Igniting a Passion
Beginning in 1970 with the Movie House, a shoebox-size theater in Seattle's U-District, Finley's entrepreneurial zeal and genius for promotion helped him acquire 16 theaters, including the Guild 45th in Wallingford, the Varsity and Seven Gables in the U-District, the Broadway on Capital Hill, the Ridgemont in Phinney Ridge, the Lakewood in Tacoma, the Crest in North Seattle, as well as theaters in Portland.
Along with Jim O'Steen, who founded the Harvard Exit on Capitol Hill in the late 1960s, Finley was responsible for igniting a passion for independent, foreign, and art house films in Seattle.
"I had no money and no idea what I was doing, but one thing I am is stubborn," Finley said of his start in the film business.
Finley was born on July 30, 1942, and grew up in Olympia, the son of Robert Finley, a Washington State Supreme Court justice from 1951 to 1976. A "terrible student" in high school, Finley spent eight years as an undergraduate. During that time, he rode a Harley, sold trinkets at rock festivals, went to Mexico, and worked as a jailer at the King County Youth Center.
At the University of Washington, Finley finally found he had a passion for literature. He was thinking about going to graduate school in 1969 when he went to see a double feature of Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal at the Harvard Exit.
The experience inspired him. Finley had wanted to own a bookstore, but had no money, so he told friends: "I'm going to open a theater just like one of those porno skin flick theaters on 1st Avenue. I'm going to build a little small theater and play nothing but films based on literature. And then every time I play a film, I'm going to buy 10 books that the movie was based on, and then a year from now, we'll have a halfway decent library."
Finley, along with two partners, opened the Movie House (now the Grand Illusion) -- located at NE 50th and University Avenue -- in March 1970. The theater, a dentist's office they remodeled, contained only 93 seats and was so small that Finley hung a sign over the urinal in the men's restroom asking patrons not to flush while a movie was running. Finley remembered that the first film, Inadmissible Evidence, made $32.
When the second film to show at the Movie House, Italian director Luchino Visconti's version of Camus' The Stranger, was a hit, Finley began to realize what they had gotten in to. "We were totally unprepared for it," he said. "I never realized that the human body puts out as much heat as it does, and the building didn't have air conditioning."
Finley's partners soon bowed out of the operation, and Finley -- who operated the theater with his wife, Michelle -- took over, working nearly around the clock to make the it work. With little money for promotion, Finley became creative.
Wild and Fun Times
"I couldn't afford to advertise in the P-I and the Times," he said. "What I then learned was how to use the underground press, the Helix, the Times Journal, the UW Daily. I could buy the entire back cover of the UW Daily for $140 bucks ... It was wild what the UW Daily could do for you if you just said the right things. It was the movie reviewers, the kids, the editors of the UW Daily newspaper, and the underground newspapers that I learned to work so well."
While most movie theater owners remain anonymous, Finley was right out front, with a beard down to his chest, a thick head of curly hair, and his green army fatigue jacket. At six-foot-two-inches tall and well over 200 pounds, Finley was hard to miss. Customers could chat with him in the lobby, where there was free coffee and tea, or see him down front introducing the films. "To run a preview of a coming attraction cost you $65 a week," he said. "We ended up speaking about the movies and that's the way we built excitement."
In the early days, Finley was selling out the house for runs of avant-garde films such as the Yugoslav production W.R.: Mysteries of the Orgasm. They were wild and fun times, Finley recalled, but not profitable.
"I couldn't survive long with a 93-seat theater, not because people didn't come but because I couldn't get the movies ... . With 93 seats, if I wanted a film I had to pay a booker in California $400 just to call somebody and break it loose for me. I think everything else that has followed sprang from that," Finley told the Weekly in 1978.
King of Hearts
Finley's first major success came after he bought the rights to the French film King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1967) for $25,000 in 1973. Finley developed an ad campaign and traveled the country offering exclusive rights to show the film. Theater operators in New York, Washington, D.C., and Colorado each paid $25,000. "I used the $75,000 to buy five new prints, and away we went," Finley said. King of Hearts eventually grossed over $4 million, of which Finley's company kept about $1 million.
"You struggle and struggle and when you catch hot things you just ride them out," Finley said, "because you never know when you're going get another hit."
King of Hearts set the template for Finley, who soon negotiated the rights to distribute Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) in five cities. Finley also distributed the 1939 film version of the Sherlock Holmes film The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Basil Rathbone, which had an unexpectedly popular run after Finley developed an advertising campaign for it. The Man Who Skied Down Everest, a documentary that Finley bought the rights to distribute, won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 1975, although Finley said he didn't make money on it.
The key, according to Finley, was all in the marketing.
"I'm basically a con artist, but I mean what I say," Finley told View Northwest magazine in 1977. "I stand behind the films I show. People won't turn out unless they know what we've got. Once they're in the theater, we want to knock their heads off."
With the money he made from film distribution, Finley began to buy more theaters. In 1973, he opened a 355-seat theater in Portland. In 1975, in Seattle, he bought an American Legion Hall at NE 50th Street and Roosevelt Avenue and turned it into the Seven Gables Theater. The same year he bought the Guild 45th, at 2115 N 45th Street in the Wallingford neighborhood.
By the mid-1970s, Finley was becoming a major player in the film industry. His ability to generate enthusiasm for offbeat films led to deals with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen to screen previews of their new films at the Guild 45th. He had huge local success with films such as Disney's Fantasia and the Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave film Julia (Fred Zinnemann, 1977), setting national records for box office returns.
Finley, described by others as generous and passionate about film, was also a hard-charging personality. Although Finley downplays his wheeling-dealing behind a soft-spoken manner, he's widely regarded as one tough negotiator. He is also known as a man of mercurial moods, up one minute, down the next, a person not above resorting to premeditated manipulation, The Seattle Times reported in 1984.
The Law Suit
As the Seven Gables chain grew, Finley found his main battle to be in getting the rights to good films. Over time, Finley felt he was being excluded from getting first run films that went to bigger chains such as Sterling Recreational Organization, General Cinema Corp. and United Artists Theater Circuit.
In 1984, Finley filed an antitrust suit against those theater chains, charging that agreements between them had stopped him from getting films such as Ordinary People and The Elephant Man and driven him to near bankruptcy. "They were all colluding and they wouldn't let me in, because I was from the outside," Finley said.
The case went to federal court, and in 1987 Finley won a $6.6 million verdict plus $3 million in legal fees. To avoid having the case go to appeal, Finley settled, eventually walking away with $900,000. He felt vindicated, but also exhausted. In 1986, he sold most of his interest in the Seven Gables chain to a local investor.
"I was so burned out by the end of the anti-trust trial," Finley said. "It took eight years to win that lawsuit ... . We examined every single film contract that was issued for a four-year period [1980-1984]. The paperwork was immense. I won the case and I felt terrible, even though I felt vindicated. If it had been a level playing field, I could have been very successful with a tenth of the struggle."
In 1988, Finley moved with his wife and two sons to live in the French Alps for a year. Upon his return, he sold off the rest of his interest in the Seven Gables Corp. and bought the Mount Baker Vineyards and Winery near Bellingham, which he has operated since 1990. In 1989, a national chain of art house theaters acquired the Seven Gables Corp.