia
I think growing up in a small town without much "culture" made the world created by Empire Records seem so exciting. Same teen drama, just happening in a MUCH cooler locale. Full dork admission here: We used to film ourselves acting out scenes from the movies. —Katie Rodgers, 33, Clarkston, Washington
Everything about Empire Records seemed perfect to me. Working at a record store was the coolest job in the world, Liv Tyler had the prettiest hair and the best clothes but still wore mismatched underwear like a real person, dramatic monologues about trying to cut your wrists with a razor that had pink flowers and a moisturizing strip was the deepest thing ever. —Erica Huff, 34, Mansfield, Texas
We got it on loan from a friend who was older and never gave it back! We quote it all the time, in texts, on Facebook pages, in group chats, in person. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go shout the lyrics to "Sugar High" from atop my roof. Like it's Rex Manning Day and A.J. has just told me that if he can love me in this skirt, that he can love me in anything. —Justine Durnin, 24, Dublin, Ireland
And yet the vast majority of the cast and crew were completely ignorant of the film’s cultural endurance. The stars had moved on to bigger projects; Moyle viewed it as one of the major failures of his career. In fact, it wasn’t until just last year, when Embry convinced several members of the cast to attend an outdoor screening at the Silver Lake Picture Show, that most first realized its impact.
The success of the Silver Lake screening was such that Cinespia, which operates the outdoor screenings at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — one of the best, albeit nontraditional, venues for outdoor cinema — announced another screening at the end of July. This time, Moyle vowed to come see the supposed fandom for himself.
left: Johnny Whitworth, Brendan Sexton, Alan Moyle, Kimo Wills, and Ethan Embry in the Cinespia photobooth; right: Fans recreate the Empire Records film poster
With another mini-cast reunion and a sellout crowd of more than 4,000 die-hard fans, the scene was beyond Moyle’s wildest imagination: fans in costume, people yelling the lines at the screen, and a massive, wholly spontaneous group dance-along to match the one on the screen in the film’s final moments.
It was, in Moyle’s words, the premiere Empire Records never had. His creative vision had, in many ways, been compromised by the powers that be at the studio. But as Michael Nathanson, who was in charge of many of those edits, admits, it was Moyle’s sensibility that resonated with audiences over the last 20 years: “The oddball, off-center, noncommercial stuff — that’s what endures.” Lucas’ existentialism; Marc screaming into the camera; the full-length Rex Manning video; A.J. gluing quarters to the floor. The things that scared the studio (and repelled much of Gen X) were the very things that attracted a massive fanbase — which, it seems, is how cult followings generally come to pass.
“To be a part of something that’s made so many people happy — that’s why I’m sitting here with you," said Whitworth. "When I was a younger man I would’ve been like, ‘Fuck that,’ you know? But I’m so glad that it’s been a part of people’s lives.”
Or, as producer Alan Riche put it, “It became a damned classic. And that’s something to be damned proud of.” Not every movie becomes a blockbuster, or attracts the audience for which it was intended. But this one managed, in such a serendipitous and unpredictable turn of events, to truly Damn the Man…and save the Empire.
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Special thanks to Katie Sawyer for passing along dozens of Empire Records images from the original press kit.