“How come you only show us clips from movies none of us ever heard of?”
She was 30, a single mom who’d admirably gone back to school for a business degree to better things for her and her family. She’d taken my film appreciation class as an elective, a break from the grind of her business classes, expecting it would be – her word – “fun.”
But, due to the aforementioned “movies none of us ever heard of,” she was not having the anticipated fun.
I explained, “Because most movies were made before you were born.”
Simple and obvious, it still didn’t satisfy her, and the unasked next question in her eyes I guessed to be, “But why do we have to see them?”
Most of my class – not all, but most – I knew felt similarly. They didn’t say it but I could tell: rolled eyes, glazed eyes, eyes glued to smart phones they mistakenly thought I couldn’t see hidden in their laps under their desks instead of on the projection screen. The occasional snoozer, head down on his/her desk.
Not to mention they didn’t know who Bogart was, or Stanwyck, Lancaster, Grant, Fonda, Bergman… Some didn’t know there’d been a The War of the Worlds (1953) before Spielberg’s (let alone that there’d been a – “Really?” – book!); that there’d been a Planet of the Apes (1968) before Tim Burton’s monkey fest. And those few who did know, hadn’t seen the originals. With the exception of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and (for just a few) The Godfather (1972), it seemed most of them didn’t know any movie before Independence Day (1996) and Titanic (1997).
then it jelled for me: why didn’t they know? The Internet, Netflix, DVDs, dozens of cable channels…my students had incredible access to a virtually limitless library of movies, yet almost every day I went into class it was like I was speaking in tongues to them.
And then a flip side of her question presented itself, also nagging at me: how come back when I was a kid with just six TV channels, I knew about all those classic (and even more not-so-classic) flicks?
After mulling it over for a couple of days, I had my epiphany: an outrageous paradox. For all their access, my students saw astoundingly little; and as limited as my access had been, I’d seen so, so much more.
Up until about 1970, movie releases were managed as if pictures were valuable objects to be carefully nursed through the distribution system. It wasn’t because Old Hollywood had any great respect or high regard for their product; they had no illusions that they were handling some kind of – God forbid – art. This was a matter of simple, economic practicality; they adhered to a methodology designed to wring every last possible dollar out of each title.
Wide releases were reserved for anticipated disasters: you pushed a flick onto as many screens as possible hoping to haul in some quick box office cash before the bad word of mouth got out. But what you normally did was this:
A movie was initially released only in the better theaters only in the major markets. When its drawing power began to fade at that level, only then was it cycled through smaller markets, more downscale theaters, and then dropping down another tier to second- and then third-run houses, finally bottoming out – depending on the era – at drive-ins and grindhouses. It was a process with the goal of squeezing out every possible buck at a given level of exhibition before moving on to the next one.
I’m not throwing the word “event” around loosely: that’s exactly what exhibitions at these showcases truly were. There’d be souvenirs and programs on sale in the palatial lobbies, movies would open with a musical overture as if they were Broadway plays, there’d be an intermission. Only after business had peaked at these kinds of imperial displays did a trimmed-back version of the movie trickle out into the usual distribution network.
Whether the movie was a megamillion-dollar epic or a routine studio release, this limited distribution pattern could preserve the entertainment value of a title for months, with those movies generating positive word of mouth teasing out a tantalizing expectancy in markets further down the ladder. I can still remember, as a kid in Jersey, hearing about movies opening in New York, and envying the few kids whose families had the money to “jump across the river” to see a movie in The City while the rest of us wondered how long it would take to come to our side of the Hudson, and then to our neighborhood.
With this kind of release pattern, it wasn’t unusual for a successful movie to be in exhibition for as long as a year. For the biggies – the Ben-Hurs and such – it might take a couple of years before the last tired, pitted print rattled for the last time through a projector at some drive-in out in the boonies.
Still, for as long as a movie might be on the exhibition circuit, it was only being seen by a limited number of people at any given time. In this way, all movies – no matter how pedestrian – were evanescent experiences. A movie came to the neighborhood theater, and, once it left, it was gone forever, like – to steal a line from Blade Runner (1982) – “tears in rain.”
Well, most of the time.
Some of those prestigious Radio City-caliber releases were able, under this restrained distribution pattern, to retain a lasting appeal, a cultural echo, a sense that they were too special to only pass through this life once. When you saw Gone with the Wind or The Longest Day (1962), you knew there was never going to be another movie like that. Ever.
And the studios recognized that impact. These super-memorable flicks belonged to their own special class, were treated like rare treasures occasionally brought out of their sacred vault for rare occasions – a re-release — possibly to be seen for the last time by an older generation who fondly remembered them, and a newer generation which had only ever heard about them.
