The Problem with the Pre-Codes at TCMFF
May 16, 2016, updated May 17, 2016
Updated May 17, 2016: Thank you to Laura for pointing out a mistake in my reporting, based on an inaccuracy quoted in the TCMFF guide this year. Indeed, theater 4 did screen all selections on 35mm this year, contrary to what I originally wrote below, and I've edited the paragraph in which I discussed that issue accordingly.
If you've attended the TCM Classic Film Festival before, or even if you follow along on social media from the comfort of your home, you’re probably well aware that theater 4 is: 1. The best festival venue, according to TCM programmer Millie De Chirco, 2. The smallest house TCM utilizes, 3. The theater that turns people away the most often (my guess), and 4. Where the majority of the pre-Codes/discoveries/rarities play. In fact, the cult-ish devotion of theater 4's most ardent admirers has even earned its own hashtag: #theaterfourclub. (And yes, though I haven't utilized the hashtag, I would consider myself an enthusiastic theater 4 fan.)
Out of the 9 pre-Codes programmed at the 2016 TCMFF, I saw 5: Shanghai Express (1932), Double Harness (1933), 6 Hours to Live (1932), A House Divided (1931) and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934). My pre-Code ride began with Shanghai Express on Friday morning, the only picture from this group aside from 1932’s Horse Feathers to screen outside the infamous theater 4. Though these two films are arguably the most well-known of the pre-Codes programmed, they were also the only movies of the period projected digitally; furthermore, both were world premiere restorations. (More on digital vs. film screenings below.)
Not a bad way to start a Friday - with Dietrich and Shanghai Express.
This year, Double Harness turned away passholders both times it played, which upset many attendees. Unfortunately, the capacity vs. popularity issue that frequently arises in theater 4 is nothing new. I don’t know exactly how far back the venue's notoriety stretches, but in my personal experience, I recall double sell-outs of a pre-Code in 2013. The movie was Safe in Hell (1931), which I forgot played at TCMFF…because I got turned away, twice. That year I tried my luck in the standby line and was not even close to making it in the first time around. I adamantly made sure I was number 1 in that damn line for the added screening, but guess what? Well, you already know: I was shut out of that one too, which most likely meant that some passholders were turned away two times as well. (Note: Ariel remembers 1932's This is the Night also filling up very quickly back in 2011, the second year of the fest.)
Ever since that Safe in Hell incident three years ago, I've made it a point to arrive at the very least one hour early to all pre-Codes I want to make sure I'll get in to. (Well, more like 80% certain, because as I've mentioned several times, there are always surprises at TCMFF.) Yes, this extra time comes at the expense of the previous block's programming, and I readily admit that this year I left one or two events early to hop in line for a pre-Code, something I don't particularly like doing; however, from my experience, this is usually the only way to (60%) guarantee a seat at one of these movies, unless you hold a coveted Spotlight or VIP pass.
Dorothy Mackaill's looking bored in Safe in Hell, but the audience certainly wasn't at the 2013 TCMFF.
Certainly, programming over 90 films, discussions and special presentations across a multitude of venues is no easy task, and there will always be events that overlap or come very close to it, depending on one's personal schedule. Nevertheless, in the case of the pre-Codes, I think many attendees object at just how much longer before a film's start time you have to line up to snag a respectable queue number, and even that won't guarantee admission. For instance, I try to find a spot in line anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour early for most TCMFF screenings (unless a huge star will be in attendance), but as I mentioned above, an hour is cutting it way too close for comfort for the pre-Codes; one and a half hours is more like it, and to arrive that early you most definitely have to sacrifice the block beforehand. Or at least most of it.
Film vs. Digital
This year, two festival venues screened films on 35mm: theater 4 in the TCL Chinese Multiplex and the Egyptian. I regularly attend programs at the Egyptian throughout the year, and I know that site is capable of projecting both digital and 35mm prints. However, I wasn't so sure of the equipment in the TCL Chinese Theatres, so I called them to ask which of their six theaters in the Multiplex could play 35mm. (The ability to screen 35mm is a major issue with the pre-Codes, as most are only available on 35mm, which greatly reduces the theaters available to them.) After being handed off to two different people at the TCL, the second of whom tried to convince me that theater 1 is upstairs in the Multiplex, which is incorrect, I finally spoke to the projectionist, who confirmed that theater 1 is the only house with 35mm capability. Huh? I told him that TCMFF programmed 35mm films in theater 4 just two weekends ago. Yes they did, he said, but that's because they brought in their own projector and projectionist to run the show. So, I asked him - hypothetically of course - if someone could set up a projector in any of the six theaters in the Multiplex. Curiously, he could not give me a straight answer. (Specifically, I inquired about theater 6, which was re-fitted to accommodate for a new comedy show sometime in late 2013 or early 2014. Once again, I failed to obtain a definitive response.) The projectionist definitely confused the matter even further, and that revelation regarding theaters 1 and 4 certainly throws a wrench into the discussion.
