Dearly Beloved: Prince’s Purple Reign at Culver Theater

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Culver City’s reputation as “The Heart of Screenland” stretches back to the silent era, but centers on the great MGM musicals. A rainbow sculpture celebrating 1939’s The Wizard of Oz arcs over the former MGM lot now owned by Sony.

But Culver City also played a small but important role in one of the great film musicals of the 1980s, Prince’s Purple Rain.

His double-album 1999, released in October 1982, had produced three hit singles: “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” and the title song, plus his first Grammy nomination. The subsequent concert tour also featured The Time and Vanity 6, groups he had created and whose music he performed, except for the vocals. It expanded from theaters to arenas as it went on, with sales driven by incredible reviews.

When Prince’s contract with Warner Brothers came up for renewal, he insisted they include a movie, which he imagined combining a version of his life story with a fictional love triangle inspired by the dynamics between his band and their tourmates. 

Purple Rain was made for a very low budget of $7.2 million. Warners was just humoring Prince’s movie ambitions. Another rock star vanity project, Rick Springfield’s Hard to Hold, was in production at the same time at Universal and the former soap actor was expected to dominate the musical box office in summer 1984.

After viewing a rough cut, Warners executives told director Albert Magnoli that Purple Rain would “play for one weekend, and the audience will consist of fourteen-year-old black girls in the inner city.” Magnoli and the Purple Rain team arranged a test screening in Culver City, where they believed they could get a diverse audience. Descriptions of the venue as seating 400 suggest that it was the Culver Theater, which now seats 317 as the Kirk Douglas. 

The film was received so ecstatically that Warners believed the theater had been packed with Prince fans rather than a true test screening audience, who do not know what they are about to see. Warners held two additional test screenings of their own, one in Dallas and one in San Diego, with equally impressive results. The Purple Rain team snuck several music and film writers into the San Diego one, and their accounts of the movie and the fan response created further buzz. 

Based on these test screenings, Warners opened Purple Rain in 1500 screens instead of the 800 originally planned. It went on to gross over $70 million in its initial release. Rolling Stone rated the soundtrack the eighth greatest album of all time, and it is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Hard to Hold made back only $11 million of its $24 million budget. 

Sources:

Light, Alan. Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain

Raftery, Brian. “Prince: The Oral History of Purple Rain.” Spin. July 2009.

Ro, Ronin. Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks.

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