While re-releases were a regular feature of the old distribution model, they were rare enough for individual titles for a re-release to be considered as much of an event as a movie’s first time on screens. It was a form of cultural resurrection. That’s how I got to see – on the big screen – movies like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, even the everybody-in-comedy-worth-a-damn It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (with the re-release promo line recognizing just how dysfunctional the 1970s were: “If there was ever a time for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it’s now!”).
Considering its age, I would guess Gone with the Wind would probably be the re-release champ, showing up on the big screen every so many years decade after decade (Wikipedia lists eight theatrical re-releases). But the man who had re-releasing down to a science was Walt Disney.
Disney re-released his animation classics – pictures like Bambi (1942), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), et al – about every seven years. The calculation was that was how long it would take one generation of viewers to age out of a given movie’s appeal, and a new generation to age in. Disney – always a far-sighted guy – also anticipated that at a certain point parents who had seen these animated jewels as kids would enjoy reliving the experience with their own kids.
Re-releasing made sense in a cinema world where there was no aftermarket. A movie made its money in theaters and that was that.
Initially, many of the major studios wanted nothing to do with TV. As TV ownership increased, movie attendance decreased, and Hollywood considered the little flickering box a thief in the night running off with the movie industry’s audience, a pillager, a rapist, a Pied Piper seducing ever more viewers each year with its bluish glow. Television was the great evil, The Dark Lord, so much so that some studios even had embargos on their contract players making TV appearances, or even against having a TV appear in a movie as, say, part of a living room set’s decor. To actually provide TV with movie programming was tantamount to aiding and abetting a Class A felony.
But in Hollywood, even then it was already a long-established tradition that the dollar spoke louder than ideals, and the big ice-breaker came in 1955 when RKO sold the TV rights to740 of the studio’s features. It was kind of like, “How dare you, you miserable little box, showing up on my doorstop with your hand out, wanting my prized — . Wait, how much did you say?” The other studios – most of whom, like RKO, were financially struggling at the time – looked at the millions RKO had reaped, figured most of their oldies weren’t doing them any good sitting on the shelves gathering dust, and thereafter followed suit in a torrent of similar – and even bigger – TV deals.
The studios bundled their old movies in packages, and syndicators sold these packages to local stations around the country. The licensing terms might run as long as 20 years, but that was fine; in those days, there was no advantage to a quick turnover. Buying these big blocks of movies, and holding on to them for such long periods gave TV stations the ability to not only build up substantial film libraries, but to develop their own market-specific programming traditions.
Where I lived in northeastern New Jersey, we were part of the New York metropolitan viewing area, then and now the biggest, most densely-populated TV market in the country,
Stephen Whitty, reviewer for New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, one of the largest newspapers in the New York metro area, remembers the varied “flavors” of the different NY stations: “In the NY area…you had Channel 2 running MGM pictures, Channel 5 had Warners and old Universal titles, Channel 9 had RKO and a lot of British imports, Channel 13 ran foreign imports and silents, and Channels 4, 7, and 11 divvied up the rest.”
Another childhood memory: Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie (keeping in mind that, in those days, you could make a pretty good movie for a million bucks). MDM had a unique scheduling strategy: they’d run the same movie every weeknight at eight, then run it several times each day on Saturday and Sunday. For a kid, that kind of encoring was like a form of hypnotic brainwashing. There were images I still haven’t forgotten after sitting through them as a thrill-hungry 10-year-old, watching them a half-dozen times in a week: a tentacled monster barging through an inn’s front doors in The Crawling Eye (1951), Jack Palance’s arm crushed by a German tank in Attack! (1956), Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis watching in terror as Walter Pidgeon’s “Monster from the Id” burns its way through steel doors to get at them in Forbidden Planet (1956), John Wayne trying to single-handedly save a railroad bridge from being washed away by a flood in Tycoon (1947), having a crush on one of the eponymous women of Atlantis in Hercules and the Women of Atlantis (1961 – Channel 9 had all those cheesy – pardon me — mozzarella-y Italian-made Hercules movies).
As much money as Hollywood could make selling its oldies, the movie industry still hadn’t “gone all the way”…but the potential revenue for selling newer flicks to the major networks was too tempting to ignore for long. In 1961, NBC debuted NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, a weekly movie slot featuring comparatively recent films which soon became one of the network’s highest-rated spots on its schedule.
The studios were still careful about how much exposure their product received. There was an embargo period on new movies; they couldn’t be sold to TV for at least several years after their theatrical runs. And some movies – Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – were held back from TV for decades.
