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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Million Dollar Movie Week on Who Wants to be a Millionaire!

Watch this week for a very entertaining dose of movie trivia and the geeks who know a lot of it by heart – including this geek, who will be seen Friday, February 23. This account is part I (the before) of a two part series.

Nearly two years ago, my sister dragged me down to San Diego in order to take the test for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. My sister had wanted to go on the regular show for a long time and frequently checked out the website for test information and stumbled upon the announcement of a specialty week that would focus entirely on movie trivia. Knowing that I am a huge movie buff and full of useless information about films, she insisted that I at least try out.

We got up early one day and drove the two or so hours south to the far reaches of San Diego (one more freeway exit and we would have been in Mexico). We managed to arrive early enough to be near the front of the line that would eventually wrap its way around the storefronts of an outlet mall. While standing in line, we met many people who had actually traveled quiet a bit farther than us. One lady had driven all the way from Arizona and another was pressed for time to catch her return flight to Washington State. We’re talking some serious, die-hard fans here, including many others with hopes and dreams of winning some big money. It was rather exciting to think that within that crowd there was a potential millionaire.

Not too long after the appointed time, they brought us in by groups of a hundred or so into a large, all-purpose room that was lined with rows of folding chairs. We were given test forms and pencils and told not to turn the tests over until instructed to do so, because this was a timed test. These were very scary words to me. I was not expecting a timed test. I suddenly had flashbacks to the SATs and I did not do well on the SATs. I just don’t do well when there’s a time limit enforced because I tend to be more focused on the time than the test before me. Until that moment, I had not been worried about passing the test. After all, I studied film history as an undergraduate and graduate student, I went to the movies all the time and had numerous games and books in my possession that were overflowing with hordes and hordes of useless movie trivia. I am a virtual fountain of movie information – technical, historical and silly! I should be able to do this, I thought.

I did pass, though I suspect it was by the skin of my teeth. I know that I let simple questions get the best of me by not reading all of the options before answering and picking the first choice that seemed familiar so, that I could quickly move onto the next question (didn’t we learn not to do that in like, the third grader). Fortunately, once your test is graded, you’re notified right then and there if you’re in contention for joining their contestant pool. Then a Polaroid is taken of you and they conduct a brief interview before sending you on your way.

A month or so later, I received a postcard with the good news: I was in the contestant pool! Of course, that doesn’t really mean anything without a basis for comparison. How many other people are swimming with me in that pool? But I was experiencing frequent bouts of unemployment, so I pulled out every single book I had relating to the movies and proceeded to study like I was preparing for the bar exam. I was determined not to be stumped by something I felt as a film aficionado I should know. Get me on something relating to the latest Chris Rock film, or teen exploitation flick, fine. But you are not going to see me not knowing that the first Hollywood red carpet premier was in 1922 at the Egyptian Theatre with Douglas Fairbanks’s version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. That, I could not bear.

Sadly, come Oscar time, my sister called to say that she had just watched a special Who Wants to be a Millionaire episode where all the questions were about the movies. My first thought was, “Damn! Damn, damn, damn”. And it wasn’t because I didn’t get a chance to win a lot of money. Shamelessly, I admit, it was that I had wanted to show off. I had really wanted to show people, my family, everybody, that I know a lot about the movies. I wanted to show that two film degrees in a row had not been a colossal waste of time and money, that I knew stuff. Stuff nobody else knew. I was convinced I would have done well. I could have won big! Damn.

Then about a year and a half after my trip to San Diego, I got a call on my cell phone from an unidentified number. I figured it must be some production office calling, and since I currently had a job I almost didn’t answer it. But I did. And I was right. It was a production office. Someone was calling from the New York office of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. This threw me a bit. It had been so long since I had auditioned that it didn’t quite register for me, so I said, “Yeah, uh, huh. What can I do for you”? And after a few screening questions to make sure I was still eligible as a contestant, I was told what they could do for me, and that they were expecting to see me in about three weeks in NYC for a day of taping.

I was completely elated that I might have the chance to show off after all! I was going to have to pay my own way, so, I hit up a friend in NYC for floor space and I was warned that I may not get on the show because it was merely one specialty week – how well the other contestants did or didn’t do determined how many people would actually get on the show. So, I began making plans and studying my brains out. Fortunately, my current boss was very supportive, insisting that everyone ask me as many questions as possible at every opportunity. It was perfect!

Most importantly, I had to determine who my Phone-a-Friends were going to be. You’re allowed a short list of 5 people, one of which would be the person you call should you get stuck and need help. The problem for me was that I needed people who knew stuff I didn’t. So, I sent out a massive email in search of the Sci-Fi geeks, the Foreign Cinema fans, Independent Cinemaphiles and so forth and I had a pretty good response. My boyfriend would cover all things Pacino and literature-related because he loves Al Pacino and reads more than anybody I’ve ever known. A good friend and colleague would be my source for all the “Popcorn” movies. Another friend of a friend would be on hand to cover the minutia of current releases. And then my host in New York would cover the Japanese cinema (in case of a Kurosawa question); leaving my mom to round out the list just ‘cause it’s nice to have Mom on the list.

Once in New York, my biggest fear was oversleeping. Oh yeah, and that I still might not get on the show. Whatever. I was still going to have fun. When I first showed up at the studio, there was already a small gathering of people huddled in the dark, waiting for the stage door to open. Everyone was very pleasant and excited to be there. It turns out I was the only person there from west of Texas. The others were mostly from the Chicago and Pittsburg areas. There were a couple of students, a struggling actress, a schoolteacher, a couple of stay at home moms, and other various nondescript professions. All in all, we were a nice cross section of the average movie fanatic.

Once we were inside, we had one show representative after another meeting with us to go over the dos and don’ts of the show, how things were going to work once we were selected, and such, and reminding us that not everyone in the room was going to get a chance to play. In fact, there was a good chance that 4 out of the 12 of us were not going to play at all. That was a sobering moment. What followed was an explanation of how we were to be selected for play. The first person would go out, and then three others would be selected to be standing by offstage in anticipation of playing next. As a person was selected to play, another would be brought out from the greenroom to take their place on the sidelines.

However, just because you were a part of the standby trio, it did not mean that you were going to play in that order, or even at all! Should it happen that you didn’t get to play, the show would let anyone who didn’t get on take the regular show test. If they passed, then they could come back the following day for regular game play. A nice consolation if you didn’t already have your travel plans arranged. I was not part of that first group, nor could I change my travel plans. After the first player had completed their round and the next chosen player took the stage, and another potential player was taken from the green room, I began to realize that I needed to face the reality that I may not get on the show. Surprisingly, I was okay with that.

Although eager to get on the show, there we were, a nice group of people sitting together, cheering for those selected to play before us, sincerely wishing them well and hoping they’d get every question right. And that was perfectly fine. Yes, I would rather get on than not, but this was the chance I took when I accepted the invitation to come out to New York. And then they called my name, and I was asked to be a part of the trio offstage. I was escorted out of the greenroom and led to a chair just under the audience bleachers. I still wasn’t guaranteed to play, but I was a lot closer to the action. A nice benefit should I not get to the “Hot Seat”.

As the action continued, another player went up. Then an eager, young student joined me and another guy who had been part of the initial trio, and was a local. The local and I felt pretty confident that either he or I would be next. My bet was on him. He was a local boy, after all. He was just as certain that it would likely be me, since I was from Hollywood and there had only been one other woman. Good arguments on both sides. Just before they made their decision, I turned to my new friend and said, “Well, whoever it is, let’s win big or get out fast to make room for the next person.” He agreed. And then, once again, they called my name….

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