EDIT: I was under the impression that venues at the festival could only screen either digital or 35mm and not both, and that actually seems to have been proven true, at least in one case. While I originally wrote here that theater 4 played one lone movie digitally this year, 1946's I've Always Loved You, Laura pointed out to me that this information was incorrect. Though the print guide and the online program for TCMFF both list the film as DCP (Digital Cinema Package), that seems to have been a typo; when fellow blogger Will tweeted that the picture played on DCP, Charles Tabesh, SVP of Programming and Production at TCM, revealed the movie was actually screened on 35mm. This correction makes a lot of sense, as it is now definitive (to me, at least) that theater 4 screened only 35mm this year. To the best of my knowledge, "A Short History of Widescreen Cinema" was still the only presentation at the Egyptian to indicate various formats, but that of course could have included some film formats; all other screenings at the Egyptian were on 35mm.
Though I've Always Loved You was indicated as a digital restoration in the TCMFF programming guide, it was actually screened on 35mm.
Regardless, it seems at the very least, theater 1 could act as a capable venue to screen pre-Codes and other crowd-attracting rarities with the TCL's own equipment, especially when you consider the fact that capacity-wise, this theater falls comfortably in between theater 4 (177) and the Egyptian Theater (618), with room for 477 guests. And if the festival were to place that borrowed projector elsewhere, there's always house 6, which is comparable to theater 4 but just a tad larger, with a capacity of 210.
Just for reference, here's a breakdown of identifiable film and digital presentations at all the past festivals, except 2015, because that program has somehow separated from the pack and cannot be located in my apartment at this time. (Would someone like to donate their extra guide to a worthy cause?) Note: On a few occasions, a specific format type was not listed, or various formats were indicated, so I excluded those titles. Film includes 35mm, 70mm and some Cinerama selections, while digital notes specify either DCP, DVD, HDCAM, Blu-Ray, select Cinerama titles and sometimes, just digital.
YEAR FILM DIGITAL
2010 44 6
2011 59 13
2012 45 31
2013 41 38
2014 39 40
2015 Come out, come out, wherever you are
2016 27 53
A colorful array of TCMFF programming guides, excluding 2015. If anyone knows where that one is in my apartment, please do let me know. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
In thinking about this subject, I tried to remember whether pre-Codes have screened in other venues during past editions of the festival. To assist with this research, I consulted the six programs I unearthed in my apartment the other day; hopefully, the lone straggler, 2015's guide, will surface again in due time.
I uncovered some interesting tidbits when I took a look back. For instance, theater 1 began screening mostly, if not all, presentations digitally starting in 2012; before this, that house played many selections on 35mm. That year, TCMFF utilized theaters 1, 3 and 4 in the Multiplex, as they had done in the past (except for the first year, in which only theaters 3 and 4 were used). For the record, houses 3 and 4 accommodate the same number of people, 177. In 2013, the festival switched to theaters 1, 4, and 6, the same venues they use currently, though the number of seats in theater 6 was reduced by about 40 in between 2013 and 2014 when the theater was converted for use as a comedy club.
My research revealed several instances of pre-Codes playing in other theaters. A "rare public presentation" of 1933's The Story of Temple Drake, a world premiere restoration in progress, took place in theater 1 back in 2010, during TCM's first festival. That same year, King Kong (1933) was presented in the TCL Chinese IMAX, then still called Grauman's Chinese. In 2011, a midnight screening of The Mummy (1932) occurred in the Egyptian, and that same year theater 1 hosted 1933's Night Flight. I recall watching a world premiere restoration of Call Her Savage (1932) for the first time in 2012 at the Egyptian, and when I fact checked that memory in the 2012 program guide, I was right: Call Her Savage did play the Egyptian...and theater 4 the day after. TBD spots still existed in the schedule that year, but this film was prearranged to screen twice, and it wasn't the only one to do so: another pre-Code, Lubitsch's 1932 classic Trouble in Paradise, also showed up two times on the schedule, in theaters 3 and 4. In 2013, 1933's Flying Down to Rio, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, played in theater 6, as did 1932's Island of Lost Souls; at the next festival, Freaks (1932) took over the same house. There may be a few examples from the 2015 festival, but since I can't locate my program from that year, there's nothing I can confirm for sure.
