When a panel of film programmers from the city’s best repertory houses recently convened for a panel at Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, they all lamented a common occupational hazard – they never have the time to watch movies.
“I never stop working really,” said KJ Relth, who recently took over the reins at the Cinefamily. “It’s rare to have a day off where I’m not focusing on something film or programming related, so if I’m done at the theater, I do an intro at 7:30, go home, make dinner, watch something – two things if I’m lucky.”
Added Bret Berg, who will soon be programming for the Alamo Drafthouse Los Angeles after leaving his mark at Cinefamily, “I don’t get to see many movies ironically. It’s usually 1:30 to 1:45 am in bed on the iPad mini this close to my face,” gesturing an inch away.
Ross Melnick, an associate professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara who programs the school’s Pollock Theater said he often bases his schedule on what he hasn’t seen, saying, “One of the reasons I try to program things from the last 10 years [is that] it forces me to watch them. Part of the education I get is forcing myself to keep up.”
“When you’re sick, that’s great! That’s when you watch a lot of movies,” exclaimed Grant Moninger, who manages the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian and Aero Theatres.
Fortunately, they all somehow found the time to join programmer Paul Malcolm of the Billy Wilder Theater for what was a lively discussion about how film programming works, shedding light on why certain films are shown frequently in Los Angeles and others not at all. With a pair of hard-to-find shorts — Uruguayan filmmaker Federico Veiroj’s “A Useful Life” (pictured above) and French critic and filmmaker Luc Moullet’s “The Seats of the Alcazar” to set the mood, as part of the Hammer’s “Marquee Movies: Movies on Moviegoing” series, the panel held court on a number of different topics, from securing film prints in a digital age to attempts at getting younger generations to the movie theater.
The far-reaching conversation was a reflection of the diversity of the participants, who spoke of how there is no career path laid out for one to become a film programmer. Only Bernardo Rondeau, who is currently prepping programming for the Academy Museum, set to open in late 2017/early 2018, after developing his skills at LACMA, admitted to making a concerted effort to join the profession. Both Malcolm and Relth fell into it after planning to become a film critic, which Malcolm actually was for the LA Weekly between 1994-2006, and Relth had lobbied Cinefamily’s co-founder Hadrian Belove for a position at the theater after biding time at the International Documentary Association and putting on shows in her friend’s backyard on Saturdays. Melnick happened into programming after pursuing a career in academia after learning in his first career in film marketing that he was more enamored of observing Hollywood, something he could do as a professor, than working in it. Meanwhile, Berg had followed Belove from the West L.A. video store to Cinefamily, picking up the skills of how to locate rare films, but admitting the move to programming was “a total fluke,” and for his part, Moninger still appeared to be bewildered about how he ended up here, even after developing a love of movies from when his dad would take him and his brother into the city while he was at work.
“A lot of the programmers are like how did we get here?” said Moninger, taking on the tone of a mad scientist as he described how a new generation of programmers that aren’t necessarily academics have changed the profession in L.A. “It’s a different group of people that didn’t exist before – [it’s now] a lot of people that are like hands-on and who are more confused why they’re there and then they’re like, well, I’ve got to think of something, so you just have to throw yourself in there because you feel a bit like a fraud. Then there’s no rules. All the old rules go out of the way and you start inventing things and it just starts popping around the city.”
That has led to what Berg called “the most advanced [moment] it’s ever been in exhibition history, [where we are doing all kinds of things that even 10 years ago none of us would’ve considered part of our job. That refers to social media, that refers to cutting our own trailers or making our own shows out of thin air, all mixed with this weird owner/operator mentality. It’s bred a new subspecies of programmer.”
