Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Cinefest, Part I: The Experience

My Cinefest lanyard and booklet

The grand finale of Cinefest was bittersweet for many. Regulars and newcomers alike felt the pang of sorrow coupled with the excitement of seeing old friends, meeting new ones and being treated to rare cinematic treasures. My trip to Cinefest was my first and last and while I was there I couldn’t help feeling like I had crashed someone else’s family reunion. The bond between the festival-goers who held Cinefest near and dear to their hearts was strong. I got to witness something truly special. And while it was coming to an end there was a lingering hope that a reincarnation was possible sometime in the future.

Cinefest dealer's room

Cinefest has been running for three-and-a-half decades, as long as I’ve been alive, and the final show, Cinefest 35 took place at the Liverpool/Syracuse, NY Holiday Inn. The hotel’s convention center houses Cinefest's screening room, complete with a projectionist stand, a waiting area, a dining room which features an endless supply of free popcorn and two dealer’s rooms. When I arrived at the hub of Cinefest I was met with an overwhelming odor of cigarettes, mold and must that mostly came from the dealer’s rooms. It took some getting used to but it eventually grew on me. Everything here was old from the films, the objects and the souls. During the four days of the festival, dealers sold many different types of goods of varying legality. Bootleg DVDs, CDs, 16mm and 35mm films, used books, posters, magazines and more. Attendees would dip in and out of the dealer’s rooms, exploring the wares and making purchases, all throughout the festival.

Complimentary popcorn

The ladies at the registration table outside the dealer rooms greeted attendees, answered questions and distributed welcome packs. My 4-day pass was $75, $10 off for registering early, and my welcome pack came with a lanyard and name tag, a Cinefest 35 coaster and a booklet complete with the full festival schedule and notes for each screening. I can’t fully express how invaluable a resource that booklet was during my time at Cinefest. I referred to the schedule numerous times, negotiating with myself about what I would see and when I would take breaks. The show notes were written by the organizers, often by the person providing the film for the screening. In some cases the films were so rare and so little was known about them that original newspaper reviews were offered instead.

Projectionist stand

The films screened at Cinefest came in all shapes and sizes and formats. We saw shorts, feature-length films and clips and these were projected in 16mm, 35mm and digital format from a DVD player or computer. Digital projection proved to be the most problematic. Some of those screenings had to be restarted a few times or postponed. This caused some of the attendees to grumble in frustration while others cheered for the triumph of old technology over new.

Another view of the projectionist stand.
We are all applauding the fine work the projectionists did during the festival.

Much of what was shown at Cinefest came from personal collections and from sources like the UCLA Film and Television Archive, MOMA, the Library of Congress and more. The audience members of Cinefest have very discriminating tastes and they’re difficult to please. Many of the attendees had encyclopedia-like knowledge of early cinema and personal libraries that rival some archives. Cinefest regulars want to see something old, something rare and something they’ve never seen before. With an audience that picky the festival organizers really have to dig deep to unearth some treasures to keep the regulars happy.

Gerry Orlando, president of the Syracuse Cinephile Society & head of Cinefest

The majority of folks who attend Cinefest are in the 50+ crowd. One of the reasons the festival is ending is that the audience and the organizers are aging out and there isn’t much interest from the younger generation to keep the festival going. This is a very specialist audience with an interest in rare treasures and old technology.

Cinefest screening room

Having only been to the TCM Classic Film Festival, Cinefest was a whole new world to me and I couldn’t help but compare the two festivals to each other. Although I carried my TCM festival bag proudly, I kept mostly mum about my imminent trip to that festival because I could tell straight off the bat that many Cinefest goers didn’t look to kindly on that other much more lavish festival. In fact one of the presenters, who shall remain nameless, went so far as to say that TCM festival-goers think Humphrey Bogart only made one movie, Casablanca. This presenter was trying to compliment the Cinefest attendees by pointing out how advanced their level of knowledge is compared to your average classic movie fan. But it still hurt to hear. I consider myself a student of film, not quite an expert, with much left to learn and experience. But I'm not ignorant. The two festivals have very different things to offer and I enjoyed both for what they were. While there wasn't much love for TCM's festival here, I did overhear many folks say they loved the other Hollywood classic film festival, Cinecon.

Leonard Maltin at the Cinefest Auction

The 4-day schedule ran from 9 am until midnight with the final day Sunday on a shorter schedule. If you had the mental stamina you could catch everything on offer because there were no conflicts. I didn’t have that kind of stamina so I was a bit more particular of what I gave my energy to. Most festival attendees prioritized their schedules to catch their must-sees and would move in-and-out of screenings. Most of the time the room was packed. Leonard Maltin, a Cinefest regular of many years, could be spotted at various screenings or mingling with the crowd. I also spotted Jan-Christopher Horak of UCLA, Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, author Richard Barrios and other notable figures in the classic film community. I also saw Nora of Nitrate Diva and her mom Colleen as well as Beth Ann of Spellbound by Movies. The last Cinefest included a group of talented silent film accompanists and I got to chat with Jeff Rapsis. He performs a lot in my area and I’ve been to several of his performances.

Line-up of Cinefest's silent film accompanists

The person I was most excited to see however was my good friend Jonas. He’s the main reason I came to Cinefest. Jonas, who blogs at All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!, has been a friend of mine for several years but because I live in the Boston area and he lives in Stockholm, Sweden we had never met in person. Our friendship started when we both posted tributes to Anita Page when she passed away in 2008 and culminated with meeting at the last Cinefest. It was such a delight to be able to spend quality time with him over meals and during screenings. He made attending Cinefest such a blast.

Jonas and Raquel meet for the first time.

As I left Cinefest I realized how many folks didn’t want to let this festival go. At breakfast on the last day, I saw Holiday Inn staff hugging Cinefest folks. As a newbie, I didn’t want to let go of this festival either. My husband chatted with Leonard Maltin and he hinted at a possible continuation of Cinefest. Perhaps it’ll live on in another way.

Me on day two of Cinefest
In part 2 I'll be discussing what films and presentations I saw at Cinefest. Stay tuned!


  1. I've been so curious to hear about your experiences. Thanks for sharing. I hope they will continue the festival in some way. It's always fascinated me.

  2. Fantastic report! This looks like a relatively intimate fest, along the lines perhaps of Lone Pine (although that has its unique aspects as well). Loved reading this and will be revisiting it to absorb more of all the info you shared!

    Best wishes,

  3. It is too bad we didn't meet, as one of the other under 50 attendees. :) It is true that some people at these festivals feel that the younger generation is shallow and ignorant (sometimes they're right) but I overheard someone in the smaller dealer room slamming young people and their apathy for memorabilia when I was right there shopping. Not a good way to win over a new generation.

  4. Thanks for a fascinating post. I had wondered what this festival was like, and your description was very interesting, especially your comparison to the TCMFF.

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  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences! Cinefest was one I always meant to attend, but, never really wanted to deal with the sow/weather issues. Even though I am much closer to the TCM Festival than you, not really appealing for me. Call me a snob, but, I've been around long enough to see most of the films on the big screen, so not tempted. Exception this year is the Houdini restoration (and I hope it shows up for my favorite festival the SF Silent Film Fest). I'm sorry that you feel a sense of exclusion because that should not happen. Embracing younger film fans is what keeps classic cinema alive. You nailed it as a valid reason why some fesitvals are dying. I am a 50+ and recgonize that attitude as well in the various festivals I've attended (Cinevent, Cinecon, Slapsticon, SF). I have to say, however, the SF Silent Fest is a great and wide mix of people and ages and nationalities across the board. Hanging in the aisle is a great thing, so many great people to talk to between films.


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