TCM Film Festival Fanatics Cry Foul

Let me start out by making this disclaimer. I am a film fanatic. I have been all my life. I originally wanted to be a cartoonist, but when I saw Citizen Kane, (yes really, Citizen Kane) at the age of 14, that changed my focus and love from the pencil scribble to the written word and the film frame. Today, I spend any of my non-free time devouring every film, every film book, film article, tweet, text, DVD, VHS, and Beta that I can get my hands on. Were I given the chance to go outside and get some fresh air, or hunker down in a Barcalounger and watch a Bob Hope film for the 16th time, well – you get it.

This year, TCM – the film network that is something akin to the New Testament for all us classic film fans — holds its sixth annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, March 26 – 29th. This is a blessing and a curse for us film fanatics. If you have the wherewithal to plop down a minimum of $299 for the first level “Palace Pass” that gets you access to film at the TCL Chinese and Egyptian Theaters for three of the four festival days,  or break the bank with $1649 for the all inclusive mega-experience, you will be transported to movie heaven; everything from the dawn of the flickering image to the present day is amply represented. Movies will screen across more than 4 different venues plus special events that include conversations with famous stars and the people who make the movies happen, symposiums, cocktail soirees, mingling with the networks on camera talent and behind-the-scenes staff, and most importantly, opportunities to interact with like-minded film folk.

TCM FEST

Some of us are lucky to live in Los Angeles, where we have access to the festival and venues by pure proximity; others who live further away, scrimp and save and plan their entire year around the festival, making travel arrangements the moment the dates are announced, figuring out where they’ll stay, what restaurants they’ll dine at and what other Hollywood landmarks or attractions nearby they can fit into their already impossibly bloated list of “things to do.”

For fans near and far, every crumb of information that spills from under the cracks and crevices of the mighty TCM citadel the months leading up to the Fest, be it a passing mention on a random blog, or an authentic press item mentioning some of the films considered for inclusion, becomes a vital piece of sustenance. Festival followers scramble and claw and read and re-read and dissect and disseminate everything released with the attention worthy of a constitutional amendment.

hollywood roosevelt

Like any sub-culture, film fans are emotional, excitable, hungry creatures; we can be obsessive, compulsive, paranoid, neurotic, psychotic, Quixotic and hyperbolic. We can be all these things at once. One thing is for sure; we are a passionate bunch. We care. A lot.

And why shouldn’t we? Our love for the moving image, for cinema and the cinematic experience has a lot to do with our love of the story; our empathy with characters and characterization; as well as the crafts-people who tell the stories. Whether we are shut-ins or “belles of the ball” in our everyday lives, we have a personal and private relationship and affinity for the art form and the popular phenomena known as movies. And we share that with each other, explicitly and implicitly.

You could probably equate a classic film fan’s passion to that of the Comic-Con attendee. These are people in love with all things fantasy and sci-fi plus a healthy serving of tech-savviness; they are a tough, opinionated lot and they hold those opinions to a higher authority and plane (perhaps a deity like Jean Luc Picard or Yoda). This means that at times they can fall into the cliché of Jeffrey “Jeff” Albertson, the Simpson’s “Comic Book Guy,’ famous for making judgmentally pretentious statements like: “Worst. (fill in the blank). Ever,” about everything. “Worst. Movie. Ever.” “Worst. Episode. Ever.” and “Worst. Smell. Ever.”

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As much as we film fans may scoff at the Sci-Fi Fantasy Fan, they are our “not too distant” cousins. And like the Comic-Con attendee; we can be an insufferable lot. We are willing, nay, hungry, to debate anything and everything film related. We are so ravenous, in fact, that we can “troll” like the worst of them, and at times, for pure bragging rights and self-aggrandizement, we will bite the hand that feeds us.

Which finally brings me to the current frenzy going on outside the TCM Castle walls amongst Festival attendees as well as those who will not be coming, but love to grouse (sometimes more vociferously than those who are actually making the trip).

There’s a myriad of topics that my fellow film fanatics take exception to, but the most “controversial” of all seems to be “what” constitutes a “classic.” This is not a new point of contention. It seems as long as TCM has been programming content for broadcast, this argument of semantics has been worn out, beaten and trampled to near oblivion. But, for some reason known only to the film fan, it will not die.

The safest definition of a “classic” is any film made under the studio system, prior to 1970. Once that system started to crumble; set upon by the economy, politics, a new and younger consumer, changing mores and values; the days of the studio bosses were no more. Independent producers and artists forged new, exciting territory that ushered in a new era.