Indeed, the film scene in Los Angeles is as vibrant as it’s ever been with a little bit of something for everyone shown around town. The Billy Wilder Theater continues to be a bastion for golden era films from Hollywood and abroad while Cinefamily shows the new, cult and outright obscure, with the American Cinematheque theaters continuing to operate in the middle, mixing popular classics that can take advantage of their theaters’ 70mm capabilities and high seat counts with special screenings with filmmaker guests who often frequent the theaters themselves along with more adventurous fare such as their ongoing Recent Belgian Cinema series. Malcolm brought up Acropolis Cinema, Jordan Cronk’s pop-up screening series rescuing the likes of Lav Diaz and Hong Sang-soo films from the oblivion that often follows their initial release on American shores in New York, if at all, and Moninger admitted to being a bit relieved to know that Quentin Tarantino’s makeover of the New Beverly (which continued this past week with a facelift to the website, where an already active forum was pitching dream double features) has resulted in taking chances on the type of films even hardcore grindhouse aficionados may be unaware of, alleviating the pressure from other area theaters, including his own, to risk showing them without knowing how much of an audience there is for them.
This diversity exists even before the arrivals of the nine-screen Alamo Drafthouse at the corner of 7th and Flower Streets next year, conveniently located next to the Metrorail, and the Academy Museum, coming to the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire, which Rondeau’s description made it sound as if it would be a west coast answer to the Museum of Modern Art’s robust film program, where films will be shown around the clock with an attention to career-spanning retrospectives (a favorite of Rondeau’s mentor Ian Birnie at LACMA). What also has emerged in recent years is a great camaraderie between the city’s programmers, evident in recent programs where the Drafthouse and the Academy have recently presented events at the Egyptian and LACMA’s Bing Theater, respectively, and such major collaborative efforts as the “Chantal Akerman: Contre l’Oubli / Against Oblivion” retrospective this spring that required six organizations (REDCAT, Cinefamily, the Los Angeles Film Forum, Fahrenheit, Veggie Cloud and Human Resources) to properly celebrate the late Brussels-born filmmaker.
“Having people around the community around the world that have this weird job that thankfully are into sharing knowledge as opposed to keeping it for themselves — that’s a very old-school mentality that I’m glad is mostly gone,” said Berg, who also spoke about sharing calendar write-ups with other programmers across the country as a real help.
Added Malcolm, after the panel all copped to texting each other on a regular basis, “When I get an e-mail from a programmer asking where we got this print, that’s the first e-mail I answer because it’s about building that network and maintaining those relationships.”
That generosity between programmers that has become more and more necessary as it’s become increasingly difficult to book films. Even without the added complication of studios locking away their film prints in favor of DCPs for preservation’s sake, the panel clarified that obtaining a film print and obtaining the rights to show it are completely different things and it can become extremely frustrating when one is available without the other or in some cases the rights holder is unaware they own the rights. Berg described the rabbit hole he and Belove went down when the Cinefamily had hoped to stage an Elaine May retrospective in 2008, only to discover the rights to “The Heartbreak Kid,” through various corporate mergers and acquisitions, fell into the hands of a pharmaceutical company. Likewise, Rondeau recalled when he tried to show James Toback’s “Fingers” before doing a long dig to learn the film’s rights belonged to Faberge since they had acquired the company that produced the film.
“At that point, we’re like forget it,” said Rondeau. “We’re not going to try to even explain to them who James Toback is or what this movie is — or what a movie is.”
Once in a great while, major victories happen as a result of the legwork programmers put in. When Cinefamily attempted to track down the rights to show William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer,” it was discovered that neither of the film’s co-distributors Universal or Paramount had them. When it was brought to the attention of Friedkin, the tenacious director who once stopped at nothing to restore Orson Welles’ “It’s All True” after finding it in a few unmarked cans at the Paramount lot, “Sorcerer” was restored and put back into circulation by Warner Brothers. However, the programmers are content to have the smaller ones, with Berg saying the “problem solving and detective work” was one of the most fun parts of the job for him.