The prices the studios exacted for their biggest features steadily rose. By the late 60s, the nets were paying an average price of $800,000 per title, a four-fold jump from what NBC had been paying at the beginning of the decade, while particularly upscale flicks went for much more: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) went for $2 million; Cleopatra (1963) for $5 million.
As far as the networks were concerned, the movies were worth the money. Movies quickly proved themselves to be tremendous draws. From the mid-1960s until the late 1990s, one of the several prime time movie slots on one or another of the networks finished among the highest-rated programs for the season, often among the season’s Top 25. Network movie telecasting reached a peak in 1968 when there was a network movie on every night of the week: ABC had Monday and Wednesday, CBS took Thursday and Friday, and NBC copped the rest.
One memory I have shows you how big a deal movies were for the networks – and for their audience. As a kid I remember that during the tail end of the summer, NBC would air a 10-minute (I think) spot at the end of one of its movie nights promoting the top end titles they’d be premiering throughout the upcoming season. Most of the movies they were running – even the best ones – hadn’t gotten that kind of advance promotion when they were in theaters!
Between what the network affiliates were airing between network programming blocks, and what the indies were scheduling throughout the day, and what the nets were airing in prime time, there was almost always a movie on somewhere at most times of the day.
Stephen Whitty remembers: “When you got home from school, there were old movies on Channels 4, 7, 9, and 11 to choose from; weekends, Channels 5, 9 and 11 all ran horror movies on Saturdays, while The Late Show on Channel 2 ran classics.”
Emmy-winning producer/writer/director Bill Persky (The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl) remembers the same cinematic horn of plenty: “In the 50s through 80s, movies were the equivalent of TiVo – when there was nothing to watch, there was always a movie…Many a bleary-eyed morning was the result of The Late Show and The Late Late Show. Since you couldn’t record them for later, you had to put in real time to watch, and many was the night I was awakened at one a.m. by a call from a friend – ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is on!’”
Granted, not every market was as cinematically plush as New York. I went to college in Columbia, South Carolina, a rather feeble market by New York standards. Columbia only had three network affiliates and the only movies they carried were those on the network schedule. Out in more rural parts of the country, there were areas that didn’t even have all three networks!
Still, in a number of cities, a generation of young people was growing up exposed to much of what had passed for movie entertainment since the beginning of the sound era. The local stations gave us the oldies, the nets the newer flicks we might’ve missed in theaters (or wanted to see again). We might not have known John Ford from Henry Ford, but we saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and They Were Expendable (1945).
As Peter Biskind tells it in his 1998 account of Hollywood’s creative explosion in the 1960s/70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, as much as TV, movies became a cultural glue holding us Baby Boomers together. We were all seeing the same movies, seeing them over and over when they were re-run on TV like some shared group ritual, entertaining each other playing out their scenes, swaggering like John Wayne, twitching lips like Humphrey Bogart, doing lock-jawed imitations of Burt Lancaster (“I’m a pig!” – Vera Cruz, 1954) and Kirk Douglas (“Odin!” – The Vikings, 1958). I can still remember when Channel 5 got the rights to West Side Story (1961) when I was in high school. The next day, you couldn’t pass down a hall between classes without hearing the snap snap snap of any number of students snapping their fingers a la the Jets and Sharks.
Those years parked in front of the TV as kids laid the bedrock for what would become the country’s first – and perhaps last – cinematically literate generation. As we grew older and went off to college, some of us actually studied movies, some studied how to make movies. From our ranks came a truly memorable class of filmmakers who quantumly jumped from replaying favorite scenes in the schoolyard to a stratospheric level of cinematic artistry: Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, Lucas, Spielberg, Friedkin, Schrader and others.
The great generational irony of that time was that while the youth of the day seemed to be violently at odds with The Older Generation about damned near everything else – politics, race, the war in Vietnam, economic disparity, social conventions, music, fashion, Women’s Lib, Gay Lib, sex – movies remained a point of connection, a bridge across the generational divide.
I might spend one night telling my mother how her generation had thoroughly screwed up the world for my generation, but then the next night –
“Hey, I just saw On the Waterfront (1954) for the first time.”
And off we’d go, me babbling about how blown away I was by Brando’s performance, her still blown away by how good a young, in-his-prime Brando had looked in a T-shirt.
It was the rare cultural torch that we Boomers took up from our elders. We may not have thought much of oldsters and their skinny lapels and corny music and their Richard Nixon, but their movies were just as much our movies. It was a natural feeling; after all, we’d been raised on them.
So…what changed? How did we get from there to, “How come you only show us clips of movies none of us ever heard of?”
