The question of whether or not Asheville would support a theater—or a part of a theater—devoted to showing older movies—by which I mean movies not currently in release—has come up several times in discussions I’ve had with local theater managers. It’s a question to which there is no easy answer, though input from moviegoing readers might offer some clues in the matter.
For those of you not old enough to remember the pre-video days, rep houses and university showings were once the only way to see many movies that weren’t in current circulation. These theaters sometimes played a major role in sparking interest in filmmakers who were not generally known or who had been long forgotten. The long-gone Bleecker Street Cinema in New York City, for example, was instrumental in bringing Alfred Hitchcock’s British films to public consciousness, proving that there was more to early Hitch than just The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). A traveling tribute to Rouben Mamoulian—consisting of four of his movies—made the virtually forgotten filmmaker a household name among cineastes in the early 1970s.
The list could go on and on of what rep house theaters and universities accomplished. That these venues were all but killed—there are still a few—by home video is undeniable. The question is whether such would be viable, especially in the age of home theater.
The argument, of course, is that no one is—or certainly few are—going to come out to see a movie that they can buy or rent and watch in the comfort of their own home, especially if their own home includes a large-screen TV and 5.1 channel sound. (Of course, 5.1 channel sound benefits you very little if you’re watching, say, Casablanca.) It’s a pretty solid argument, too, but it’s not the whole story.
Were there absolutely no market for this, then neither the World Cinema showings, the Hendersonville Film Society, nor the occasional library screenings exist. Granted, these are worked on a donation or even free basis, but they do draw audiences of varying sizes. That proves that there’s still some interest in seeing movies in something at least approaching a theatrical manner—seeing them as a group experience that extends beyond half a dozen people in your living room.
A friend of mine who lives in Toronto recently attended some of the showings of movies held by that city’s Jewish Film Festival. Two of the films he saw—the Four Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933) and Astaire and Rogers in Swing Time (1936)—are most certainly easily available on DVD and have been for some considerable time. Did people turn out for them? Based on what I’ve been told, yes, they did. Duck Soup mayn’t have packed a 400 seat theater, but even at three-quarter capacity, that makes a statement about the possible practicality of such a screening. According to my friend, Swing Time didn’t fare quite as well, but still drew a respectable crowd. It’s worth noting perhaps that the Marx Brothers have more of a cult following and that their Jewishness is more to the point at such a festival than that of composer Jerome Kern as concerns Swing Time.
Two things immediately leap out at you if you think about this, of course. First of all, Toronto is much larger than Asheville. But more important than that is the consideration—one that comes into play with our local film groups—that drawing a crowd for one showing of Duck Soup or Swing Time is considerably different than what you could expect if either of those movies played for a week or more. That’s a very real consideration. It is perhaps not an insurmountable one.
Consider this as a prospect. Instead of booking a film for a solid week, what if the old model of changing the bill twice a week was adopted? That’s imperfect, of course, because your Sunday-Wednesday fare isn’t getting the full weekend break of your Thursday-Saturday movies. Of course, the approach worked for theaters right up through the mid-1960s at least, and it could be effectively monkeyed about so that all the films could get some weekend play.
The thing about this is that, no, you’re not going to fill a theater with this sort of thing, but what about a well-designed, intelligently thought-out screening room with more limited seating? With technology what it is, that’s not overwhelming as a concept. With the amazing advances in DVD projection these days, it wouldn’t even require film—just first-class equipment. From a practical standpoint, this reduces the not inconsiderable shipping charges for 40-50 pounds of 35mm print.
From an aesthetic standpoint, something else is gained—selection. The problem—especially in our post-16mm era—of availability has long stymied this kind of programming. Back in the glory days of rep houses and university screenings, it wasn’t that hard to come by a pretty impressive array of titles. At that time, there were companies—or branches of distributors—that specialized in providing 16mm prints for this purpose. That’s pretty much gone by the wayside. And if you can locate a good 35mm copy today, chances are it’s going to be what’s called an archival print. Those come with the problem that they can only be shown from reels. They can’t be spliced together onto a platter as a continuous film and require a two projector set-up (which no one has locally) and a projectionist who knows how to effect a smooth changeover from projector to projector every 15-20 minutes. In all honesty, I’m the only person I know who has ever done that—and that was 35 years ago.
