In addition to impromptu chats at screenings and during communal gatherings at the Roosevelt Hotel, two scheduled events gave passholders and credentialed media like me (don’t hate) an opportunity to question key members of the Turner Classic Movies staff. These sessions provided a rare opportunity to look “behind the curtain” at our favorite channel without a trip down the Yellowbrick Road to Atlanta.
The day before the 2013 edition of the Festival began, Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, vice president of programming Charlie Tabesh (a 16-year veteran of the channel), and festival managing director Genevieve MacGillicuddy addressed reporters and bloggers for a combined ninety minutes. The following day, TCM senior writer/producer Scott McGee moderated Meet TCM, a panel featuring six senior staffers: Tabesh, general manager Jeff Gregor; Pola Chagnon, vice president and creative director for TCM On-Air; V.P. of original production Tom Brown; Richard Steiner, vice president of digital activation; and Sean Cameron, vice president of studio production
If you’ve ever been to fan events of any sort you know that questions from attendees can often be an exercise in time-wasting awkwardness. But the queries posed at the TCMFF events were almost always on-point because, as Ben Mankiewicz said at the Wednesday press conference, “Our fans feel a sense of obligation – a welcome sense of obligation – to not only watch us and enjoy us but to watch us, and make sure we take seriously this obligation that we’ve taken on to protect and curate these films.”
Nothing gives me more pleasure than writing about the joy Turner Classic Movies brings to my life. At the same time, I have no problem ding-ding-ding’ing the bell if I feel the channel has made a misstep. And I’m not alone in this perspective. Bloggers who cover TCM are not un-paid publicists. We’re watchdogs, and TCM knows it.
“You are one of the most passionate, committed group of classic movie lovers I’ve ever come into contact with,” G.M. Jeff Gregor said, deftly currying favor with the capacity crowd as the Meet TCM panel commenced on Day 1 of the festival. “(M)y colleagues have the same passion.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship; we learn from TCM and they learn from us. And, as always at the TCMFF, I learned a number of things about the channel, how it operates, and future plans for extending the brand.
“Half the staff just had a heart attack,” Gregor joked when asked about an East Coast version of the classic conclave, which has called Hollywood home for its entire four-year history. “There are a lot of people around the room who are here that, as soon as this is over, there’s a little bit of a debrief and some analysis, and then it’s working on next year.”
Gregor then jokingly turned to Tabesh and asked playfully, “If Charlie thought he could program two festivals…”
“No. I can’t,” Tabesh deadpanned, and the audience responed with laughter.
Gregor continued: “The cruise concept actually came to us as the counter-seasonal event, where we had a spring, on-land festival and a cruise, where you didn’t have all the land-based logistics,” he said, adding that plans for this year’s cruise would be announced at the end of the weekend.
They were. The third TCM Classic Cruise is scheduled for December 8-13, for the first time ever aboard the Disney Magic (previous editions have sailed on the Millenium and the Constellation, both part of the Celebrity line). This year’s voyage departs Miami for Nassau and Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island, which sounds a bit Dr. Moreau-ish) and prices range from a low of around $1,000 (if you bring along three friends to share your stateroom) to nearly $4,000 per person for a deluxe, two-bedroom verandah suite. (Of course, roundtrip airfare to Miami is not included.) To date, Osborne and Mankiewicz are the only announced guests, with more expected to be announced in the coming months.
“We do want to have more events around the country,” Gregor said.
“There is a way to bring the festival to other parts of the country,” added Richard Steiner. “Road to Hollywood.”
