On Thursday, Turner Classic Movies and NCM Fathom Events presented SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) at nearly 500 venues nationwide. And I thought long and hard about not going to see it – even though I love old movies in general, and this film in particular.
Let me explain. I’ve attended the annual TCM Classic Film Festival since its inception in 2010, and have enjoyed countless pristinely presented classics at Hollywood landmarks like Grauman’s Chinese and the Egyptian Theatre. I also live in New York City, where respected institutions like the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and Film Forum present old movies on a regular basis, usually in the best available 35mm or digital prints.
I mention this not to brag, but rather to establish a benchmark. When it comes to watching movies I love on the big screen, my bar is high – so high, in fact, that I can pick and choose my screenings, based upon setting, audience and technical expectations.
And that’s why I almost didn’t see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – because as of yesterday, I had been entirely unimpressed with the partnership between TCM and Fathom. The 70th anniversary, one night only screening of the “restored” CASABLANCA I attended in suburban New Jersey in March was a comedy of errors, with improper masking of the screen, horrendous image quality and the exclusion of nearly half of the heavily promoted pre-show documentary presentation. The encore CASABLANCA screening in April – I called it “one more night only” or “Another Night in CASABLANCA” – was equally underwhelming.
In both cases, I was frustrated by the nearly unanimous accolades from classic film fans on Twitter, even though many acknowledged similar (or, in some cases, far worse) technological imprecision at their theaters. The consensus seemed to be “any classic film on the big screen is better than no classic film on the big screen.” In both cases, my rebuttal was, “Why should I pay to see something that looks worse than what I already own at home?”
Fathom delivers its “exclusive” content to partner theaters via satellite, not physical (or digital) prints. That means that, while a gorgeous DCP “print” of CASABLANCA may be available from the recent, million-dollar restoration performed by Warner Bros., the version I paid to see was a recording of a 1080i transmission – roughly the equivalent of DVR’ing a film from HBO, projecting at on a gigantic screen, and charging full, movie theater price.
It didn’t help that both CASABLANCA screenings I attended were in charmless multiplexes, with somewhat sparse attendance from a sedate, mostly older crowd. From a brand management perspective, everything about the experience seemed tin-eared, and counter to the curatorial brilliance that TCM works so hard to maintain on-air, at their Festival, and in the national Road to Hollywood screenings that precede it.
Frankly, nobody loves Turner Classic Movies more than I, and it pains me to give poor marks to an entity that brings me (and many people I know) so much joy. Some of my greatest movie-going memories have been made at the TCM Film Festival, and I am loath to sully them with sub-par experiences at TCM-branded events over which TCM has no direct quality control.
And so, it was with all this emotional baggage that I chose to attend the matinee presentation of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN at the Empire 25 AMC Theater in Times Square yesterday. And I’m glad to report that I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
While I still have serious reservations about the flawed nature of Fathom’s delivery method, the benefits of attendance yesterday far outweighed the technological drawbacks. In fact, this screening was the closest thing I have experienced to the TCM Classic Film Festival outside of the Festival, itself.
Unlike CASABLANCA, my fellow audience members at SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN were delightfully demographically diverse and almost absurdly responsive. They burst into a spontaneous, shrieking round of applause at the opening titles, and every single dance number was met with a similarly enthusiastic response. It reminded me of the times I’ve attended live TV tapings, and a producer or comedian has warmed-up the crowd and told them when and how to respond. Only with this audience, it was entirely genuine.
I’ve seen SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN at least 20 times over the years, but yesterday felt like seeing it for the first time. If I had forgotten that the film was a musical comedy, my fellow audience members reminded me, over and over again, with loud laughter at moments I had forgotten were funny. It was infectious, and the gaggle of giggles from the large contingent of pre-teen kids truly warmed the heart of this classic film curmudgeon.
Young children are non-existent at the TCM Film Fest, but yesterday they were prevalent. If these kids would chose to watch SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN over any one of the cacophonous cinematic confections playing in all their three-dimensional, CGI-infested glory in adjoining auditoriums, maybe there is hope for the future. A glass-half-empty type might say “Their parents dragged them.” And while that may true, I’m pretty sure most of those kids walked out with an entirely different different opinion of “old movies.” And that is a truly good thing.