With DVD projection—which will one day be replaced by plain digital projection—new possibilities open up. The selection—while far from endless—has become much broader. And while the quality isn’t on a par with 35mm or actual digital (where the file size for a movie tends to be between 125 and 250 gigabytes), it’s surprisingly good—presupposing a well-authored disc and good equipment. Quite frankly, if it’s done right, it looks better than what we saw in 16mm 30-odd years ago. Plus, the sound is better and the prints are in better condition.
From a purely technical standpoint, there’s no reason why such a concept wouldn’t work—and work nicely. From an aesthetic standpoint, there’s much to be gained from the approach. You may, for example, think you’ve seen Duck Soup because you saw it on TV or you rented or even bought the DVD. Fine. But you really haven’t seen it unless you’ve seen it with an appreciate audience—the way it was meant to be seen. That’s particularly true of comedies, but it holds true with heavier fare, too. Never sell audience vibe short. There’s much to be said for the concept of the shared experience. And there’s the whole size consideration. While a screening room screen isn’t going to be full theater size, it’s still going to give a closer approximation of the theatrical experience than 99 percent of any home theaters. Trust me, when Marlene Dietrich and her troops charge up the steps inside the Russian palace in The Scarlet Empress (1934), it takes size to fully appreciate the loopiness of the spectacle.
Technical considerations to one said, the biggest component in this is, I believe, that of creative programming. While there’s something to be said for merely running whatever might appeal—and guessing what might appeal—the more viable approach from what I’ve seen work elsewhere lies in doing films in some kind of series approach. There are many reasons why this is likely to work better, not the least of which is that audiences build over a time. The viewer who takes a chance on a film in a Hitchcock series and likes what he or she sees is likely come back for another shot of Hitch—and bring friends. I’ve watched library series expand in exactly this manner.
In its simplest form, a series can be a collection built around a director or a star, but it can be much more than that and offer another kind of a draw. Movies can be tied together by theme or era, for example. With so much attention being paid to pre-code movies these days—MGM has brought out two or three sets, Universal just brought out one—that seems like a natural, especially when you realize that there are more pre-code movies out there that haven’t been marketed as pre-code. For example, A. Edward Sutherland’s International House (1933) with W.C. Fields has been out for a long time as part of a Fields collection, but it’s far racier than a number of the movies being promoted on their pre-code basis.
There’s also the possibility of a seasonal approach in some cases. Christmas movies are an obvious—albeit rather trite—choice, but this could go further. I was surprised last year when Matt Mittan (who loves to surprise me) started asking about suitable movies for the Fourth of July. I cringed when I started envisioning the worst of flag-waving movies, but then found that his callers had suggested such interesting titles as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942)—films that actually address the issue of freedom. I could get behind a double-bill like that any July 4.
Let’s go a step further and examine something that was posted in Weekly Reeler only this morning concerning the prospect of intelligently paired films. This opens an entirely different area of exploration. How much richer might the experience be if one were to pair James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with Bill Condon’s speculative biopic on Whale, Gods and Monsters (1999)? Or what about F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) with E. Elias Merhige’s fantasticated film about the supposed making of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire (2000)? Then there’s the possibility of teaming Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2004) with films that are referenced in it like Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932) or Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933). And this could go on—these are matches that I’m only tosssing out as they occur to me.
My point is that I think all these things—or some variations on them—that could and probably should be done. I bring them up now because such an idea—or something like it—is actually being kicked around as we speak. I’m not at liberty to say much about it at this time apart from that. But the fact of it as a very real possibility makes the rep house—or rep screening room—something worth thinking about on a more than “wouldn’t it be cool if” basis. The question for readers is whether or not they’d really support such an undertaking. Would you?