This year marked the third anniversary for the national, pre-TCMFF, Road to Hollywood screening series, with TCM personalities (Osborne, Mankiewicz, and film historian Leonard Maltin) introducing nine films in ten locations: the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; Pittsburgh’s Byham Theatre; the Ziegfeld in New York; the historic Texas Theater in Dallas; the A.F.I. Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland; Boston’s Brattle Theatre; the Music Box Theatre in Chicago; Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theatre; the Castro in San Francisco; and the Kimo Theatre in Albuquerqe. Guests included Eva Marie Saint (with ON THE WATERFRONT), Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Michael York (with CABARET), Tippi Hedren (MARNIE), Angie Dickinson (RIO BRAVO), Jane Powell (ROYAL WEDDING), Mitzi Gaynor (SOUTH PACIFIC), Robert Wagner (THE PINK PANTHER), and the Alloy Orchestra (accompanying METROPOLIS, as they did on the closing night of the first TCMFF in 2010).
“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Steiner said. “The crew that does that deserves a lot of credit.”
I attended a Road to Hollywood screening of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) with Robert Osborne and Angela Lansbury at the SVA Theater in New York in April of 2011 and it was the closest to a TCMFF vibe I’ve felt outside of Hollywood. The TCM host conducted a lengthy, career-spanning interview with the then-85-year-old actress in front of a enthusiastic audience. Admission was free, the house was packed, and the quality of the print was excellent.
Although it was not offically confirmed, there’s every indication that TCM will travel the Road again in 2014.
“LETTY LYNTON,” Tabesh said. “That’s one that, for legal reasons, hasn’t been available. Over time we try to clear those.”
The 1932 MGM film stars Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery and Nils Asther, and has been unavailable due to a plagirism suit filed by playwrites Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Bonds after the movie’s release. Dishonored Lady, the play upon which the court ruled LETTY LYNTON was too closely based, was made into a film of the same name by United Artists in 1947. That movie is in the public domain and can be viewed on Archive.org.
Update 5/12/13: AndyM108 on the TCM Message Boards points on that a better version of DISHONORED LADY is available on You Tube.
“There is a section on the site called Suggest a Movie,” he said. “It gets incredible traffic. It’s amazing, the passion that people put in. My team looks at this a lot and, if there are (titles) that are routinely a regular suggestion, we’ll usually send those over to Programming.”
But don’t bother to suggest IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956) or other titles aired by competing networks in high-profile, annual screenings. Thus inspires a discussion of the complex spiderwork of rights ownership…
Viewers often ask why TCM airs the films they air, and why they don’t air others. Robert Osborne attempted to clarify this during press day:
“Basically, what we have is the (pre-1986) MGM library, the pre-1950 Warner Bros. library (actually pre-1948), the entire RKO library and some of the United Artists films that we got, along with the MGM films, because they merged for a while,” he said.
A few clarifying points, to the extent that I understand them: Ted Turner’s $1.6 billion acquisition of MGM in 1986 brought the above-mentioned programming assets to Turner Broadcasting, and those libraries were used to program TBS, TNT and to launch TCM in 1994. However, when Turner sold his company to Time Warner in 1996, TCM effectively lost “ownership” of those assets, and was required to license them, along with every other film they broadcast.
“We can’t license every classic movie ever made; financially, it’s impossible to do that,” Tabesh said during the Meet TCM Panel. “So we try to structure deals with all the studios where, in addition to the traditional way of licensing a film, say, for twelve months or two years, and getting a certain number of runs within that period of time, we say, ‘Let us also dip into your library for one run of a film maybe forty times per year.’ So we’ll go to Universal or Fox and we’ll say, ‘We’re not going to want to play this movie 12 times over the next two years. We’re just going to want to play it once when Bette Davis is our Star of the Month.’ And, by structuring our deals that way, that’s allowed us a lot more diversity and it’s allowed us to bring in films that we couldn’t.”
Beyond licensing, TCM also has certain content restrictions that may also affect programming decisions.
“We don’t edit the films, and that’s rare on basic cable,” Tabesh said. “But the price we pay for that is, if there are a lot of f-words or nudity we have to play it later at night. We take into account the West Coast. So we say, “After 10 p.m. West Coast time, which is 1 a.m. in New York, that’s really when we can get away with a lot more.”
