The third edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival kicks off today in Hollywood with a lineup sure to make savants of historical cinematic achievements drool, with new restorations ranging from “Cabaret” to “Rio Bravo.” Film historian Robert Osborne has hosted the four-day event from the start. He got on the phone with Indiewire yesterday to discuss the current lineup as well as the appeal of watching movies on the big screen in an age where home viewing has threatened to destroy the theatrical experience.
What do you consider to be the highlights of this year’s festival?
I think the answer is each to his own. But I’m very excited to see Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly in “Cover Girl” on the big screen. “How the West Was Won” hasn’t been seen in Cinerama in many years. I’m excited about Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and “Thief of Baghdad” with a live orchestra. And “Cabaret” with Liza Minelli in attendance. But one of the things that’s exciting about our festival is that it’s such a varied schedule that there’s really something for almost everybody here. Every kind of film genre and era. The only problem is trying to see all the films, which is impossible.
How involved are you in the selection process?
It’s basically [TCM senior vice president of programming] Charlie Tabesh who makes the selections. But the great thing about Charlie is that he’s very open to suggestions. He’s not territorial about his job and he asks for suggestions that we all make. He’ll go after some of them. That’s what fun about it, throwing ideas out there. I’m very much one for liking to get movies that haven’t been seen for a while, like this year with “The Macomber Affair,” with Gregory Peck and Joan Bennett, based on an Ernest Hemingway story. That hasn’t been seen for years. We’ve got it. Movies like that are such rarities and great fun to see on the big screen. Sometimes, you can’t get the films, so that puts an end to it. Or sometimes he won’t go after certain films because, for example, he already has a Gregory Peck film. He’s always got a reason for what he does.
The main focus, with only a few exceptions, is U.S. cinema. Explain, please.
Initially, we did that because of marquee names, famous people, the appeal being able to see them on the big screen for the first time. So being able to see “Casablanca” on the big screen for the first time, getting to see “Singin’ in the Rain” on the big screen. Now we’re successful enough that this last year, the day we announced the festival, we sold out all of our premium passes for the festival. That means before people knew any of the films or celebrities we had booked, they wanted to buy tickets for it. That does open us up to be able to have things like “The Grand Illusion” that would not appeal to people maybe on the surface, but they know if we show it, it’s something we’re seeing and will probably enjoy. That will allow us to do more lesser-known films. That’s one of the nice things about getting a reputation.
How do you define a classic film?
I just think that “classic” has to do with how welcome a film is and whether it’s worth seeing more than once. With some films, once you see them, they can be pretty much dismissed. But a classic film is something that’s really seen for a reason, it’s got some legs to it and deserves attention, deserves to be preserved and seen by future generations. That doesn’t mean it has to be a great film, but it’s got to have some kind of quality for something in it that makes it have a lifespan. That’s how I describe it.
Does that mean you can’t show new films? “The Extraordinary Voyage,” about the restoration of “A Trip to the Moon,” is obviously the exception.
Well, I do think you can’t really tell right off the bat if something is going to be a classic. You can respect a film and say that it’s beautifully made, but there’s so many instances where we see films that won Oscars where you think they’re really great and then you look at them a few years later and realize they’re not that great at all. So I think a little time does have to go by.
Do you see the festival as a way of advocating for the big-screen experience — and, by extension, the survival of movie theaters in the digital age?
I don’t think it’s coming into the conversation yet, certainly, but it might in the future. Part of the moviegoing experience is not just seeing it on the big screen, but seeing it on a giant-sized screen with hundreds or thousands of people. It’s totally different if you’re watching a comedy and have 1,500 people laughing, or if it’s a horror film and everybody’s in a state of terror. That’s a communal experience and what going to the movies used to be all about. The joy of watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing — sharing that pleasure with all these other people sitting around you and behaving properly in a movie theater, which they don’t always do today. They do at our festival. No matter how big the screen is in your basement or your living room, you don’t get that communal experience. It’s missing from a lot of people’s lives now, particularly now that we’re sitting a lot in front of a computer screens by ourselves. In our festival, you’re sharing it with a lot of people, in admiration of people three stories high, and you’re this little person sitting there, in the dark, focused on that. Nobody’s going to be opening a refrigerator or texting on the couch.
Of course, the irony is that the festival is hosted by a TV network.
That’s one thing that I’m particularly thrilled about with TCM, actually. We don’t have interruptions or commercials. In Hitchcock films, you can’t create a mood and excitement, then break for a deodorant commercial. That’s the great first step. Then the second step is to be able to see it in the theater, one continuous action and people who are three stories high.
Has the crowd at the festival evolved over the years or is it mainly the same people?
A lot of young people are starting to get into older films. It’s almost like they’ve discovered a really good book where it doesn’t matter when it was made because it’s a totally new experience. A lot of younger people used to say, “Well, I don’t like old movies.” I think they’re coming to the realization that if they haven’t seen it, it’s not an old movie. “Sunset Boulevard” may have been made in 1950, but it will still hold you.
In that case, do you see an upside to home movie viewing in the sense there’s more chance of discovering something on DVD or online?
Absolutely. If they’re going to be attracted to older movies, maybe they’ll be attracted to seeing it in a better venue than an iPhone.
You used to host a similar classic film festival in Athens, Georgia. Will that ever come back?
No, once we started TCM, I gave up the other one for a very good reason: I don’t want to be the king of film festivals. But also what I was doing with the festival in Athens was trying to get people to see movies on the big screen, in a theater. That was a small festival. I had no particular connection to the university there but got asked to do it. When I found I could do it on a larger scale in Los Angeles, that’s what I wanted to concentrate on. Georgia proved to me that there is an audience for classic films and that it can grow. I knew off the bat when they started talking about a TCM Film Festival that it was going to be successful.