Keeping the Tacoma renaissance a secret

by Derek Young '96

On a warm spring evening in May 2007, a sold-out crowd filled Tacoma’s historic Rialto Theater. Filmmakers of all ages fidgeted nervously as they waited for the first public showing of the movies they’d made. The lights dimmed. The crowd hushed. South 5, the first film of the night, began to roll.

The Space Needle flashed onto the big screen. Then Chris Martin ’95, a communication major and my Passages leader from the fall of 1992, came into focus. It was the first time I had seen him in more than 10 years, and he was 25 feet wide and talking on a cell phone.

The occasion was the Grand Cinema’s 72-hour Film Festival. The festival rules were simple. Filmmakers had three days to write, shoot, score, and edit a film that could be no longer than five minutes. They were required to include in the film a hat or cap, a Tacoma landmark, something thrown or dropped, and the line “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” This night all 32 films would be shown and the festival awards would be announced.

In South 5, Chris Martin plays Luke, a Seattleite who wants to see if there’s any truth to the rumors that Tacoma is becoming a happening place. Maybe even hip. He’s calling around, trying to get someone to make a brief road trip. Funny. No one is interested, so he heads down the freeway by himself.

Once in Tacoma, wherever he goes a motley cast of characters—a zookeeper, a gorilla, a man wearing a fez, a masked kid in a cape, and a guy with a curly wig who looks strikingly similar to a famous one-eyed glass artist—harass and chase him until he dives desperately into his car and departs the city as fast as possible.

“Screw this place. I’m going back to Seattle,” he says.

In the end we learn that the intimidating crew was a hit team working for a mysterious silhouetted man sitting behind a desk high in a Seattle skyscraper. His mission: keep Tacoma in its place.

That night South 5 took the Audience Choice Award.

The film was directed by Bryan Johnson B.A.’96, M.A.T.’97, a psychology major and also a former Passages leader. Johnson is a fifth-grade teacher in Tacoma, living in the North Slope Historic District. After graduating from UPS he briefly moved home to Colorado and then returned to marry his college girlfriend, Betsy Kreager Johnson B.S.’94, M.P.T.’98. The couple headed to Skagway, Alaska, and after that Antarctica, where they worked in support services for the National Science Foundation. After Antarctic extremes, he was drawn back to humble Tacoma. He admits he was at first hesitant because he remembered the city’s reputation from his days at UPS. But Betsy insisted they look. The couple found a house they liked, bought it, and are raising two young boys, Henry and Myles. Now, says Johnson, he wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Johnson greatly prefers being behind the camera to being in front of it. His movie about Tacoma wasn’t intended as a grand statement. He didn’t set out to change the city or become part of its lexicon of pop culture.

When developing the South 5 script, Johnson looked first at the people and things around him. Then he created a list of props: His grandfather’s Shriner hat. Check. His sister’s gorilla suit. Got it. A banana (the “something thrown”). Next came locations from his bus ride to work. Court C. The Pythian Temple. The Bridge of Glass.

“I really wanted the gorilla to attack somebody.” That realization provided the starting point for the script. From there the rest of the story fell together: a conspiracy to keep Tacoma down.

South 5 quickly became the talk of the town. Posted on YouTube and Exit133, thousands of people viewed it and talked about it on blogs. Elected officials e-mailed it to colleagues. The Tacoma City Council screened it at one of its meetings.

Martin, who also married his college girlfriend, Janelle Johnson Martin B.A.’94, M.A.’96, and who works for Holland America Line in Seattle, says reaction to the film was quite unexpected. People come up to me and say, “Wait. You were in that South 5 movie.”

In October the Tacoma Film Festival opened with South 5–True Grit, a sequel to the original. Chris Martin returns as Luke. Since the last installment he’s moved to Tacoma and is now on the Tacoma City Council. (The real City Council members make a cameo appearance.) The hit team is back, too. This time their job is to steal the grit that makes Tacoma the place we all love.

To see South 5 or South 5–True Grit, go to and search for South 5. It’s well worth the effort. South 5 is also available on demand on Tacoma’s Click!, where it is routinely the network’s most frequently selected on-demand offering.


With this issue, Derek Young ’96 begins a regular column for Arches covering all things Tacoma. Young is the founding editor of, a website that facilitates discussions of urban planning, civic engagement, real estate, historic preservation, and the arts in Tacoma. Since its launch in May 2005, has grown from a blog into a virtual community with thousands of regular readers and increasing influence. Young is a partner in Exit133 LLC, a marketing and strategic planning company focusing on issues of downtown development in Tacoma. He majored in biology and politics and government while at Puget Sound and is finishing an M.B.A. at the University of Washington, Tacoma.