Last season, Cleveland tight end Gary Barnidge emerged as one of the NFL’s breakout stars when, finally entrenched as the starter at age 30, he caught 79 passes for 1,043 yards — 800-plus more than his previous career yardage high.
In the last year, he’s become one of the Browns’ most recognizable faces in football-mad Cleveland, but not because people want to talk to him about the game. “Normally, you go anywhere in Cleveland and there’s nothing but questions about football,” said Browns guard John Greco. “You walk into a movie theater with Barnidge and they are asking about Rotten Tomatoes reviews, acting methods, movie-geek stuff.”
That’s because in addition to being one of four NFL tight ends to eclipse 1,000 yards last season, Barnidge is also a cinephile. And he regularly enjoys great nights at the movies thanks to a special routine: He takes Browns fans.
During the season, Barnidge sees two movies per week, at a minimum. For the first trip of the week, he estimated that he goes by himself “85 percent of the time,” a product of the busy NFL schedule that can keep teammates too tied up to sneak away on their lone full in-season off day (typically Tuesday). But he ensures that the second trip is a group excursion, and he does so by buying tickets for fans and making the screenings such a phenomenon that teammates want to go, too. For most players, off days are full of family obligations or precious free time; on Thursdays, it’s another story.
Barnidge considers organizing these outings something of a civic duty, designed to expose attendees to new films and, particularly where his teammates are concerned, improve their taste.
“A lot of times I’ll ask a teammate their favorite movie and my response is ‘You need to watch more movies,’” Barnidge joked.
Ahead of the group screenings, Barnidge posts a trivia question on Twitter, then invites the first 10 people who answer correctly to join him at a Cleveland theater the next night. Here’s a sample trivia question from last month’s Star Trek Beyond screening:
(The answer is “GNDN, Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing.”)
Barnidge doesn’t always use the same theater, but he has a system for choosing which film to see: He wants to expose fans to as many movies as possible, so in September, it could be any genre; in October, it’s horror; in November, it’s more family movies; and in December, it’s the holiday offerings. He’s willing to audible and add in a blockbuster or critically acclaimed movie even if the release date doesn’t fit into his planned groupings.
Friday is typically the lightest practice day of the week, making Thursday evening an ideal time for this kind of group outing. Barnidge arrives 30 minutes before showtime, and since the fans tend to be quiet at first, he goes around asking them what their favorite movie is to loosen them up. He’ll critique any choice from fellow players or fans at any time, but reserves particular venom for the seemingly endless list of players who pick Gladiator.
“Are you just saying that because you can’t think of anything else?” Barnidge said. “Could you actually tell me some of the stuff that happens in the movie? I call them out a little bit. If it’s your favorite movie, I think you should know every scene and I don’t think that happens with Gladiator.”
It’s not all anger, though. These days, Barnidge was excited about fellow tight end Randall Telfer liking Back to the Future so much that he wore a T-shirt with the movie’s logo to a screening this summer.
Barnidge, a fifth-round pick by the Panthers out of Louisville in 2008, has loved movies since he was a kid, and now, teammates rave about his home movie collection, which Greco said numbers in the thousands. That love first sparked the fan-centric cinematic experience in Carolina, where Barnidge played behind Greg Olsen and began buying tickets for fans in 2012.
Barnidge hasn’t noticed much change in his life since becoming a starter, he said, except that “a little bit more” people are interested in his movie excursions. With the screenings becoming more popular, movie companies began reaching out to him about coordinating full screenings so that the tight end could get the entire theater for himself, his fans, and his teammates. He has 30 passes to Ben-Hur this week.
Firm fall schedule aside, Barnidge isn’t picky about what he’ll watch: “Could be anything — chick flick, drama, comedy, foreign, old movies,” he said. He’s particularly intrigued, though, by foreign horror films, including the 1977 Italian flick Suspiria, the 2010 South Korean film I Saw the Devil, and the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In.
“[Foreign horror movies] don’t have restrictions on what they can do,” Barnidge said. “So they can make a really scary movie — draw you in and scare you. They don’t have any censors telling them they can’t do this or that.”
Barnidge said that at this point, a good chunk of his teammates have joined him at the movies. He invites the tight ends first, then other offensive players. He likes taking quarterbacks and said new passer Robert Griffin III has been an enthusiastic participant in the screenings this summer.
Greco, an offensive lineman, saw The Wolf of Wall Street and The Purge: Anarchy with Barnidge. “He is in his element, the fans are in their element,” Greco said.
For Greco, who likes classics such as plane favorites Casino and Goodfellas, Barnidge isn’t just a good tight end and teammate; he’s also an invaluable resource when Greco is looking for a new movie to watch with his wife. Barnidge raved about The Revenant to teammates last season, for instance, so Greco pounced. Not all of the feedback is glowing, though: “He told me Suicide Squad is so-so,” Greco said.
Barnidge didn’t limit his review to those two words, of course. “I like the action in it, the comedy was there, but the story didn’t go anywhere; it wasn’t where I expected it to be,” he said of Suicide Squad. “They didn’t get into detail with anything, like it was rushed.”
Barnidge can’t always win them over, though: “I still might want to check it out,” Greco said. “With all those actors, it looks cool. I’ll probably see it when [training] camp breaks.”
Even if Barnidge occasionally fails to sway his teammates’ tastes, it won’t stop him from using films as a way to provide fans with more access to athletes. “Growing up, athletes weren’t accessible,” Barnidge said. “You could go to the stadium and see them. There’s social media now, so guys are accessible, but I wanted to take it a step further and I wanted to enjoy something on a personal level with fans.”
And, of course, do one more thing as well: “And see some good movies.”