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The TCM Classic Film Festival, a showcase of movies past, points to the future

April 26, 2010 |  6:30 am


Apart from bringing the soothing, erudite tones of Robert Osborne off the upper end of the cable dial and into full (3-D?) effect of a live staging, this weekend's TCM Classic Film Festival did something else. The barnstorming event, which just concluded its four-day run in Los Angeles, improbably offered a glimpse into the future of movie-going.

How exactly does a festival dedicated to the creative output of Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Borgnine and Eli Wallach do that? By showing how someone can make the film-going experience unique and even exciting, and with little more than some old prints and inventive pairings.

We caught two screenings at the festival over the weekend -- a Saturday showing of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," with Anjelica and Danny Huston in a pre-screening chat (their father and grandfather directed and starred in the film, respectively) -- and a Sunday afternoon showing of Martin Scorsese's fame- and celebrity-critique, "The King of Comedy" (co-star Jerry Lewis, though on the bill as a guest, did not turn up, so we had to use our imagination on that one). Both were stellar events, thanks to introductions from Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, and the sheer pleasure of watching both a vintage classic and a modern classic on a big screen, and in an ornate theater like Grauman's Chinese, no less.

We also heard gushing reports from several other events, including the Friday afternoon screening of Nicholas Ray's hard-boiled noir "In a Lonely Place" and the closing-night festivities that brought the screening of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" together with a live orchestral performance,

The reason it all worked was because the festival took something that's part of our pop-culture canon and made it fresh. In some cases, these screenings were simply a way of introducing a piece of art or entertainment to a new generation with the extra flourish of a large-scale screening; in other cases, they added something specific to our understanding of the work. ("L.A. Confidential" director Curtis Hanson, for instance, introduced "In a Lonely Place." Who better to talk about the history of noir than someone who's made the best modern example of the form?)

The movie business often frets about the relevance of film-going in the YouTube age, when entertainment is disposable, portable and inexpensive to view (read: typically costs nothing). Hollywood has been intent on trying to compete with these many out-of-theater experiences by mounting ever larger spectacles -- see under: the 3-D revolution, a particular hobbyhorse for us and others these days. And theater owners, eager for anything that will give them a leg up or stave off obsolescence, have gone along, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes enthusiastically.

But the entertainment world, as it often does, offers another way. And the TCM festival shows us what that way might be  -- namely, creating a buzz around a screening of a previously released film. The festival provided a template on how movies can be fun and event-worthy. By creating either a one-off or a weeklong road show of any one of a number of great movies from the past 90 years, accompanied by a live element that will motivate people to leave their homes, theaters can emulate the TCM festival and offer a pretty valuable service to audiences (while also saving their own hides).

Most big cities have at least a few stars living in them and, judging by this weekend, most stars are happy to come out and talk about their film if it means sharing it with a new generation, or even if it means reliving it with an older one. Repertory houses have been doing something along these lines for years, but the bulk and costs associated with shipping prints has prevented the phenomenon from catching on in a wider way.

These days, however, digital cinema makes screening these films cheaper and easier than ever. So why couldn't theaters show these films in a TCM-esque manner, lending them an event quality, not to mention giving viewers the chance to establish a connection to the film that's deeper than just watching it on Netflix. The theaters would win (is there any doubt that a weeklong run of, say, "The Godfather" as introduced by Francis Ford Coppola wouldn't sell out each night?), the libraries of these classic prints would win and, most important, film fans, no doubt feeling a little strangled by first-run movie offerings these days (when "Date Night" and "The Back-Up Plan" dueling for screens passes for diversity), would get a needed breath of fresh air.

It wouldn't have to be "Easy Rider" and "Gone With the Wind" either -- you can show contemporary classics, like "Memento" or "The Matrix," and achieve the same effect. And you wouldn't need the presence of Robert Osborne, beatific though it may be, to make it happen.

As movie-going becomes ever more spectacle-oriented, we're constantly reminded that the future lies with the sound and fury of 3-D. But as the TCM festival shows, there are many ways to turn a movie screening into a larger-than-life event.

-- Steven Zeitchik

(Follow me on Twitter.)

Photo: Humphrey Bogart in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." Credit: Warner Bros.