This, of course, penalizes those of us in New York who have to wait until after midnight to watch movies that viewers in L.A. can enjoy during the latter hours of primetime. There is a potential solution to this, which leads to the next point….
Most national networks (cable and broadcast) offer separate East Coast and West Coast feeds, so viewers on both coasts can watch the primetime schedule beginning at 8 p.m. TCM does not, which means that hosted primetime programming with Robert Osborne kicks off at 5 p.m. on the left coast. Some cable and satellite providers offer both feeds of a given channel to viewers, effectively doubling their viewing options.
Gregor suggested that TCM hopes to add a West coast feed, and that both channels could be available on certain cable systems simultaneously. So, in addition to primetime programming that actually airs in primetime on both coasts, some lucky viewers would have two TCM channels (are you listening, Time Warner?). And additional options may follow.
“If we get this (West Coast feed) out there perhaps that will start giving us a road map to another offering” he said. “I’m not saying there’s going to be another offering, but it’s going to give us the (opportunity) to think about it.”
Gregor offered no information on when the second feed will become available, or if carriage discussions had taken place with cable or satellite providers.
Even since the channel formerly known as American Movie Classics stopped showing, well, American movie classics, and started airing commercials, some TCM viewers have feared the same fate. Conspiracy theorists bemoan broadcasts of more recent releases, suspecting a secret strategy to alter programming, even though a thorough review of the monthly schedule usually indicates a consistent breakdown by decade, month after month (with one obvious exception).
“There’s no specific agenda or intent to bring in newer movies,” Tabesh said. “It happens naturally some times, as we program thematically and we want to go in depth with whatever theme, whatever star we’re looking at. And sometimes that context leads us to newer movies.”
He went on to ackowledge that during one month of the year, he does intentionally program more recent fims.“(During) 31 Days of Oscar, which was a couple months ago, if the movie won an Academy Award, we’re not going to shy away from it if it’s more contemporary. And I think you’ll tend to see more contemporary movies in that month than you will in others,” he said. “There’s no cutoff date, no strict definition for classic, other than, ‘What’s the context in which we’re playing it?’”
Ben Mankiewicz backed up this perspective during the Wednesday afternoon event.
“We have a very open mind as to what makes a classic movie. It’s not really about years removed from a movie’s release that makes it okay,” the host said. “We always, always want to find something that will be relevant and emotional for our audience to see.”
“(O)ur programming won’t change,” Mankiewicz added. “Nothing is going to stop us from showing the movies we already show.”
On Wednesday, Tabesh was asked how much pressure he was under to generate high ratings.
“Zero. We don’t get ratings. We’re not even allowed to get ratings,” he said. “When AMC went commercial many years ago, the cable affiliates freaked out, because they were getting a lot of complaints from subscribers and they wanted to make sure that TCM never added commercials. And we’ve never have plans to add commercials. I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements.”
“It’s not only important from a business perspective that we remain commercial-free, but we know that is the core of the TCM brand,” festival managing director Genevieve MacGillicuddy added. “That’s extremely important for fans, for the network, for the vision of what the network is. And we’re very proud of having stayed true to what that vision was for the network when we launched in 1994.”
Tabesh added: “We’re not trying to reach a broad audience. We’re not trying to maximize the demo. We’re not trying to get the 18-34, whatever it is. There’s none of that that’s considered at all.”
So get off the ledge, people.
“I think it came as a big shock to the bosses and the people at the channel that so many younger people were interested in these films,” Robert Osborne told the bloggers on Wednesday. “I think they thought it was only for people with gray hair.”
The next day, Jeff Gregor followed up on this, telling attendees that TCM had done “some demographic work” recently and discovered some things about audience composition.
“I don’t want to say it was a surprise,” he said. “But two-thirds of our audience is 18-54.”
Richard Steiner also offered some perspectives on the digital audience, which he said was larger and younger than some people might think.
