This morning Turner Classic Movies (aka the only real reason to have a cable subscription) announced a new branding initiative and slogan/hashtag to go along with it: #LetsMovie. It’s a pretty corny hashtag, but it is fairly memorable and I don’t really want to talk about that.
What I want to talk about this statement in the press release from Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM.
Weâ€™re on a mission to share and celebrate the entire spectrum of film history with an engaged and growing community, and the goal of this campaign is to attract an even broader audience of movie fans to the network than ever before.
As you might expect, Classic Film Twitter is worried. Classic Film Twitter is worried anytime TCM plays post-1970 films. Last February’s 30 Days of Oscar marathon was worrying – they showed Shakespeare in Love (1998), Life is Beautiful (1997), Chicago (2002), Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), and more post-1990 films. Here’s Lou Loumenick discussing that programming, with quotes from Senior VP of Programming Charlie Tabesh. Some of the selections at this year’s TCM Film Festival were worrying, particularly a much-publicized screening of Apollo 13 (1995). These are far afield from the studio era (1920-1960) films that we associate with TCM.
So what exactly does “the entire spectrum of film history” mean, and are they sacrificing the classic film brand to “attract an even broader audience”? It’s tough to say at this point, because we don’t actually know what they mean, and we don’t know how or how much the programming may change. In a follow-up tweet, Dorian tries to allay fears:
— Jennifer Dorian (@JRDorian) August 31, 2015
Close watchers of the TCM schedules, however, will note an ongoing creep toward newer films. At one time, the channel did play largely films from before 1965 – the Deadline article where TCM announced #LetsMovie tacks on “not just those from the 20â€™s and 30â€™s” to Dorian’s “entire spectrum” quote, but it’s unclear whether she said that or if they did. (As an aside, silent film fans are already scoffing at that line – TCM has relegated 1920s films to Silent Sunday Nights for years now.) The number of ’60s and ’70s films have been steadily growing, and seem more likely to be played in primetime, compared to films from the 1930s-1950s. So when we hear they’re going to “celebrate the entire spectrum of film history” and “a great movie is a great movie, no matter what decade it was created in” (another quote from Dorian), we’re afraid we’re hearing “TCM is going to start playing films from the 1980s-2000s at the expense of the studio era.”
Dorian’s tweet suggests we’re reading it backwards – that the campaign is meant to reach non-fans and convince them that films from the studio era are also great films. In which case…go forth and prosper! But the year creep is real, and TCM’s PR over the past few years has pointed out that “classic” is a shifty word, and that the cut-off date for “classic” is naturally moving later in history, so it’s prudent to take everything we’re hearing from both TCM PR and fearful classic film fans with a grain of salt. Our fear is that TCM is going the AMC route. At one time, AMC was the greatest channel on TV, basically what TCM is now for classic film fans. At some point they shifted to newer, more well-known films and added commercial breaks, and eventually to original series (which is working for them like gangbusters, but their name is totally anachronistic now). But TCM knows what happened to AMC and their fanbase, and I don’t believe for a second they want or intend that to happen.
Here’s the actual #LetsMovie promo:
Clearly, that’s young people watching old movies. The newest one I saw was Jaws, from 1975. There might be a clip from 1989’s Cinema Paradiso, but it’s impossible to be an old movie fan and not appreciate that movie. So I’m inclined to think we’re overreacting and it’s the marketing more than the programming that’s shifting. In other words, programming may be shifting to allow for time passing and the idea of “classic” shifting to include newer films, but that’s happening slowly and so far hasn’t eliminated the studio era films we love – in fact, TCM just devoted an entire month to 80% studio-era actors and often very obscure films.
Honestly, folks, the difference between TCM now and AMC when it changed formats is TCM’s strength of programming. Just take a look at their September programming. Their Spotlight series on WWII docs and the directors who made them, anchored by film historian Mark Harris and following his book Five Came Back. That’s not watered down programming playing to the mainstream. That’s serious film education. Look at their #SummerofDarkness programming this summer, which tied into an actual film course on film noir and featured 24 hours of film noir (well-known, obscure, and yes, a few neo-noirs) every single week for two months. That’s not watered down programming. They’ve got a trio of 1975 films next month – year creep? Okay, but it’s hard to argue against One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, and Barry Lyndon as great films that everyone ought to see.
So I admit my first thought at the press release was one of trepidation. I love Pre-Code marathons and 1940s musicals and random obscure B movies you come across at 5am. On the other hand, I’m a proponent of cinema from all eras, and if the theme fits, it’s entirely appropriate for TCM to devote some time to the great films from more recent decades. The fact is until we see how the programming goes for the next several months, we won’t know for sure whether TCM is abandoning its core audience, or merely trying to make its core programming appeal to more people. Sometimes classic film fans (myself included!) can sound pretty elitist, as if we don’t want new people to enjoy old movies, or we’re not willing to allow for some gateway drugs to entice new people (“if you don’t like Pre-Codes and silents at first blush, you don’t deserve TCM!” – no one’s actually said that to my knowledge, but it’s not far off the attitude I see sometimes). People are more likely to say “ugh, Casablanca again?” Well, yes, because Casablanca is a tested and proven gateway to classic film, and seeing it will lead more newbies to give those obscure things you love a chance.
So to TCM I would say: Please continue focusing on quality programming, because anybody can just show movies from whenever without any useful structure. The way you program movies is special, and makes movies that otherwise wouldn’t catch my attention must-sees because of the thoughtful programming. Watching TCM is a film education, and I’d encourage expanding that to later decades, but please keep it thoughtful, and continue to balance in favor of thoughtful studio-era programming.
To people encouraging a wider programming and audience base I would say: Do understand why some of us are a bit apprehensive. Post-studio era movies ARE becoming more prevalent on the channel, and more obscure movies do seem to be pushed more and more into the morning or overnight timeslots. Which isn’t necessarily a huge problem given DVRs, but we’d like those movies to get a primetime shot at getting a larger audience as well. The definition of “classic” changes, but for TCM fans it has always been synonymous with “studio-era,” which doesn’t change, and that definitional mismatch is part of the perceived problem.
To classic film fans freaking out I would say: Don’t freak out. We don’t know what, if any, changes will be made to programming yet. Plus, if we love old movies, we should want more people to be drawn into them, and TCM needs to reach out to them in order to get them interested. Also, there ARE great movies from every decade, and even if post-1960s movies aren’t your cup of tea, it’s okay if everything doesn’t cater directly to us. I get that we’re concerned about decade creep, but I haven’t seen anything to suggest that TCM plans to leave us in the dust. They know how we feel.
TCM host Ben Mankiewicz allays our fears:
— Ben Mankiewicz (@BenMank77) August 31, 2015