Less than ten years ago, Branson was a small town in the middle of Missouri, ignored and/or unknown by most Americans. Now Branson, driven by the popularity of country music, and, ironically, by its carefully cultivated image of a typical wholesome small American town, has become a phenomenon of explosive growth. It is the second largest driving destination in the U.S. (after Orlando Florida), and the largest tour bus destination. Yet, as the area around Branson has grown, the community's business leaders have continued to promote Branson's image as a "small town" straight out of America's mythic past. The sign outside town still lists the official population as under 4,000 - but this is a "small town" that attracts more than 5,000,000 visitors a year. These visitors come, not only because of the music, but precisely because the town is heavily promoted to older, mainly white, Americans as a safe haven from a simpler time - a "life raft in the storm" of crime, bad news, and multiethnic urban culture that dominates the rest of America.
Branson is a modern "boomtown" - a place of explosive economic growth. But unlike boomtowns of previous eras - mining or factory towns - it is a new kind, based on a service economy, where the community's only "product" is entertainment, and the town's only "value" lies in the perceptions of the millions of tourists who visit each year.
BOOMTOWN will focus on individuals who come to Branson for various reasons: tourists who come for the music and the attractions; business people who come to invest in the area; entertainers who come to perform; and the indigent and unemployed who come to work at any job they can find: dishwasher, waitress, hotel maid, fast food server. The film will follow participants over the course of a single tourist season in Branson - beginning in May and ending in October 1998.
BOOMTOWN will use the personal stories of these participants as a means of exploring, with humor and irony, the gap between appearance and reality that pervades American culture. This gap is apparent in the increasing difference between the tourist brochure view of Branson as a perfect American town, and the reality of the construction boom that has transformed the area into another example of urban sprawl. It is also apparent in the gap between the way Branson as a "boomtown" celebrates the American dream of economic optimism and self-improvement, and the reality of Branson's service economy, where most of the jobs that have been created are entirely unskilled and not secure - jobs that often provide neither benefits nor sometimes even a living wage.
Branson has also become a cultural oddity - a bizarre final resting place for country music singers and other entertainers sloughed off from the American mainstream: the Osmond family, Glenn Campbell, Tony Orlando, Anita Bryant - an endless list of one-hit wonders, ex-game show hosts, and near and former stars. Here, too, BOOMTOWN will explore the inherent gap between the message of Branson's country music, which celebrates the fierce working class/rural pride of an older America, and the reality of the day-to-day life in a town where decent housing is scarce, and minimum wage jobs abound.
In contrast to thousands of small American towns which have faced declining populations and economic stagnation, Branson has thrived by becoming a self-parody: a theme park version of the "perfect American town." To someone raised in a small town, there is something both comforting and disquieting about Branson. Director, Chris Boebel, intends to bring his understanding of the reality of small town life to bear on Branson - exploring the contradictions that lie beneath Branson's friendly exterior.
As a filmmaker and screenwriter, Chris has always used humor and irony to examine the space between appearance and reality in his subjects. In Branson, this is a rather large space that provides ample room for exploration. We will allow our interviewee's voices to tell the story without commentary. In doing so, it will be possible to enter this oddly dislocated world - a place where poor residents get minimum wage jobs playing sanitized, picturesque "hillbillies" in a local theme park, where a singer named "Boxcar Willie" gets rich playing a hobo on stage while real homeless people working in local restaurants live in their cars, and where entertainers like Shoji Tabuchi and Yakov Smirnoff have created an industry out of playing buffoonish, stereotypical foreigners to their middle American audiences.
Each year millions of visitors travel to Branson. In BOOMTOWN, we will capture just what it is that draws them there, and what it reveals about America.
"A Life Raft in the Storm" Performers and business leaders of Branson insist that, despite the massive changes to the area in the last few years, the town continues to exemplify traditional small town values. There's no crime, and everyone is ready with a friendly hello for visitors. Tourist materials describe the area as the "small town that everyone lost", a "life raft in the storm" of contemporary urban problems - even though the perfect small town that resides in the American popular imagination isn't ringed by six lane highways, and doesn't host more than 5,000,000 visitors a year.
"Old Time Clothes" A Branson theme park, "Silver Dollar City," attracts visitors by recreating a sanitized version of traditional Ozark mountain culture. Local residents are paid low salaries to work in restaurants or operate concession stands dressed like poverty stricken hillbillies in "old time clothes" - straw hats, overalls, artfully patched work shirts. They are responsible for the upkeep of these colorful "poor person" outfits, which can cause economic strain on their minimum wage salaries.
"Greyhound Therapy" Local charities and social service organizations are often overwhelmed by the needs of recent arrivals who come to them for help. Sometimes, with resources stretched to the limit, the only possible approach is to encourage these new arrivals to leave the area as quickly as possible - occasionally this literally involves buying a bus ticket out of town for them.
Style and Format
This one hour documentary will be produced in a combination of 16mm film and Digital video. The film will focus on individual stories by following participants as they go about their daily lives. Extensive interviews with participants and others involved in the present and future development of Branson will also be conducted. The selective use of Digital video will allow access that might be denied a larger film crew.
In the past two years we have visited Branson several times. Prior to the start of principal photography we will make a final research trip. Our interviewee/participants will be drawn from the people we've met on those trips. Their stories will be told without commentary and they will, in a sense, be co-creators of BOOMTOWN.
by Chris Boebel
Growing up in a succession of small towns in the middle west, I have a strong personal interest in documenting the social forces which are radically altering Branson. Some of my family members - farmers and factory workers - have been personally affected by the economic changes this film will explore. But no one can escape the reality that American society as a whole is being transformed. As the gap widens between rich and poor, the American Dream, which promised relative prosperity to the hard-working, has been fundamentally challenged
The economic dream of ever-increasing prosperity may never have been a reality, but for millions of Americans it was held as a sacred truth.
The 80's and 90's have seen the gap between the haves and have-nots widen. The recent economic "Boom" has created tens of thousands of new millionaires; yet has only recently touched the middle class - - those less fortunate see only dwindling opportunities, and narrowing government support. Boomtowns of the 90's no longer promise boundless reward for one and all. At best, the working people who arrive in towns like Branson are looking for some small semblance of the American dream - for a chance merely to survive, rather than to thrive and prosper.
The transformation of Branson into a boomtown, and the experience of the people who have lived through that change, makes for a powerful, occasionally ironic, and often poignant story. Branson thrives on country music. Country music celebrates the fierce working class/rural pride of an older America, and country music also often focuses on - and celebrates - hard times. Yet for many Branson residents, the country music boom has meant a dissolution of their identity and pride - and even harder times..
As with boomtowns in any other era, Branson is filled with stories of both greed and self-sacrifice, hard work and hypocrisy, misery and triumph over adversity. BOOMTOWN will strive to tell these stories.
Because of its important economic message and focus on country music, we feel that BOOMTOWN has the potential to attract both domestic and international viewers, bringing together a large audience that cuts across geographic, ethnic, cultural, and generational lines.
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