“One of the perceptions about the digital presence is, it’s small and it’s old. That’s wrong. It’s a cross between very young teenagers – we have an index of teenagers that’s anywhere from ten to twenty percent some times, very high. It really crosses the entire spectrum,” he said. “The other thing is, we’re not small. Over two million people visit TCM.com or one of the digital products evey month – bigger than some of our sister networks sometimes.”
While the information content is rich on the website – Gregor called the TCMDb “one of the best movie databases that exists in the country, if not the world” and “on parallel to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress” – multimedia is limited to trailers and short excerpts from films. The logical next step is figuring out how to monetize those 2 million visitors, likely by giving them an opportunity to watch complete movies on-line. Which leads us to our next point…
“One of the biggest, most consistent fan comments I read every month is, ‘When are you going to start streaming movies?’” Gregor said. “We’re working on that, in concert with our cable and satellite providers so that we’re within the contractual limits we have with them.”
Arguably, TCM is late to the party on this. Most national cable networks offer various options for streaming their programming on websites, through dedicated mobile apps (like HBO To Go), or on subscription-based services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime. The recently introduced, subscription-based Warner Archive Instant may have forced TCM’s hand a bit on this, considering that many of the titles available on WAC also air on corporate sibling TCM. In addition, a number of classic titles on Warner Archive Instant are available in true 1080p HD to owners of Roku streaming devices, which means they look and sound considerably better than they do when they air on Turner Classic. (TCM’s HD feed is largely upconverted standard definition content, which is a topic for another day.)
I’m a Warner Archive Instant subscriber and a Roku owner, and I recommend the service enthusiastically. It’s only $9.99 per month (with a two week free trial offer) and worth every penny. If TCM offered a similar service, I would be the first to sign up. But that would be a complicated endeavor. TCM doesn’t “own” any classic films, per se, so subscription-based, on-demand streaming delivery could require a separate set of negotiations with licensors.
The Warner Archive Collection, which has access to the vast Warner Bros. Entertainment library (including many titles acquired, or re-acquired, when Time Warner bought Turner in 1996) is better positioned for such a service, though the business model is still complex. A Warner Archive spokesperson shared some of those complexities with me via email:
“There is content to which we hold home video rights but not streaming, and there is content to which we have streaming rights but not home video. There are also circumstances where we own the content for all media, but music may not be clear for streaming. That being said, for the bulk of our library, we control all rights in all media…”
To be clear, Gregor did not definitively announce anything regarding streaming. But a Google search indicates that TCM intends to launch a free “TCM Network mobile app” that will allow existing cable subscribers to stream “all your favorite classic movies” to smartphones and tablets “after authenticating through your cable or satellite provider.” HBO To Go uses this same authentication process, as do mobile/streaming apps offered by cable systems like Cablevision and Time Warner. (It’s actually not very complicated; all you ned to do is enter a subscriber number generated by your provider.)
The app is expected to launch “Summer 2013” (which is sort of here already) and appears to be branded TCM Now. There is no indication whether the app will simply stream the broadcast feed, or if it will offer titles on-demand. Everything I know about it is posted here on the TCM Mobile Apps page.
Update 5/15/13 – According to TheWrap.com, Turner Broadcasting announced today at their upfront presentation for advertisers that TNT and TBS will begin nationwide streaming to smartphones and tablets this summer. In addition there is now a page on the TCM website for the TCM Now East Coast Live Stream (which does not appear to be live yet). Both of these developments further confirm that TCM’s live streaming app should be available shortly.
“We’ve been talking about doing a classic movie tour in different locations where movies have been made,” Gregor said.
No further details were offered, though the announcement was met with enthusiastic response. TCM recently introduced a very cool Hollywood Tour application for smartphones, which may give an indication of what locations are under consideration. The app features a look at 100 points of interest including the motion picture studios, homes of the stars, celebrity hangouts, and shooting locations. The best part about it: it’s only $2.99 and you don’t have to ride around in some creepy guy’s van for two hours.
