17 Surprising Facts About ‘Empire Records’

Damn the man—save the Empire!

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

The premise of Allan Moyle’s Gen X movie staple Empire Records is pretty straightforward—a group of teenagers working in an independent record store try to combat a corporate chain from taking it over—but it connected with audiences in a deep (and lasting) way. Featuring rising stars Liv Tyler, Renée Zellweger, and Ethan Embry, the movie was released on September 22, 1995, to barely any fanfare. Somehow, years later, fans discovered it and have helped keep its memory alive. Here are some “damn the man” facts about the movie.

1. Empire Records flopped in theaters.

The film grossed just $293,879. Originally, Warner Bros. planned to release the film in 1250 theaters on September 22, 1995, but the studio wasn’t happy with the film, so they didn’t promote it in any way—no ad campaign, no big Hollywood premiere. The $10 million film, which only screened in 87 theaters, grossed $180,286 in its first week, but by the second weekend, it was practically out of theaters. (The film went wider in October but only grossed $16,645 more.) Out of 280 films released in 1995, Empire Records ranks as the year’s 236th highest grossing movie. It’s not the bottom, but it’s pretty close.

2. The soundtrack fared much better than the movie.

(L to R) Coyote Shivers, Liv Tyler, Johnny Whitworth, and Dianna Miranda in Empire Records (1995).
(L to R) Coyote Shivers, Liv Tyler, Johnny Whitworth, and Dianna Miranda in 'Empire Records' (1995). / Warner Bros.

The soundtrack, which only featured 16 out of 50 songs used in the movie, cracked the top 100 Billboard charts and spawned two hit songs. The Gin Blossoms’s “Til I Hear It From You” was written by band members Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson and musician Marshall Crenshaw. The song peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard chart and was the Gin Blossoms’s first song to enter the top 20. Edwyn Collins’s “A Girl Like You” was also a hit, peaking at No. 7 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. On 2012’s Record Store Day, a vinyl edition of the soundtrack was released.

3. The sound version of “Sugar High” was not the intended mix.

In the movie, Zellweger performed the song with Coyote Shivers. During an interview with Consequence of Sound, Shivers explained why the version he and Zellweger sang in the movie isn’t the one that appeared on the soundtrack. Apparently the record company didn’t want it on the soundtrack, and the music supervisor thought the song was too loud. But when the song’s producer declined to remaster it, the supervisor picked “the rough mix that was meant just for playback while filming. And the label put it as the last song on the record on the original pressing,” Shivers said.

4. Angelina Jolie almost played the part of Deb.

Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie. / Anthony Harvey/GettyImages

In hindsight, it would have made sense for Jolie to play the shaved-head and suicidal Deb, a role that eventually went to Robin Tunney. Producer Alan Riche described Jolie as being “a force of nature,” and considered her for the other female roles but, as Buzzfeed put it, “she was just too much.” Which begs the question: Would Jolie have actually shaved her head like Tunney did in a scene?

5. Tobey Maguire was cast in the movie but dropped out due to personal reasons.

Tobey Maguire
Tobey Maguire. / Vittorio Zunino Celotto/GettyImages

IMDb credits Maguire’s role as “Andre,” but the scenes he shot were cut. Empire Records filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, and director Allan Moyle forced all the actors to live in beachfront properties next door to each other to create real friendships. According to Buzzfeed, “Maguire showed up, felt aimless, may or may not have consumed a psychotropic drug, and somehow ended up in the basement of Moyle’s beach house eating a giant bowl of cereal. Moyle found him there, they talked for several hours, Maguire asked to go back to Hollywood to figure his life out and write a screenplay. Moyle agreed to buy it; Maguire returned to Hollywood—and, as far as Moyle knew, never wrote the script. But two years later, he was the star of The Ice Storm; eight years later, he was Spider-Man.”

Ethan Embry remembered it differently, though. “I don’t remember him coming out [to North Carolina],” the actor, who played Mark, told The Wrap in 2015. “I remember seeing him at an audition and I remember smoking a cigarette with him while we were both waiting to go in. I had totally forgotten that he was out there until people started talking about it again.”

6. Coyote Shivers lied about his age to get the part of Berko.

Originally, producers wanted Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day to play the role, but his touring schedule wouldn’t allow for it. Shivers, who at the time of casting was in his late twenties, got picked to play a teenage character named Berko. In 2015, Shivers told Consequence of Sound he lied about his age because the producers wanted a teen to play the role and “I looked young anyway.” Shivers said the producers later found out that he was Liv Tyler’s stepdad at the time (he’s only 12 years older than Tyler), which exposed him for his real age. That, and him getting car insurance in North Carolina with the over-26-years-old rate.

7. Ethan Embry had a crush on Liv Tyler ... and so did everybody else.

Liv Tyler
Liv Tyler. / Tristan Fewings/GettyImages

“I just remember having the biggest crush on [Liv]. Ever. Which was very difficult, because then we went to shoot That Thing You Do! and I still had a f***ing crush on her,” Embry told The Wrap. During a Rex Manning Day video message, Maxwell Caulfield relayed how everybody in the cast took to Liv. “Liv Tyler was at the center of it all,” he said. “Everybody was gravitating to this young, emerging swan.” 

