LOCAL COLOR/Celebrating celebrity
Last year, the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” showed the world how “sweet” moon boots, tater tots, tetherball and Preston, Idaho, can be. To celebrate the quirky, cult production and the attention it has brought to the small Idaho town, last month Preston hosted the first annual Napoleon Dynamite Festival.
“Since January, 7,000 visitors have come through Preston, and many of them expressed an interest in a festival,” says Pennie Christensen, executive director for the Chamber of Commerce. “So, I said, ‘Let’s have one.’” More than 6,500 people from across the United States and Canada gathered to take part in the festivities and tour the 5,000-resident town where Jared Hess, who co-wrote the script along with his wife Jerusha, attended high school. The June 24-25 date was intended mark the anniversary of the film’s free screening in the town last summer.
For the uninitiated, the low-budget film follows Napoleon Dynamite, a socially awkward teenager who enjoys milk tasting and drawing mythical creatures, through his adventures at high school and home, which include helping his best friend Pedro, a recent Mexican immigrant, win the election for student body president. All the while he must deal with his idiosyncratic family members, such as his online-dating-obsessed brother and Tupperware-selling uncle. “Some people say that it makes us look hickey and po-dunk,” Christensen, whose daughter appeared in the film, says. “But I think it’s something that everybody can relate to.”
All of the festival’s activities related to scenes from the movie, including a tater tot-eating contest, a bike and roller blade race on Main Street, a tetherball tournament and a moon boot dance/impersonation/look-a-like competition, which was held in the auditorium of the high school where part of the movie was filmed. Christensen says that the look-a-like champion was so convincing, he attracted a flock of fans at one point during the weekend. Winners of the contests received plaques, but some events also offered special prizes, such as a dutch oven, scooter and football. Visitors also could take bus tours of the town to experience the movie’s locations for themselves.
Preston’s Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event, which ended up netting a profit. The contests cost $10 to enter, and admission to events at the auditorium was $2. “The local businesses saw a huge increase in traffic,” Christensen says.
Aside from the festival, the movie also has been a year-round moneymaker for the town. Every day dozens of visitors stop by the Chamber of Commerce to buy t-shirts decorated with quotes from the movie, boondoggle key chains, Napoleon Dynamite site maps and postcards with photos taken during filming. Christensen says she had to hire extra help to manage the memorabilia. Napoleon Dynamite kitsch has become so popular, in fact, that New York-based McFarlane Toys recently unveiled a line of “action” figures.
The state legislature has taken a liking to the film as well. In April it unanimously passed a resolution commending the Hesses and Preston “for showcasing the positive aspects of Idaho’s youth, rural culture, education system, athletics, economic prosperity and diversity.” The resolution added that “any members of the House of Representatives or the Senate of the Legislature of the State of Idaho who choose to vote ‘Nay’ on this concurrent resolution are ‘FREAKIN’ IDIOTS!’”
While the festival proved a success, Christensen says next year she hopes to recruit the cast for an appearance. Overall, she says the whole experience has been “flippin’ sweet.”