If You Think Throwing a Classic Film Fest Together Is Easy, You’re Wrong

This what it takes to create the TCM Classic Film Festival

For one spring weekend each year, Hollywood becomes a mecca for classic film lovers, as specialty channel Turner Classic Movies puts on its relatively new (but already beloved) film festival. Like other niche fests, TCM Classic Film Festival (April 28 – May 1), now in its sixth year, is an unwieldy undertaking: while organizers can cull a program from the entire catalog of cinema history, they are limited by the formats in which various films are available (if they’re available at all). To learn how TCM comes together, we spoke with Managing Director Genevieve McGillicuddy and and Senior Vice President of Programming Charlie Tabesh ahead of this week’s kick-off.

Each TCM Fest has a theme. This year, it’s “Moving Pictures.” At what point in the planning do you come up with the theme?
Charlie Tabesh: I would say near the beginning. There’s some thought given to what movies we’re going to get, but usually it works the other way. We’ll start with, ‘This would be an interesting theme, and here are some of the movies that would fit into that theme,’ rather than ‘These are the movies we might get, and therefore let’s build a theme around them.’ It has happened that way, and there’s a bit of a push and pull there, but I’d say the theme usually comes a little bit before the movie selection. By about two months after the end of the last festival, we’ve probably settled on our theme.

Genevieve McGillicuddy: Pretty much every year coming out of the festival we’ll regroup, recharge, and consider ideas for where we might go next year. The other thing we might start discussing at that point is some titles we’ll think about and key anniversaries coming up.

Anniversaries are an obvious peg. What else shapes the program?
CT:What’s newly restored is important. Once we settle on a theme, we look for good fits. What talent might be available to us that we might be able to get. That works both ways—we may get the film first and then add the talent, and other times the talent first and then we add the film. Once you have all of those factors, you want a good balance of bigger, well-known movies versus discoveries, and different scenarios and genres, and trying to put it all together and create some sort of balance.

And what’s chosen is a reflection of what’s already been decided upon. Maybe we’ve already got plenty of ’70s movies, and we need to make sure we balance that out with some earlier films. Maybe we’ve got enough silent films already, and we need to make sure that we’re focusing on pre-code talkies. It’s a variety of factors, and we certainly get ideas from all over the place, including fans and other people on the staff and the talent.

What sort of conditions affect whether you’ll be showing a digital version or film print of a movie, and how do you sort out which venues in which to screen what?
CT: It’s a really important consideration. The Egyptian is the workhorse theater for us because it can play digital or film. The other venues are either digital or film—you can only populate them with one or the other. The other factor is that the venues are different sizes, so some films might make more sense for a bigger venue and some for a smaller venue. This kind of makes the puzzle a little more complicated, because you might have a film print that’s worthy of a bigger venue, but the only workable time slot is in a very small theater.

GM: We try to be judicious about matching what we need in terms of format with the equipment that we have. The El Capitan happens to only do digital; that’s the equipment they have and what we were permitted to do there. We do also bring in our own equipment to make more possible—specifically, being able to show prints. We work with the Chinese Theater on that, and it gives us more capability in terms of doing any of these formats.

What goes into striking the balance between well-known classics and more obscure fare?
CT: We strive for hitting different points within that range, not only throughout the weekend, but in any given time period as well. If it’s noon on Saturday, you’ll have a choice between a blockbuster, something more obscure, and something in-between. There are a lot of people for whom this is their first chance to see an iconic movie on a big screen. They might be from a small city that doesn’t have a revival theater, or they haven’t had a chance to see The King and I on the big screen, and that would be awesome. At the same time, there are people who really want to come and see things that they’ve never seen before anywhere. Sometimes you want to see something that’s familiar and sometimes you want to be more adventurous. We try to accommodate that.

GM: You might look at picks like The King and I and It’s a Wonderful Life and think, ‘Big deal, people have seen that.’ Truthfully, when was the last time most people saw It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen? Probably very few have had that opportunity. The biggest thing about the festival for us is bringing together that community of movie lovers to enjoy these films together.

How often do you want to program something that you’re unable to get?
CT: We’re almost always able to figure it out. There are times when we can’t because the underlying material doesn’t exist, or there’s just nothing out there. One that stands out is A Little Romance, a George Roy Hill movie which I love. I couldn’t get a print of it, and still I haven’t been able to play it.

GM: Every year, there seems to be one film, and often it’s a surprising title—something you would think we would be able to find easily. What’s sad is that we won’t be able to show a film simply because there are not suitable elements, meaning it hasn’t been restored yet, or it’s just not possible to restore in time. As you can imagine, we really go to the ends of the Earth to find prints. Last year, we had several that we were only able to get from Australia, for example.

CT: This year, there’s One Potato, Two Potato. There was a print in London that had to come here and be rejuvenated and go through the entire process to be playable, and it wasn’t until about a week ago that we were really confident we were going to be able to play it at all.

Older Hollywood films were even more white-dominated and male-dominated than they are currently. What effort, if any, do you make to have some kind of diversity in the lineup?
CT: It is a consideration. Not a dominant one but something to be aware of. I think Boyz n the Hood is a great example of something that felt appropriate this year. We work closely with Donald Vogel, a professor who’s done some diversity programming with us. He suggested it, since this year is the film’s 25th anniversary, and John Singleton was eager to do it, so it was perfect. Another example is One Potato, Two Potato, which is a great film about an interracial romance and makes sort of a nice double feature with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which we’re also showing. Then Never Fear, which was directed by Ida Lupino. That was a consideration as well: trying to make sure we had a woman director, especially because TCM has a three-year series devoted to trailblazing women in the film industry. It’s not paramount, but we definitely want to showcase some diversity.

How often do you try to reach outside of American film?
GM: Our bread and butter has always been classic Hollywood, but we’ve always reached out and certainly acknowledged and celebrated other parts of film history. This year, I think we have three examples: Band of Outsiders, the Argentinian noir Los Tallos Amargos, and Cinema Paradiso. We want to make sure we represent international film, and there’s definitely an audience for it and a group of people who appreciate it. It always has been and should be part of the festival.