8. Renée Zellweger and Rory Cochrane were dating at the time.

Warner Bros.

The couple met on the set of Dazed and Confused (Zellweger had a brief cameo) two years prior to filming Empire Records. They also appeared together in the 1994 film Love and a .45. Cochrane (who plays the store’s night manager Lucas) encouraged Zellweger to audition for the film, and she got the part of store employee Gina. In the movie, the stoner logo from Dazed and Confused appears on a cash register.

9. The studio made Allan Moyle tone down Empire Records.

At one point, the studio took the movie from the director and wouldn’t let him have final cut of it. “The studio was in a cocaine mentality, while we at the movie were in a pot mentality,” Moyle explained to BuzzFeed. Even though the script contained R-rated material, the studio wanted a PG-13 rating and rid the movie of much of its swearing and scenes of the teenagers smoking marijuana (eating pot brownies seemed to be OK, though).

10. The scene when Mark hallucinates being at a GWAR concert was actually filmed during a GWAR concert.

It wasn’t in the script, but Embry’s character Mark eats a pot brownie (Embry joked that the brownies were made with real pot) while watching a video of the band GWAR on TV, then imagines he’s in the TV. During filming in North Carolina, actor James “Kimo” Wills (Eddie) spotted a flyer for a GWAR show and told Embry about it. Moyle hadn’t heard of GWAR but let Embry concoct a scenario.

“Man, GWAR is coming to town and I think Mark should have a fantasy where’s he’s playing with GWAR, and they did it,” Robin Tunney, imitating Embry, recalled during a BuzzFeed LA Empire Records reunion, in August 2015. “And then Allan let us take a camera to the GWAR concert and I drank Jägermeister with the bass player from GWAR,” Embry chimed in. He also talked to Vanity Fair about filming the concert. “We did a couple takes of it, and the audience was just standing there like, ‘What is going on?’—and then they continued with their show.”

11. Tom Jones inspired Rex Manning’s wardrobe.

Costume designer Susan Lyall told BuzzFeed how former 1980s pop idol Rex Manning’s over-the-top wardrobe came to be. She found the purple satin shirt at New York’s Trash and Vaudeville and then added fringe to it. She described the fashion as being “Tom Jones + Rod Stewart + Trash and Vaudeville.”

12. Yes, that's Max Caulfield singing “Say No More, Mon Amour.”

In a 2023 Reddit AMA, Caulfield recalled that “We recorded [the song] at [Eurythmics member] Dave Stewart’s studio in the Valley. I’m such a huge Eurythmics fan and then to perform the song on the sand dunes in Wilmington, N.C., with all those writhing women, was a deranged male fantasy.” You can watch the music video above.

13. Some Rex Manning scenes were cut.

In 2021, Caulfield told the Hollywood Reporter that a couple of scenes that may have been somewhat redeeming for his character ended up on the cutting room floor. In one, Rex gives “pretty solid advice” to Berko about making it in the music industry. The other scene involved Rex joining in the concert at the end, which Caulfield said “would have been a nice touch.”

14. “Rex Manning Day” is celebrated on April 8th every year.

A flyer on a door in the movie announces Rex’s in-store appearance as “April 8th,” which is why it’s honored then. Maxwell Caulfield played the ridiculous singer Rex Manning, who shows up at Empire Records for an album signing. In 2015, for the film’s 20th anniversary (and Rex Manning Day), Brooklyn’s Rough Trade Records tricked out its storefront to look like the record store in the film, replete with actors Ethan Embry, Johnny Whitworth, and the band GWAR making surprise appearances. Caulfield was unable to make the event, but a tanned stand-in recreated the “Say No More (Mon Amour)” video and snapped photos with fans.

15. Rex Manning Day is a tribute to Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain. / Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/GettyImages

Screenwriter Carol Heikkinen based the script on her time working at Tower Records, and keeping with the music theme, she slipped in an important date. “I was just talking to the writer [Carol], and she was saying it’s in one of the drafts,” Embry revealed to The Wrap in 2015. “April 8th is the same day they found Kurt Cobain’s body. It’s not the day he died. We shot that the same year they found him, so it represents the death of a rock star. Nobody ever says it in the movie. Nobody ever says April 8th.”

16. The cast had no idea how popular the movie became.

Liv Tyler and Anthony LaPaglia.
Liv Tyler and Anthony LaPaglia. / Warner Bros

In 2013, Embry and several of the other cast members attended an outdoor screening of the film in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood, which is when they realized just how much people loved the movie. “[It was] like, ‘Let’s just go and watch it and make fun of ourselves,” Embry told Vanity Fair in 2015. “And I took a picture of the five of us together, and it exploded on Twitter. And we all sat there wondering why.” The cast reunited again in July 2014 for a screening at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where 4000 fans came out for the film and a Q&A session. Some of the cast got together again for Rex Manning Day 2018.

17. A Broadway musical is in development.

In 2018, Deadline reported that a stage version of the 1995 cult hit was being developed for Broadway, with an eye toward a 2020 debut, to mark the film’s 25th anniversary. That didn’t happen, but things appear to be progressing; there was even a reading of the musical in 2022. The show will feature music and lyrics by Zoe Sarnak and a book by Carol Heikkinen, who wrote the film (as well as Center Stage).

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.