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Comments () | Archives (8)

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I am going to have to diagree with the writer. People went because it is TCM, is a CLASSIC movie, in the CLASSIC sense of the word meaning (most if not all from the GOLDEN ERA)

I was there for Casablanca (Friday), Leave Her to Heaven, (nothing like seeing Gene Tierney in Technicolor) and North and Northwest (with Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau in Discussion) and it was better than any bubonic chronic imaginable, like a 10 shot of prime A Hashish only better. To be capped that Robert Osborn was both in discussion in Leave her to Heaven and North by Northwest.

People that went were fans, forget the modern stuff. Give me more of the GOLDEN AGE. This is coming from a 25 year old guy by the way*.

(Coming back next year thats for sure)

I completely agree with the writer on this one. I am 24 years old and I have only seen these classic movies on TCM, I would definitely pay to watch "easy rider" and "vertigo" on the big screen. Because that never happens, you never get to see the classics in the theatre, at midnight perhaps which I cannot afford to do. That is why I saw the dark night 5 times, because it is a classic and I knew I was never EVER going to see it on the big screen again so I watched it in the theatres to bask in the grandness of seeing it on the big screen with an audience.

Debby whatcha talking about they showed Vertigo in the Egyptian Theatre earlier this year, for pretty cheap too, not like the prices they had this weekend. Easy Rider was shown as well earlier this year. Do not despair 24 year old, they showing them all the time. Pasadena is another place where they have lots of good revival theatres. This coming from a guy who works in Glendale and lives all the way in the Beach cities of the OC. :) Holla!

Great idea just keep utter crap like Fathom Entertainment away from classic films!

Send the theatres around the country proper 2k or 4k files for projection, don't satellite feed them a 1080i image (less quality than the film's bluray) that is not run through the swanky high quality digital projector, but ran through the digital cheapo, off-the-shelf advertisements and slide projector.

Because that's what was done to Wizard of Oz last fall via the monstrosity known as Fathom. What was shown in theatres around the country was far less quality than if the theatres had hooked up the bluray of Oz to their professional grade digital projectors.

If this is to be successful it cannot look like Fathom events look like--and fathom events look like someone taking an $800 projector and playing it against the side of the house at night in the summer.

It should like a 2k or 4k presentation, staggering and excellent quality that is far superior than what one can get at home.

Congratulations, you just invented the New Beverly Cinema

Debby, like the overwhelming majority of TCM festivalgoers, surely does not live in L.A., where movies like EASY RIDER and VERTIGO play here every week in venues like LACMA, The New Beverly, Cinefamily and the American Cinematheques. But after reading Steven Zeitchik's article, I'm thinking he must not live here, either?

Julius is right--this was a nationally promoted, TCM-branded event that cost the network a bundle of corporate cash, and it was attended not by Angelenos, but by festival tourists who made it their family vacations and spent many hundreds of dollars on air fares, hotels, passes, etc. It wasn't a success merely because of "little more than some old prints and inventive pairings."

Repertory cinema is electric in Los Angeles at the moment,--although you wouldn't know it from reading 24 Frames--and programming is consistently top notch by people such as Ian Birnie and Hadrian Belove. The TCM festival was way too expensive and way too blasé for L.A. moviegoers, most of whom stayed away.

Curtis Hanson is a regular at L.A. repertory screenings, and we love him for it, along with a host of other filmmakers and movie stars, who are always good for an intro or two, even if they aren't paid, as TCM almost certainly did for its roster of celebrities.

I'm really saddened by the disconnect here between the reality of moviegoing in Los Angeles and the implications of this article. It sounds as if the author has never watched a classic movie on the big screen until this week. If so, he should get out more often--opportunities abound here. If the L.A. Times devoted half as much attention to these screenings as it does 3D, we'd have a much more vibrant film culture.

The studios really need to take a hard look at the benfitis of reissuing older films to theaters.

People forget that as recent at 30 years ago studios were regularly reissung recent and older films on a wider scale than the revival circut.

We already have the technology -- Fathom's road show presentations of operas from the Met shows the way.

Use digital tech for a high-quality film transfer; bookend it with taped or live commentary from directors, stars and hosts; use theatres across the country for a one- or two-night only presentation; build a community, city by city as the Met has, across the country, to see these works. Make the experience the live version of a DVD -- text, context, promotion.


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