Clara Bow having a slightly rough go of it in Call Her Savage.
Now, take Call Her Savage as an example, which was a world premiere restoration on 35mm, as opposed to the two pre-Code world premiere restorations (of readily available pictures, too) this year that were projected digitally. Given the 35mm dedication of theater 4 in 2016, Shanghai Express and Horse Feathers were relegated to different venues, which automatically meant larger. However, as I wrote above, back in 2012, Call Her Savage played at both the Egyptian and in theater 4. I wonder if any of the other rare pre-Codes programmed this year were world premiere restorations, if they would have been given the Egyptian instead, as those restorations would most likely be 35mm prints as opposed to digital. Note: In looking at the print sources for TCMFF 2016, I found that 1932's 6 Hours to Live was actually a world premiere restoration as well. That was another film that was definitely sold out but not screened twice.
I understand that in many of the aforementioned cases, the pre-Code titles placed in larger venues possessed several selling factors, whether notoriety (The Story of Temple Drake and Call Her Savage), crowd favorites (King Kong), cult classics (Freaks), big stars (Flying Down to Rio and Night Flight), etc. However, as clearly evident, the TCMFF crowd really leaps at the chance to watch a rare movie they've perhaps never heard of, and many times, those are the pre-Codes (and discoveries in general).
King Kong's screening in the IMAX theater in 2010 was a digital restoration.
Along these lines, if I could bring back one programming trend, it would be 2012’s extremely short-lived double booking of select movies - like, really select. By scheduling a film twice on the calendar in advance, that would probably: 1. Even out the audience for the pictures that reach capacity quickly, since people will have another chance to see the movie, and 2. Let attendees make better decisions based on their screening preference and free up one more block (especially since there are always tough choices and sacrifices to be made.) The TBDs could stay in place, allowing wiggle room for other movies that draw large crowds, but it would be nice not to have to guess/wish list all the TBDs before the fest even begins...like I do. And in all honesty, I don’t think passholders would mind a few movies taking up two slots in the jam-packed schedule, because the fest-goers are still receiving the same experience and breadth of selection.
The Future/A Solution/???
The theater 4 concerns and lines only appear to increase with each passing year, and I’m quite sure that this is an issue TCM is thoroughly aware of. While I read that the programmers don’t know what kind of audience each film will draw - I'm sure estimating attendance for most fest screenings is a crapshoot - the pre-Code popularity at TCMFF has proven itself year after year. However, while it's certainly easy to bemoan the long lines and shut-outs, I'm sure the solution is not as simple as hollering for TCM to assign another larger theater to 35mm for these pictures. Why? 1. Due to the rising number of digital screenings and most likely no reversal on that trend, TCM would have a harder time dedicating a bigger theater to 35mm unless they had a larger number of 35mm prints they know could draw a crowd, and 2. Then they'd have to try to figure out which pre-Codes/discoveries would be more in demand, a task that seems darn near impossible to me. See: Double Harness’ insane popularity this year. There's probably a handful of other issues, but these are two of the most apparent ones to me.
Though a fine movie, I'm still not sure how Double Harness became the most in demand pre-Code at TCMFF this year.
Sadly, even if TCMFF were to get rid of theater 4 entirely, in reality there aren't any other mid-size venues available to them, since the only two larger theaters in the Multiplex are already utilized by the festival. My dream scenario would be for TCM to haul in another projector and projectionist and dedicate another mid-size theater in the Multiplex to the pre-Codes and other rarities that almost always attract a large crowd. Note: I have no idea how much that costs, but I'm pretty positive it is nowhere near cheap, which is why that's probably a dream.
What I'm (trying to) say is this: I think the pre-Code issue involves more behind the scenes factors, programming complications, and other assorted logistical matters than the average attendee is aware of or privy to, and I'm guessing there's much more to the situation than what I've mentioned here. Hopefully, an answer that works well for both TCM and the fest-goers can be obtained and put into action for TCMFF 2017!
If you've attended, been turned away from, or have any general thoughts on the pre-Codes screened at the festival, please feel free to share below!