On the closing day of the festival, author and film historian John Bengtson presented a fascinating multimedia exploration of silent movie locations in southern California, including spots where Charle Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd filmed. I’d pay cash money for a tour like that, preferably led by John himself. I’d also love to take a TCM-branded trek to John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley (along the Arizona-Utah border) or a city like San Francisco, home to iconic films like VERTIGO, BULLITT, POINT BLANK and anything shot at Alcatraz.
Again, no further details have been provided at this time.
Vice president of studio production Sean Cameron told attendees that TCM was “looking for ways to get the fans on to the channel” specifically by featuring viewers as on-air guest programmers.
“Our 15th anniversary came up and we were inspired to put fifteen of our fans on the air during our anniversary week,” Cameron said. “The 20th anniversary is coming. For the 15th we had fifteen, for the 20th we’ll have…eighteen and a half. (laughter) No, twenty more next April.”
Cameron added that a number of the viewers chosen as guest programmers in the past had come from the message boards on the TCM website. Sounds like now would be a good time to sign up, if you’re not a member already. You can access the boards here.
“Charlie has found and stolen several ideas for programming from the message boards,” Cameron added. “We do pay attention.”
TCM’s recently introduced Friday Night Spotlight series is currently in its second month, with the delightful Illeana Douglas presenting a series of films that deserve a “second look.” The actress and granddaughter of actor Melvyn Douglas is also doing a great job of interacting with fans on Twitter, tweeting with the hashtag #TCMParty during broadcasts.
Cameron said that Eddie Muller from the Film Noir Foundation will be the host for June, with a month-long focus on Noir Writers. Muller will present sixteen movies over four Fridays, each week focusing on different writers: Dashiell Hammett on June 7, David Goodis on June 14, Jonathan Latimer and James M. Cain on June 21, and Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler on June 28.
In July, the Spotlight will shine on the films of François Truffaut with host David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine. That series begins on Friday, July 5 with THE 400 BLOWS (1959). Like Douglas, Edelstein was one of the guest hosts during Robert Osborne’s five-month hiatus in 2011.
In October, Saturday Night Live star Bill Hader will present a lineup of classic horror films. Hader is about to begin his third season as host of TCM Essentials Jr., the summer showcase series created and produced by Scott McGee. Cameron said that the month-long focus on fright films was Hader’s idea. (You can read my report on the upcoming season of Essentials Jr. here.)
“We’re getting some new faces, some new perspectives, all in an effort to draw more people in and just freshen up Friday nights,” Cameron said.
“Item one…before money or length of service was, quoting directly, ‘Artist shall keep and maintain a goatee. Failure to keep and maintain a goatee shall be considered breach of contract by artist.’” Mankiewicz told us with a laugh on Wednesday. “In the beginning, we had these debates about whether I could use a prosthetic goatee. I swear to God.”
Mankiewicz explained that he didn’t wear the goatee when he was off-camera and eventually asked his superiors if he could shave it off.
“And they were like, ‘Yeah. Whatever. Sure.’ And I’m like, ‘You know it’s in the contract?’ And they claimed that it wasn’t. And I was like, ‘It’s in the contract (points to imaginary contract). You guys felt compelled to put it in!’”
He went on to say that, following “a change in management,” he was allowed a bit more freedom “to work in my own style.” TCM On-Air creative director Pola Changnon addresed that, referring specifically to the new set used for Mankiewicz’s intros, which are now recorded at the TCM studio in Atlanta (previously his weekend-only wrap-arounds were taped in Los Angeles):
“One of the things you have to do is think about the person ‘living there’ as if it is a real home,” she said. “I think it was identifying how he’s evolved with us over time here at the network, seeing how the space can reflect him as a more mature presence.”
She added: “Our vision at the network was that he moved from downtown L.A. to Santa Monica.”
And we couldn’t be happier about it.