Actually, quite a few things changed.
Distribution patterns for one. Back in The Day, wide releasing was for movies expected to bomb. Today, it’s the standard. This summer saw Bridesmaids open on over 2900 screens; Scream 4 on over 3300; Fast Five on 3644; Thor topped 3900; and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides debuted on 4,155 screens. On opening weekend, there’s hardly a multiplex in the country that isn’t running that weekend’s major release…often on more than one screen.
And these mass openings roll out on a tidal wave of advance, shrill, multimedia hype – promos, gossip items, behind-the-scenes pieces — searing those titles deep into the consciousness of even the most determinedly disinterested. That sense of mystery and expectancy which used to go with waiting for buzz-worthy titles to finally come to the neighborhood bijou is gone. J.J. Abrams recently told Entertainment Weekly how hard it was to maintain that brand of longed-for mystery around this summer’s Super 8, the 1970s-set sci fier he directed for producer Steven Spielberg: “There are a lot of advantages to living in the age of instant information. The downside is that we know about things more than we want to. By the time the movie comes out, not only do we know everything about its production, you’ve seen a trailer that’s told you almost everything.”
Even after TV came along, the exposure of any given title remained somewhat limited. The life cycle of a typical movie in the 1960s ran something like this: maybe a year in theatrical release, then a cooling off period of a couple of years before being licensed to one of the broadcast networks where it would air maybe twice a year over a period of 3-5 years, then another cooling off period before it would be bundled with other titles for syndication. TV appearances were rare enough that even some movies which had been shown on TV still retained enough drawing power to make a re-release viable (“See Lawrence of Arabia/The Wild Bunch/Spartacus/Gone With the Wind et al on the big screen again as it was meant to be seen!”).
Today, the theatrical window is typically only four months, and with the saturation bombing pattern of today’s wide releases, most titles have exhausted their theatrical viability long before that. DVD release comes in month five, pay-per-view the following month, and 10 months after a movie opens in theaters it’s on a pay-TV channel like Home Box Office or Showtime. In the early days of pay-TV, a movie might run four-six times a month, appearing in only three months of its one-year license period, but now it might air two-three times that many times in a single month every couple of months, and with pay-TV services now “multiplexed” – each service offering multiple channels – it may seem like a movie is never off the air as it rotates through a service’s various channels. That kind of overexposure can’t help but kill the specialness that went with rarity.
Usually after pay-TV, a movie is sold to a basic cable network like TBS or A&E for a short term (12-18 months), then is bundled with library product and sold back to pay-TV, then back to basic cable and so on ad nauseum, generating fresh revenue with each turnover. It’s not unusual to see highly “playable” movies – the type of flick which draws an audience no matter how many times it’s aired – finish their license period on one channel one week, and show up on another the very next week (in fact, at this writing, I’d just seen Kelly’s Heroes  on TCM over the Memorial Day weekend, then saw a promo for the movie’s debut on The Military Channel’s Officer and a Movie slot the very next weekend).
Whereas 40 years ago or so you couldn’t wait for a favored movie to show up for one of its two or three plays that year, today it seems you can’t get away from a movie. Any movie.
Well, not any movie. If it sometimes seems cable stations continually draw from the same limited pool, you’re right. Says Stephen Whitty: “TV has given up on classic movies. Yes, TCM runs them around the clock, but it’s the only station (we won’t count AMC, which mostly gave up…). And if you don’t like TCM’s theme of the day – Alice Faye, say, or Westerns – well, you’re out of luck. Every other station runs films from the last five years or so, which is fine, but hardly representative of the art.”
Because of “clutter.”
Clutter is the average cable system offering a bit over 100 channels of programming (mind you, this is an average, meaning there are systems with much more), so many that subscribers can’t always distinguish them from each other let alone even remember all the channels they have at their disposal.
To cut through the clutter and capture eyeballs, cable channels have moved, over the last 30 years, from the kind of generic programming which marked the early years of the business (old movies and TV shows) to more channel-defining original programming. Those channels that still have a strategic use for movies tend to air – and re-air and re-re-air – those titles they know are instantly recognizable to the mass audience. And what that doesn’t include are the old classics, the black-and-whites – what my kids, when they were younger, called “the gray ones.”