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Self-named purists will go a bit further. They concur with Michael Goldburg’s definition from his tome “Classical Hollywood Cinema” that Classic Movies’ period parallels the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” which ran from 1927 to 1963, from the release of The Jazz Singer through the final death knell of studios’ monopoly ownership of the theatre chains. Still, other hardcore purity-puritans will argue it’s from 1929 (when sound was almost fully accepted) to 1950. And then there is an even more underground, over-hyped, Tea-Partyish fundamental group of enthusiasts who claim classic film covers just the movies directed by William Desmond Taylor.

So, when the 2015 TCM Film Fest schedule was released this week, it was tantamount to Martin Luther’s 95 theses being nailed to the church door. Fanatics took to Twitter, to Facebook and to all manner of social media to decry that TCM has “lost their minds.” They were “super disappointed”, the programming “uninspired” “dull,” one going so far as to say “their programming sucks. I’ve been telling them that since Year 1.” Another says the TCM programmer “got drunk and chose a film at random without much thought behind the selection.” While yet still another lamented: “if I am told it is a TCM CLASSIC Film Festival, I have every right to the expectation that the overwhelming majority of the fare be what I fully believe Mr. Robert Osborne himself would define as a classic movie.” Another is secure that “empty theatres will tell TCM all they need to know.” There are even factions that plan on having their “voices heard” at the Meet TCM Panel at the beginning of the festival, to complain about this loose definition of classic, while others fear that they won’t follow through with their resolve, and pull a “Caine Mutiny.”  (These are all real quotes, btw).

People. Chill.

Robert Osborne and all the hard-working TCM staff “know” what constitutes a “classic.” They hear you. But they also hear bigger, louder, more abundantly populated voices that represent numbers and facts. The niche classic film followers (and it is a niche group) make up a small minority of the movie-going, paying public. TCM needs to not just appease the very “boutique” tastes of our numbers, but tap into the public that may not be completely familiar with Louise Brooks, Gregg Toland or Edith Head. It takes a spoonful of sugar, children. By including such crowd pleasers as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Out of Sight, perhaps some millennial who lined up just to see that one film, sticks around and accidentally discovers Roman Holiday or The Grim Game. For folks who dig SNL  and 30 Rock, having Alec Baldwin moderating a Q&A with William Friedkin means maybe they’ll stick around to see what that French Connection movie is all about.

George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh's Neo Noir OUT OF SIGHT (1998).
George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s Neo Noir OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

Yes, I’m oversimplifying the situation, but on the other end of the spectrum, we film fanatics are overcomplicating it. By broadening our definitions, and opening doors wider, won’t we then be converting more people to come to the nitrate side? A classic to you may not be a classic to me.

Some of these dissenters argue that TCM strays too far from the themes they offer each year. Yes, they do. This year’s theme is “History According to Hollywood.” So how else would they be able to include a lost Harry Houdini film, or pay homage to Sophia Loren or get to see The Apartment with star Shirley Maclaine in attendance, without pushing past the labels of a theme? Grease is, personally, not to my taste, but I promise you, that screening will be overflowing with folks dressed as bobbysoxers, and greasers, singing along to “You’re the One that I Want.” And for anybody under 50 – guess what – that time period is history.

Let’s be honest, hundreds of TCM fans not even connected to social media are thrilled at the chance to get to spend four days in Wonderland. And in fact, thousands who can’t afford to make the journey live vicariously through those of us lucky enough to attend. (And let’s be honest, some of the loudest complainers are folks who gain access without paying. We know who we are.)

Interestingly, after all the complaining and hand-wringing,  one brave, lone voice on social media pointed out that the number of films in the festival that pre-date 1960 is still in the majority. So the purists are still getting their “pure classic” fix.

Lenny

I personally don’t label “only films from 1927 to 1970” as classics. 1974’s Earthquake is a classic  disaster movie, just as that year’s Lenny offers a classic performance by Dustin Hoffman (who will be in attendance, thankyouverymuch)! On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is an underappreciated James Bond classic.

If we demand TCM limit its definitions, would we have been able to dance in the aisles last year at the 50th anniversary screening of A Hard Day’s Night, or revel in the live appearance of Mel Brooks for Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, or hear the late great Albert Maysles re-live the Altamont disaster for Gimme Shelter, or shrink in our seats at the midnight screening of Eraserhead? What other film festival even covers all these titles, and yet still offers up hand cranked movies?

I ask: why not allow the idea of TCM considering more contemporary films as modern classics? You might curl your upper lip at the AMC model, and no one–least of all me–wants TCM to turn into the next AMC. But the fact is: AMC was the 8th most watched cable network in 2013, whereas TCM didn’t crack the top 10. While, thankfully, TCM remains uncut and commercial free, eking its revenues off giants like HBO and Showtime, the fact remains: it needs to survive. And if that means a tithe, a benign ‘tip of the hat’ to air some newer films in order to attract a larger viewing audience, then so be it.

