We have been writing about Johnny Hickey for nearly 15 years at this point. It’s wild to imagine now, but when we first met him, as we’ve noted several times before, he was running around the Bunker Hill projects in Charlestown, where he grew up, with a handheld camcorder, dreaming about bringing his personal tales of drugging and dealing to the big screen.
A lot of people have such aspirations, but Hickey made it happen in a major way. As he explains below, after years of bootstrapping together funding and equipment, he released Oxy Morons in Showcase Cinema theaters around Greater Boston, then on various streaming services. The run led to the filming of his latest, Habitual, which premieres at Showcase Cinema de Lux theaters in Lowell, Revere, and Foxboro this Friday.
As Hickey told us in 2017 on the set of Habitual, which was filmed on the North Shore and around Mass: “It took some time, but you’re only as good as the next project you’re doing. I’m getting another chance to put that Johnny Hickey brand on something.”
With his sophomore effort set to land on big screens in the region this week, we asked our good friend how he pulled it off. Again.
With Oxy Morons, how did you get the attention of a huge company like National Amusements (the parent company of Showcase) as a filmmaker who nobody had ever heard of?
At first they weren’t responding [to emails and calls], and I just figured that it could help to have everyone I know blast this one guy’s email and say they want the movie at Showcase. My manager said that’s not the way to do it, but I did it, and the VP finally emailed me back and said, “Just have your people stop emailing me and I’ll give you a test run.”
How long of a run did you get?
They were going to just open it for a weekend and see how it did, and if it did well, they were going to discuss a little more play time.
And how did it do?
It was number one for those two nights at Revere—I beat out 18 studio films. That opened me into two more weeks in Randolph and Woburn.
How did you pull off the marketing that led to the kind of sales that sustained that? It’s not like you had a budget for television commercials.
That was all social media promotion and local press like the Dig and the Boston Phoenix. I dialed into everyone I knew, all these Boston people. It just became word of mouth on the streets. Don’t forget, the OxyContin epidemic was really taking over at the time. The thing everyone knew in that movie wasn’t me or any of the actors—it was Oxy.
For that movie and now this one, you have managed to secure local landmarks to shoot at that really give your films the feel of a major studio picture. How does one go about getting to shoot a movie at an abandoned state hospital?
The worst they can say to me is no. You go to these different places and you’re not Hollywood, you’re a local guy. It was really hard the first time, but Oxy Morons earned me credit in that world—a lot of people I became connected with really came to believe in what I am doing.
Before this Showcase run, about a year ago, you had a test screening of the movie that we now know as Habitual at IMAX in Reading. How did that come to be? And how did it go?
They had an open date, and they were willing to take a chance. Even though the movie wasn’t ready yet, I wanted to screen it for an audience outside of the people who were working on it. I needed to know what needed to be changed and fixed, and after the IMAX screening I ended up changing 40 minutes of the movie.
Anything in particular?
I was trying to dial my role down a little bit, but after watching the original cut people said that I should be in the movie a lot more. I was trying to eat a slice of humble pie on it, but I guess this wasn’t the time since I had played such a major role in my first movie.
How did you go about getting into Showcase this time?
We reached out to our connection, told ’em what we got, and he asked how many theaters I wanted to be in. I chose to go with three for now, and my team chose ones that we know it can perform well in.
Indie movies don’t typically play at places like this, and it’s often because they don’t have the funding. There are all these fees and digital components that you have to be able to deliver, and lucky for me, Sugar Studios [in Los Angeles] is able to produce the right digital format for me to play in these big theatrical venues.
It means a lot to have these local movies on the big screen. And especially to have it play where I come from.
Johnny Hickey has worked extensively with DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism on F.I.G.H.T., a project highlighting the invisible corners of the opioid crisis in Mass and beyond. For tickets to see Habitual at Showcase, visit showcasecinemas.com/film-info/habitual.