For a time, the panel descended into fascinating shop talk about why specific films can’t be shown, sometimes due to personal animosity between the rights holders of the film and the filmmakers, other times because of the excessive fees charged by foreign sales agents. For instance, don’t hold your breath for Toho monster movies, which are too pricey for even well-heeled rep houses to consider, or as it turns out anything “Tarzan”-related or “Blade Runner,” which are currently on moratorium. Malcolm had wanted to include a preeminent silent star’s signature film in the “Movies on Moviegoing” series, but was rebuffed because the rights holder is planning for a major retrospective in the future, one not believed to even be in Los Angeles. And with studios locking up their prints, archives such as UCLA Film and TV Archive, the Academy, George Eastman House and the Library of Congress are pushing their deadlines for requests from programmers earlier and earlier due to increased demand – with the average of three months before now becoming six – for titles you wouldn’t expect.
“The craziest example to me of that is ‘Terminator 2,’” said Berg. “One of the biggest movies in movie history, the rights lapsed. Sony no longer had it. and it reverted to StudioCanal because they bought the Carolco library, so trying to screen one of the biggest movies in movie history suddenly because an archeological challenge. There is a print at the University of North Carolina, so that’s how it happens. You have to know and you have to keep digging and digging.”
Of course, the obstacles don’t end there. Melnick, coming in from Santa Barbara, noted that a projectionist will cost between $500 to $1000 per film screening when he has to import one from Los Angeles, which itself is seeing a diminishing pool as DCPs become the norm. He also reminded, “repertory programming has had a disastrous decline that started in the ‘70s and moved into the ‘80s with video stores and [subsequently], moving into VOD and the problem now is not necessarily the amazing amount of programming, but also about getting audiences. You have to start thinking how you get the 15-, 18, 20-year olds to start doing this as a part of their life and not as a one-off event. That’s the challenge I see is how you create this as a quotidian activity.”
Still, neither he nor anyone else on stage seemed to subscribe to the idea that the sky is falling. Berg and Relth spoke about how they’ve built an audience at Cinefamily based on trust, giving the example of filling the theater for shows of Jean Eustache’s notorious four-hour endurance test “The Mother and the Whore,” and Berg described how when he and Belove were first talking about drawing crowds, Belove never saw other movie theaters as competition, but rather bars, restaurants and nightclubs. That recognition led to the desire to turn the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax into a destination, where socializing that’s encouraged in the patio in the back has become as important as the films being shown in front. Moninger believed there was an even simpler appeal that movie theaters still have.
“Part of the spectacle is just being nice,” said Moninger. “Everywhere you go – Bank of America or wherever you’re going, you’re going in a place and you’re nothing and they’re nothing and you have your transaction and you get back in your car and you drive through nothing, and I thought maybe this could be a place where people come lots of times and we know their names and we find out what movies they like and you can say, “You’ve got to stick around for the second movie. Because that place doesn’t exist anymore [elsewhere].”
Relth agreed that a major selling point has to become the relationship that audiences form with any given theater and the idea that it’s special.
“As a patron at Cinefamily for years before I started working there, it was weird to go there and just have trailers start and then the movie without someone coming out and thanking you for being there and giving you some sort of context, inviting you in and showing you how to appreciate this,” said Relth. “And that’s something really special programmers try to do is to make people feel like they’re part of something. That’s the attempt to get [film] prints whenever we can and saying we have this rare piece that not everybody else is showing that’s ephemeral, it’s not going to be here forever – it has to go back to an archive – hyping that and learning how to talk about it makes it not just going to a movie and leaving.”
With that, Malcolm ended the night by saying, “Right now, there’s nothing else to do but get the next show together.”
For more on the fearless film programmers of Los Angeles:
– John Wyatt and All the Feels of Cinespia
– USC’s Alessandro Ago on Complementing a Moviemaking Education with One in Moviegoing
– Brian Udovich on Firing on All Cylinders with Reel Grit
– Worth Staying Up For: Phil Blankenship on Heavy Midnites, L.A.’s Wildest Movie Night
– Mark Olsen Brings Festival Favorites Into “Indie Focus” in LA
– How “Last Remaining Seats” Restores the Classics in Downtown L.A.