Josh Sapan, president and CEO of Rainbow Media which owns cable channel AMC, puts it this way: “In the 70s, each of the broadcast networks had 15-20 million people watching each show or movie in prime time. If a network – or even PBS – aired a classic film, it was inevitably seen by millions.” But with the splintering of the mass audience into smaller niches by the proliferation of cable channels, “Audiences, with rare exceptions, are smaller today. The choice and diversity on TV and the Internet has made some wonderful films victims of their obscurity.” This was, Sapan admits, part of the reason AMC in the early 2000s re-formatted itself from a classics station – almost a twin of Turner Classics – to one focusing on original programming (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and – according to the channel’s promo spots – “The New Classics” – the more familiar films from the 1960s, 70s and up.
Stephen Whitty says the expansion of the cable spectrum has been a case of “…be careful what you wish for…when I was a kid, I imagined a science fiction world where I would just push a button and be able to see any movie I ever wanted on my TV. And that’s the world we’re supposedly living in now. Except take a look at what TV is really offering: six different channels showing Land of the Lost (2009) with Will Ferrell, another half-dozen running The Bounty Hunter (2010) with Jennifer Aniston. It’s like TV has become the Multiplex from Hell, only on a six-month tape delay.”
There have already been any number of cultural studies suggesting a strong disconnect between Gen X/Yers and their predecessors; a disinterest in any number of topics, both of large import and small, predating their own generational awareness. But perhaps there is no disconnect as complete between this generation and those before it as the dropping of this particular pop culture torch. Or perhaps “dropping” is the wrong word; a disinterest in picking it up might be more accurate.
A writer who’d worked for Saturday Night Live in the mid-90s tells me that even then writers were being instructed not to reference anything more than three years prior because “a lot of viewers won’t get it.” Compare that to SNLs from the show’s debut years in the 70s when the show riffed on decades of old TV shows and movies, its writers knowing that they and we all shared the same pop culture touchstones.
My old film teacher, Dr. Benjamin “Bernie” Dunlap, now president of South Carolina’s Wofford College, describes it as “…a new sort of simultaneity…wanting everything to be happening now, at this instant, with consequences still to be determined. In a curious and debased fashion, it resembles a Zen-like insistence on the here and now.”
Curiously, disturbingly, that disconnect is just as strong among many young people – like my students – who study film. Says Bernie Dunlap, “Film students often need to be taught to excavate (a film), but unsophisticated viewers grow impatient with what they view as antiquated technique (“What – no color?”), and, of course, they tend to limit their experience of a film to the crudest level of storytelling.”
I once interviewed director John Dahl (The Last Seduction, 1994) who frequently speaks to filmmaking students. The new Gen X/Y aspiring filmmaker doesn’t share Dahl’s generation’s respect for the oldies, doesn’t see their connection to the cinematic evolutionary chain. Ford, Hitchcock, Wilder – irrelevant. Citizen Kane: boring. “These young people,” Dahl told me, “have never seen Double Indemnity or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They probably think they’re just dusty old pictures.”
The question I usually come to when I write these musing pieces is, Does it matter? Who cares? So what? This new simultaneity, this disconnect with the vast treasure trove of our cinematic heritage – does it really cost us anything?
Bernie Dunlap – the man who kindled a passion for movies in me, and taught me how to truly, deeply understand, appreciate, and enjoy their magic – says it does matter.
The new, grounded-only-in-the-present sensibility “…ignores what has always been for me the magical ability of film to capture and reenact a present instant from the past. What’s so astonishing about Lumiere’s recording of a baby’s breakfast, or visitors to the Paris Exposition – or, for that matter, the ambient reality of Casablanca or any film from the past – is that it enables us to study and re-experience that ‘now’ over and over.
“This is, of course, what (film theorist) Siegfried Kracauer meant when he spoke of the ‘redemption of physical reality.’ It’s also at the heart of Werner Herzog’s new documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), in which he attempts to retrieve the ‘now’ of prehistoric cave painters flickering into life – the analogy often used to explain the psychological power of film.”
In the same way that cutting ourselves off from any older aspect of our culture diminishes us by dimming our awareness of who we were and how that made us who we are, there is something lost when we turn away from the gray ones.
“(The) greatest choices were made by accident,” says Stephen Whitty. “The first time I saw Laura (1944) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), I’d been simply flipping the channels and was caught by an image…there are no longer any happy accidents. Just as newspapers offer surprises to their readers – you turn the page to jump with something and there’s an article on something you hadn’t even thought of that catches your interest – so did (pre-cable broadcast) TV. Now, though, niche cable and Netflix offer the same sweet trap as the Internet – you can always get what you’re looking for, if you know what you’re looking for.
“So people go online and read opinions they already agree with. People go on Netflix and stream movies they’ve already heard of. Nobody grows an inch. And our national mythology – which is The Duke and Sam Spade and Some Like It Hot (1959) and Psycho (1960) – slowly disappears.”