Friday, May 10, 2013

TCM Classic Film Festival - Press Conference with Charles Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy

This is the third of my transcripts for the Press Conference that happened on Wednesday April 24th, 2013 at the TCM Classic Film Festival. This was a Q&A with Charles Tabesh, Senior VP of Programming, and Genevieve McGillicuddy, Managing Director of the festival. I tried to be as thorough as possible but there is some paraphrasing along with some quoting. It's not word-for-word but as close as I can get to it. Note that various people asked questions at the press conference. Enjoy!

Question: How does TCM come up with programming ideas?

Charles Tabesh: Tabesh says they get lots of ideas from fans of TCM who write in with suggestions. If it's something they did somewhat recently but there is still demand for it, they might keep it mind for the future but they don't want to be too repetitive. They go through message boards for ideas too. TCM tries to be open to ideas and they evaluate to see what would work and what would not.

Question: What do you think is the appeal of Film Noir? It was mentioned that several noirs are being shown at the festival.

Charles Tabesh: Last year's festival theme was style and noir fit in perfectly with that. They got a lot of great feedback and wanted to make sure that noirs were featured in this year's festival too. People love seeing film noir on the big screen, the mood is so rich in those films and resonates well with audiences.

Question: How did TCM react to Jonathan Winters, from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) passing away before the festival started? (He was scheduled to appear at the screening) What is the cutoff date for a film to be considered classic?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: TCM was very sad to hear about the passing of Jonathan Winters and planned to do a tribute to him at the It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World screening.

Charles Tabesh: TCM had to do a last minute adjustment and it was emotional for them. In reference to the second question, the way that TCM defines what is a classic is all about the context. An example of something that was done recently was Katherine Hepburn as Star of the Month on TCM. They wanted to play every film from her career that they could, from the films she did in the early 1930s all the way until her last film Love Affair (1994). Love Affair was not a very good movie, not considered a classic, but in context with Katherine Hepburn's career they thought it was important to show her last performance. Tabesh makes it clear that there is no time cutoff date for TCM. He says that they are all about the history of movies and part of that history is newer films too. Part of TCM's mission is to branch out and be a little more adventurous from time to time.

Question: How did you come up with the sub-themes in Cinematic Journeys like River as a Road? Would you consider doing an LGBT special on TCM?

Charles Tabesh: TCM brainstorms on the sub-themes. Sometimes they worked around a title in particular. For example, this year they premiered a restoration of The General (1926) and because a train is prominent in that film they decided it was logical to include other films featuring trains as a form of travel. Also, the sub-themes help to put together newer and older films, the more well-known and the more obscure. There is no hard rule, they just do what feels right. As for the second question, they did do a series a few years ago called Screened Out: Gay Images in Film and they'd love to explore that again. In terms of the festival, they would love include it depending on what their broader theme is. They don't know what their theme is for next year's festival.

Question: The diversity of programming on the different TCMs around the world are very different. The other international TCMs don't have as much variety. Is there any way that TCM could help out those other ones to diversify their programming?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: They are in communication with the TCMs around the world and try to collaborate with them when they can. There are TCMs in Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc. The different TCMs have different goals and different branding. There are certain things TCM shares with the others. Programming varies from region to region.

Charles Tabesh: Each TCM programs differently and one of the reasons is rights. Some of the films in the library that TCM in the US has available to them may have been sold to other channels in other territories and the TCMs there might not have access to them. There is no way for them to have an exact match in programming with the other TCMs. Also, the business models are different. Some just have different sensibilities. TCM Spain likes more edgy and more contemporary classics. TCM is lucky that they've been able to give these other territories some broad access to their library. They have been able to negotiate deals when they've been able to go deep and get better access to films.

Question: How do you chose which films should be screened at certain times on the channel?

Charles Tabesh: TCM doesn't edit the films they show so they are careful when they place them on air. That's rare on basic cable because a lot of channels show edited versions of films but TCM won't do that. If there are a lot of bad words or nudity, they will play it later at night. They usually save those films for after 10 PM West Coast time. Thankfully DVRs are becoming more prevalent so it helps TCM with this issue of having to play these films at inaccessible hours.

If it's an older film without any content issues they try to play it once during prime time hours and might play it again much later in the evening so as to give both West and East coast better access to the film.

Question: Any chance of some more Fredric March in the future? [Bonus points if you guess the blogger who asked this question.]

Genevieve McGillicuddy: Turns out Genevieve is a fan!

Charles Tabesh: Yes, of course. March was Star of the Month a couple of years ago but they are open to playing more of his films in the future.

