As theatrical windows collapse and old distribution models are rendered obsolete, the future seems likely to accommodate more multi-platform initiatives like “Billboard,” a self-described “cine-experience” by writer-director Zeke Zelker. Centered on an indie radio station that holds a promotional contest in a last-ditch bid for solvency, the project exists not only as an 89-minute feature film about a station manager who gives listeners the chance to win prizes with a marathon stay atop a billboard catwalk, but also as a 25-episode web series focused on the competitors. Another part of the multimedia experience: a virtual radio station that plans to host live events across the country. But Zelker’s three-ring circus of digital and social-media content needs a compelling main event, and this movie seems unlikely to inspire many to check out the supplementary materials.
Although “Billboard” is a drama, its most obvious comparison is the far better “Hands on a Hard Body,” S.R. Binder’s brilliant 1997 documentary about a similar endurance contest at a Longview, Texas car dealership where participants try to win a pickup truck by seeing who can keep their hand on one the longest. From this simple promotion, Binder observes the increasing tension and desperation of humans under duress, and comes away with a rich commentary on capitalism and American values. While the web-series version of Zelker’s conceit is closer in spirit to the documentary, his film considers the same ethical questions and attempts to sketch an eastern Pennsylvania community that’s seen better days.
The contestants spend months exposed to the elements here, but it’s Casey Lindeweiler (John Robinson), the neophyte station owner, who winds up taking most of the heat. After his father dies and bequeaths him WTYT-960, a little-trafficked AM-band alternative-music station, Casey discovers that the business is $81,000 in debt and behind even an all-Hindi station in ratings — and it’s much farther back of Free Channel, a multi-station corporate behemoth. Remembering that WTYT still owns generous billboard space, Casey devises a challenge that allows four people to vie for a payout of $96,000 and a mobile home. Yet he doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for the prizes and he hasn’t thought through the basics of food, electricity and waste disposal.
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The promotion does its job and boosts ratings, drawing attention from a local Free Channel executive (Eric Roberts), who uses his significant media clout to pressure the mayor’s office and allow a smear campaign to take root. Casey and his scrappy band of employees (Alice Wills, Heather Matarazzo and Leo Fitzpatrick) do their best to weather the public relations storm, but their David-versus-Goliath fight against Free Channel and City Hall is continually hampered by poor resources and a series of unforced errors.
It’s hard to figure out what “Billboard” wants to be: Is it a comedy about the mounting mistakes of an over-his-head dolt or a lament about bringing indie art into a hostile corporate environment? Either way, it doesn’t have the intended snap, due to both Zelker’s stilted, lethargic direction and Robinson’s lead performance, which leans on Casey’s listlessness all too well. By reserving most of the drama atop the billboard for the web series, Zelker intentionally omits a crucial source of tension between the station and its contestants, leaving their motives, internal rivalries and deteriorating psyches largely unexamined. Whenever local TV correspondents or protesters rail against the station for exploiting the billboard-sitters, nothing is ever heard from the sitters themselves.
The built-in fragmentation of “Billboard” also creates an unsatisfying shrug of an ending, as if the loose threads might be tied up on some other platform. But there are plenty of other missing elements here, too: For instance, the film never establishes why the station is worth fighting for, or what Zelker is trying to say about the hard-luck community of Lehigh Valley or America at large. There’s not much evidence that a more complete focus on the film — without siphoning off key elements to the web series, the virtual radio station and the local events — would have yielded something much better, but perhaps it would have been less structurally unsound. As is, it’s an endurance test that challenges audiences, too, and feels as half-baked as Casey’s contest.