So I ask you, my classic film fanatic brethren: can’t we all just view along? Can’t we rejoice instead of criticize the four days of unbridled movie going, fellowship and memories that the TCM Film Festival fosters? Can’t we rally behind TCM, and show their parent company and all the folks who work tirelessly to bring our favorite films into our homes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that we support and love them? There’s no denying debate is healthy, and constructive criticism is necessary and helpful. And TCM constantly offers opportunities for outreach and for dialogue. But biting the hand that feeds you gives you nothing, except no more food, and quite possibly, no hand.

I say” Long live classic film! Long Live TCM! And long live all you film fanatics that I call family.” Let’s make this year the Best. Festival. Ever.

hard days night

About Wade Sheeler 145 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

30 Comments

    • Names were not mentioned as we felt it tasteful not to. However, you may review the entire thread referenced by joining the Facebook group “Going to TCM Film Fest,” however, it looks like it’s currently a closed group.

  1. Great article! Love the quotes…wow, I hadn’t seen anything like that (guess I’m not paying enough attention!)

    Really appreciate you taking the time to explain that the sky really isn’t falling. “People. Chill.” …indeed.

  2. This is perfect. It seems like a lot of people don’t understand the concept of marketing to a wider audience, of changing things up to engage with those who aren’t necessarily classic film fanatics.

    As far as a specific period denoting “classics”, well, time is ever moving on so it only makes sense to reassess and expand the definition.

  3. Hear hear! As someone who would just love to go to a TCMFF I couldn’t agree more! All our beloved classics started life as a modern film, and being closed minded when it comes to what makes a classic is just as bad as people saying “Black and white movies are boring”. We all love TCM and the TCMFF but I think sometimes people forget how lucky we are to have them and if the price to pay is Grease and Out of Sight then it is, as Shakespeare said, “too small a price for so great a bounty”. Very well written sir!

  4. Well said, man. I may need post my take on this very issue. Not that I disagree, I’m right with you. The real danger of defining Classic too narrowly is that we might miss out on picking the brains of a generation of filmmakers whose careers fall after that Classic period, who by the way are also getting up in years.

    I commend TCM trying to hit a compromise that allows them to define what is a modern classic and celebrate the likes Dustin Hoffman along side Gary Cooper. All I know is that if TCM had truly lost it, how come I had such a tough time deciding what I want to see this year.

  5. I am thrilled that you wrote this piece. TCM Film Fest Fans, some of them, are becoming spoiled by the embaraasment of riches that is the TCM fest. I regret the 5 minutes of my life I wasted reading one particular lady’s rant on Facebook about how the festival has gone downhill. Downhill? Norman Lloyd, Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Shirley Maclaine, Dustin Hoffman, Ann Margret, Spike Lee, Alec Balwdwin. Girl, BYE. Many beloved stars have passed away, and yet somehow TCM still finds a way to bring many classic stars to the festival. But what I have found is that some of the experts, Bruce Goldstein, Barron and Burt, etc. are even more entertaining than the celebs. The pass price is justified because shutting down the most famous theaters in the world is pricey. Norman Lloyd is worth the price of admission alone. I think a lot of the naysayers are those that don’t have a pass and are trying to convince themselves that they won’t be missing out, so essentially haters. I will be there in full fangirl status and I can’t wait to see Spike Lee at Malcolm X and Norman Lloyd at the Montalban!

  6. This is a great article and a much needed dose of reality. I’ve never done the LA Festival but have been on three of the cruises. On the first one, I had an attitude about the films shown but I realized I was having more fun at the talks and other events, making it worth going. I agree that it just takes relaxing and appreciating what you have rather than lament what is missing.

  7. Yes to all of this! I’m so grateful that this festival even exists. There’s no other place I’m going to see people like Kim Novak, Maureen O’Hara, Margaret O’Brien and Alan Arkin in the same weekend, or their amazing films, in addition to silents, amazing midnight films, and pool party screenings. The diverse eccentricity of it is what makes it great. I am thrilled that I may get to see Christopher Plummer, Ann-Margret, Shirley MacLaine, Sophia Loren and who knows who else within the space of four days. That is once-in-a-lifetime stuff! I kind of get why films like Out of Sight or Apollo 13 might make a classics fan worry about some kind of modern film creep in the festival, but I don’t think outrage is an appropriate response. Those films really aren’t screened anywhere else either, and there are still more older classics available than anyone could humanly see. Overall, I think most folks don’t understand how difficult it is to put on an event of this size and how much compromise and strategy it requires. Anyway, great piece.

    • You’re right – this is once-in-a-lifetime stuff! And the difficulty of putting on any festival is a mammoth undertaking, let alone one as vast as TCM! We here at Black Maria had our first screening at the end of January – just one night – one screening — and it was a tremendous amount of work and planning. NOTHING compared to what the folks at TCM go through, but definitely gives perspective. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

  8. Excellent! How did you know what I was thinking? Great writing and so to the point. I have no complaints; TCM saves us every day by providing us the films we want to see and the festival is full of those we also want to meet. Kudos. I’ll be at the festival again this year and I welcome the additions. It’s true I’ll be seeing mostly the “real” classic films, but when else would I get to meet Dustin Hoffman or Spike Lee unless their films were shown. Great job!