Question: There are more films this year presented digitally at the festival than there were at the first festival in 2010. Are you particular or not particular about format?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: When TCM started this festival, it was important to them to screen the films the way they were mean to be seen. They try to stay true to original aspect ratio, no editing, no censoring, etc. And they want to show the films in the best possible format they could. Sometimes that's 35mm which is great because that's the way those films were originally shown. However, there have been some challenges that have come up. Internally, the team has paid close attention to that world premiere restorations such as the ones they are having at the festival are being produced in a digital format. TCM thinks they look fantastic and are really happy to be able to present those films. For the time being, the festival will always be a combination of digital and film. They take this so seriously that 20% of the festival budget goes to projection and technical support. TCM works very closely with the venues screening the films to make sure they can do 35mm but sometimes they have to bring in all that equipment to make it happen (for the Chinese Multiplexes in particular). McGillicuddy points out how they were able to work the Cinerama Dome, El Capitan and the Egyptian who all screen at multiple formats. What's important to them is to show the best possible version of a film they can. For example, they had been working very hard to track down the best possible print of The Ladykillers (1955). In fact, they found one and it was delivered just in time for the festival. Ultimately, it's all about the best possible presentation of a film.

Charles Tabesh: Sometimes the decision comes down to choosing between a very poor film print and a good digital restoration. Industry restorations are more digital these days.

Question: Can you talk about the importance of the venues at the festival? How do you decide which films go to which venues and is this a decision based on theme? Also, where do the prints come from and how do you find them?

Charles Tabesh: As far as thematic programming at venues, there isn't much to tie in together. Cinerama Dome is one example though because of 70mm and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) (I would later find out that the Cinerama Dome was built with that movie in mind). Other than that it's based on size of venue and how popular the film is going to be. How do they gauge that? It's a guess. Sometimes they'll get talent that's already scheduled for one of the smaller venues and they don't confirm until the last minute and that's just the way it goes. They just know that certain films like The Great Escape (1963) will draw a huge crowd. This is all combined with format and how the different venues are set up for different formats.

Question: How often do you rely on film archives for the festival and for the channel in general?

Genevieve McGillicuddy: It is crucial that they have ongoing relationships with the Library of Congress, Film Foundation, the Academy, UCLA, the list goes on, otherwise they would not be able to obtain some of the prints they have screened.

Charles Tabesh: And the studios as well. Some studios are much more willing to lend out whatever prints they have. If the studio doesn't have a good print of something, TCM will go around asking the archives to see if they have one. TCM has great relationships with a lot of studios and archives. Sometimes they are not able to find good prints and will have to work programming around that.

Question:  How many people are involved in the selection process of the festival and how ugly does it get?

Charles Tabesh: There is a core team of about three or four people that meets regularly really early on and they talk through ideas and plans. The same goes with the channel where there is a programming department. There is collaboration in terms of talking but certain individuals make decisions. Collaborating is important but personal vision is important too.

(Interjection: This was kind of difficult to understand but it seems like a few key people make decisions and they are given leeway to do so. I think Tabesh was trying to be careful answering this question.)

Question: About the channel, how concerned is TCM about ratings?

Charles Tabesh: Zero. TCM doesn't get any ratings. Tabesh doesn't even think they are allowed to get ratings. When AMC added commercials to their programming some years ago, cable service providers became concerned because they started getting a lot of complaints from subscribers. Those providers wanted to make sure that TCM never went that route. It's written into contracts they have with providers that they are not allowed to have ratings or commercials. They try to show what they think would be popular but they also try to show a good mix every month of the bigger better known films and everything else. TCM wants to have variety. They are not trying to maximize any certain demographic or target anything.

Genevieve McGillicuddy: It is crucial that they remain, from a business perspective, commercial-free. That's really the core of the TCM brand. Being commercial-free is important to the fans as well as to TCM and they are proud to have stuck to that vision of what they wanted their channel to be.

Question: What role does TCM play in major film restorations that were premiered at the festival? Was it at TCM's suggestion? Did TCM contribute financially?

Charles Tabesh: There is some back-and-forth with studios but for the most part they don't fund restorations. For example, TCM did not help fund the restoration for Funny Girl (1968) but they did do some funding for I am Suzanne! (1933). For the most part, the studios take care of those big restorations. About a year before the festival, Tabesh would solicit the studios for information about any restoration projects they had in the works to get a feel for what might work for programming. Tabesh and McGillicuddy discuss to see if that restoration has an important anniversary or would fit the programming for that particular festival. The restorations are mostly handled solely by the studios who do them in preparation for a Blu-Ray release.

Tabesh also notes that the restoration will also be shown on TCM around the time of the DVD or Blu-Ray release. This is almost like an ad for the studio because people watch it on TCM then want to buy it.

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