Another improvement was the pre-screening documentary emceed by TCM primetime host Robert Osborne. The CASABLANCA intro essentially spoiled the whole movie, with lengthy clips from most of the film’s iconic moments. This may have been fine for the repeat-viewers, but it ruined nearly every key moment in the film for newbies. The RAIN documentary, however, consisted mostly of an interview with eternally youthful star Debbie Reynolds conducted by Osborne in front of a live, TCMFF audience at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.
Their chat was supplemented with brief clips from the film, as well as context-establishing quotes from Gene Kelly’s widow Patricia Ward Kelly, and archival sound bytes from Donald O’Connor and Cyd Charisse. And unlike the undated CASABLANCA interviews with numerous, deceased cast- and crewmembers inter-cut with living people, the interviews with O’Connor and Charise were identified as having been conducted in 1997. And we were spared from the hodgepodge of incongruous talking heads that littered the CASABLANCA doc (Hugh Hefner?).
Before I get all Jimmy Stewart-y and start running down the snow-covered streets proclaiming my love for Fathom Events, let me bring it back down to Earth for a moment. I was one of nearly 370 people in Auditorium 18 at the Empire 25 (with another 256 in the adjoining theater) who paid $12.50 to watch a recently restored film look worse than I’ve ever seen it look.
Bright scenes were mostly fine, but anything “at night” or in low light looked murky and under-lit. I’m sorry to say that this included the iconic, titular dance sequence, which might have been better described yesterday as SINGIN’ IN THE MUD. There were also moments during particularly colorful sequences where pronounced digital artifacting was visible, especially on Cyd Charisse’s gowns in the Broadway Melody ballet finale. In general, it looked like what it was: a video recording projected on a movie screen.
Every ounce of my classic film snob being wants to call this a complete and total deal-breaker. But I can’t. The experience I had at SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN yesterday was truly transformative. When more than 350 other people starting screaming and cheering at the end of the film, I got genuinely choked up. That would not have happened alone in my apartment with my Blu-Ray player.
That said, it’s important to acknowledge that TCM and Fathom are presenting these films in sub-par visual quality, and they are not honestly acknowledging that fact anywhere in the advertising.
With this method of delivery, there are so many steps along the route where the image integrity can become compromised, the mind truly boggles. To wit: What is the nature of the source material used in the original transmission from Fathom? Is it compressed on the uplink? How about on the downlink? When the local DVR records it at each individual theater, does it undergo a file conversion? How is the DVR connected to the theater’s digital projector? What is the luminance strength of the projector? Does it scale the HD video image? How big is the screen? And on, and on, and on.
To clarify, this has nothing to do with the “digital vs 35 mm” argument because this is not DCP distribution. This is HD video (although how “high definition” it is can be debated.) And for the record, I am not a 35 mm purist; I’ve seen DCP screenings (including a recent restoration of FUNNY FACE at Film Forum) that look stunning, better than any 35 mm projection I have ever witnessed. I acknowledge that digital projection is here to stay, and I also understand that most of the audience doesn’t grasp (or perhaps even care about) the technical complexities of this. But I do think you should be honest with your customers.
But this is the reality, at this moment in history. And the partnership between TCM and Fathom is only getting stronger. Just this week, it was announced that Fathom will be presenting three more TCM-branded screenings in coming months: Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (1963) on September 19, likely featuring a pre-show interview with 82-year-old star Tippi Hedren; a double feature of James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) on October 24, perhaps with an interview Robert Osborne conducted with Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara at the TCM Film Fest; and Robert Mulligan’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), likely featuring Mary Badham (who played Scout).
These screenings may not draw the sold-out crowds of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and the audiences may not make the seats vibrate with applause like my crowd did yesterday. But there’s a good chance that a few longtime fans who can’t afford to fly out to Hollywood for a film festival will experience the joy of sharing a movie they love with hundreds of people who feel the same. And it’s likely that some people who might have otherwise discounted classic films as dated relics may change their tune.
If this is the best available technology right now to get these films into 500 theaters in a way that makes financial sense, I’m (reluctantly) okay with that. I’ll still buy my Blu-rays, and watch them when I feel like a solitary, technologically precise experience. But when I feel like geeking out with other classic movie nerds, and cheering, and getting choked up, I’ll go to a TCM and Fathom Events screening.
This classic film snob has changed his tune, for now. Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls.