Ben Mankiewicz is a man of many talents — weekend host on TCM (Turner Classic Movies), regular co-host of liberal YouTube show “The Young Turks” and its spin-offs “What The Flick?! Show” and “TYT Sports,” and he played a sportscaster on “Party Down.” And while it may seem like Mankiewicz plays to a particularly older audience, as a TCM host, Mankiewicz has an expanding flock of classic film fans and they’re not all blue-hairs — just check out the twitter hashtag #TCMParty.
And by the way, yes, Ben is one of those Mankiewiczes, sharing a Hollywood lineage that includes Frank Mankiewicz, Tom Mankiewicz, Herman Mankiewicz, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But he’s definitely carved out a notable career in the industry all on his own, and at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival we got to sit down with Ben Mankiewicz and discuss working at TCM, why he doesn’t like “Some Like It Hot,” and his thoughts on last year’s Sight and Sound poll.
What do you think of the younger demographic of TCM fans and TCM Classic Film Festival attendees appreciating classic films?
It’s by far the most satisfying part of this endeavor. In the first year [of the TCM Classic Film Festival], we saw what appeared to be a much younger audience… In the last couple of years, we commissioned some extensively expensive research on who our viewers are really, much more than normal TV research, we went deeply in-depth, and two-thirds, 66% of all of our viewers are under 49… I think that it confirmed what we’re seeing. It’s enormously satisfying because what that means is that most of our viewers did not see these movies when they came out. So their connection to them, their love of them, the significant place these movies hold in their heart developed some other way… It also means that this isn’t going to go away, that that connection will continue.
With developments in technology and moving towards the future, what’s your opinion on having more types of screens on which to watch films? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
I think in general it’s a good thing. Obviously, progress is confusing… There are things about it that are disturbing and obviously, movies meant to be seen in a big theater and panoramic screen and seeing it on your computer and on your iPad is not ideal. But it’s better than not seeing it, especially with the movies I admire most, which are chatty. I think it’s good.
I think that the sort of digital filmmaking and the sort of world of filmmaking has opened up –I think that you can produce a pretty good movie fairly inexpensively… Getting it distributed is an issue, but the fact that now you can send it to people’s iPads makes distribution easier. Basically, I think that has helped us. It’s turned on a whole generational of young filmmakers to our movies because as much as they have aspirations to follow in Steven Spielberg’s footsteps, they can’t produce those kinds of movies, but they can produce movies with great stories and character and using the camera to tell their story. They can produce movies in the mold of Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges and if they hit it big, then they can get paid… I just mean that if you have thirty thousand dollars, fifty thousand dollars, a hundred thousand dollars, you’re not going to blow up the Death Star in that movie.
You actually have to have a great structure, great story. You can’t rely on a big, massive, special effects. “Transformers” comes to mind…
I use “Transformers” all of the time. They’re unwatchable. It’s so freaking loud. I know I sound like my Dad, but I’m not knocking new movies. I think there are some great ones, really good ones, but that’s not one of them.
Speaking of film taste, what is your favorite “guilty pleasure” movie?
“Guilty pleasure” would be the wrong term for the movie I’ll say. I only say that because it has J. Lo in it. “Out of Sight” was almost the best feeling I ever had when I saw a movie. I saw it in Miami. I had just moved to Miami to work on a new show we were starting up there and I just came out of that movie thinking I’ve got to go to a movie every day, like this is too good a feeling. That’s my kind of movie. Likable bad guys, those are my kind of characters and Jennifer Lopez was great. You know, it’s a Soderbergh movie and she wasn’t J. Lo yet. I love that film and it’s where you realize that oh man, this is George Clooney, that he made the right call, that he can succeed post-“E.R.,” like this guy is going to be a big movie star. “Out of Sight” is a phenomenal film. I’ve seen it like 40 times.
What is a movie that regularly makes the top films lists, a critical darling, that you don’t quite agree with? For example, Woody Allen said “Some Like It Hot.”
You’re kidding. That’s just what I was about to say… Some people think it’s the funniest movie ever and I’m like, “I got it. They’re in drag.” This feels like a really good episode of “Three’s Company” to me. I’m overstating. Don’t get me wrong… Like “Ace in the Hole” would be on my top ten list. It’s not that I don’t have an enormous appreciation for Billy Wilder, I just don’t think it’s that funny. Again, I’m totally hesitant to say this in front of a tape recorder, but yeah, I would say that and I had no idea that Woody Allen felt that way… It’s fascinating, I feel better.
About “Vertigo” beating “Citizen Kane” in the polls, what are your thoughts on that? Could it simply be black-and-white vs. color or a new generation?
I think that maybe critics didn’t get the chance to see “Vertigo” for a while, so long, that they just thought, “Vertigo, Vertigo, we’ve got to go see it.”… Without having a list written down in front of me, “Strangers on a Train,” “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “North By Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Notorious,” those are six Hitchcock movies I like more than “Vertigo.”
“To Catch A Thief?”
No. It’s a little slow. Don’t get me wrong, I love “To Catch A Thief,” I like them all, but those are six right there that I just get more out of than “Vertigo.”
And they don’t have Jimmy Stewart’s head bobbing mid-air.
Some of that’s Hitchcock’s love of German Expressionism and you’ve got to take that stuff for what it is. There’s a lot of that in “Marnie,” too. I like “Marnie.”… The clear green screen, the clear fake backdrops and the painted boat in the back, but he didn’t care. He’s like it’s fine, they know what it is. They know the message we’re trying to pull of. So I don’t get, I wouldn’t say I don’t agree… but I don’t think they [“Citizen Kane” and “Vertigo”] are close, but it’s all right.
What do you think of the TCM Film Festival in comparison to other film festivals?
I think it’s the best. I don’t think there is any other network on television, almost any other entity accept maybe some sports teams, where the fans feel an obligation…to look after the network.
You’re like family at this point.
Yes… but it’s like we’re family and they [the fans] are the parents in some ways because they want us to succeed on our own. We have this huge responsibility, but they’re always watching us. They’re sort of keeping us in line. I go to Telluride every year and I love Telluride, but the sense of community here, like it’s not the same. At Telluride, it’s film lovers so obviously there’s a connection there, but here these are classic film lovers… There’s this sense of community among the fans and this sense, that’s untrue of any other network on television, that they’re protecting us, looking out for us. I mean I watch a lot of television and I love TV… I love all of this great television that we have now — “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Veep.” But I don’t feel any sense that I need to look out for HBO or AMC or ESPN, which I watch all of the time. Those are just networks that show shows I like. TCM isn’t just a network that shows movies you like. It’s like we have this responsibility as caretakers and the fans know that. I think that makes the relationship between the network and the fan unlike anything else. No other network on television could have a festival like this.