  9. Excellent article and I thank you for your comments. However, at the risk of being the only one in the crowd who disagrees, I must make one more point. As a loyal TCM watcher, I watch it specifically because I won’t find films made in the (what I call) desert years of movies – anything after 1960. Granted there are some excellent movies that have been made after 1960 but they are few and far between. But I digress… The point of TCM -to me – is that it is a place where I can go to watch pre-1960 movies exclusively. It is one of the only – and the BEST – channel for this purpose. Commercial-free, un-cut, and the way the director wanted them to be shown. If I want to see movies after 1960, I can tune to any of the hundreds of other channels on TV to watch them – Showtime, HBO, Epix, Starz, Encore – just to quickly name a few. So why does TCM feel it has to add itself to this long list of channels that spew out the same old thing? Why can’t we have a channel devoted just to pre-1960 movies? Yes, there is getTV, AntennaTV, and COZI, but they all have commercials and don’t have the same quality of movies or other entertainment I enjoy on TCM. They don’t have Ben M. or Robert O. giving me insight into the history of the movies and actors. They don’t have “first time one TV” events like TCM. They don’t have guest programmers. They don’t have film festivals!

    So although I understand TCM’s decision to air more “modern classics” in order to pull in more viewers and make more money, I don’t have to like it. I also don’t have to watch it. I will continue to do as I have been doing for the past 6 months since the more modern movies have cropped up on TCM – I will record the classic movies I want to see, watch them at my leisure, and not watch TCM the rest of the time. Instead of being glued to the TV and TCM all day long, I will now have to pick and chose the movies I watch instead of enjoying the full line-up that TCM offers. If this is the trade-off TCM is willing to make in order to bring in a few more viewers, then we all will live with it.

    To each his own. Perhaps I watch too much TV anyway…

    • Wow, Thumpersma – a very well written response. I would go as far as say this is a “think piece” all its own, and you bring up a very important and unique idea – that TCM means a myriad of things to a myriad of people. It becomes almost impossible to categorize or define its unique impact on everyone in one sweeping general statement. Since you’ve framed your opinion so well, in that your construct of TCM is what works for you, there can be no disagreement. And please know that I’m not being facetious. Millions of people go to the Louvre every year and there are a million reactions to it. Just thank God the Louvre still stands, so it can be all things to all people. My only wish and hope, above all others, is that TCM continues endlessly, so it can touch countless others, so like us, they can have their own personal, unique love affairs with it. Thank you so much for your thoughtful response.

    • I agree with you. Recently, I find myself being more selective on TCM. I go thru the movie guide when it arrives & have noticed more “current ” (Post 1960) movies. I guess I’m just a purist when it comes to my movies. If it wasn’t made in black & white during the 1940’s, 50’s it’s hard for me to give it a chance. I feel the younger viewer will find & support TCM if they are true classic movie buffs. Speaking for myself, I feel the majority of TCM viewers might be feeling somewhat shortchanged because it seems the true “classic” is being taken away from us in order to cater to the younger viewer.

  10. Bravo, Wade. Totally agree.

    I admit that I fired off a few dispirited tweets when the early announcements were made – the Apollo 13s and the Out of Sights and the Raiders of the Lost Arks. Still, I knew TCM Fest would announce plenty of the kinds of film I want to see eventually, and they did. I actually think this is one of the most well-rounded fest lineups so far. I think as someone who lives in LA myself and is spoiled by rep screening availability, I have to constantly remind myself that most people coming to the fest don’t and may not have a chance to see films like Raiders on the big screen any other time. The thing is, with 80+ films over three and a half days, even if you only watch films from before 1970, you STILL won’t be able to see everything you want, so there’s no real reason to be upset that there are a few films from a time period you don’t think is “classic.” You don’t have to watch them.

    Any disappointment I had in the beginning I think is more general than “TCM Fest is adding newer films” – it’s more like “TCM has to advertise the newer films first because that’s what gets more widespread attention” when what I really want is for the general public to be excited about a new restoration of a long-forgotten Pre-code film. I KNOW that’s never going to happen. It just feels like the early press releases are always geared toward stuff I don’t care about. Even then, there are exceptions, though! The Grim Game was one of the first things announced! But yeah. That’s just a general and pointless complaint into the void of “why don’t people care about the same things I care about!”

    • Thank you so much, Jandy! BTW: I just watched “Illicit” with Stanwyck last night. Really enjoyed it, and was surprised by its gender politics for the period, but then again, it’s pre-code!

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