The Passion of the Programmers: The Rep – Part Two (the panel discussion)

Usual disclaimers: I am not a journalist and recorded nothing except a blurry photo, so this is all memory, bad research and my opinion. ‘Quotes’ are not verbatim. If I get something wrong (not my opinion, mind, but an actual fact/quote) then please tell me.

This is even more relevant for Part 2, wherein I was so professional I originally missed the names of the panel thanks to a bathroom break. (Thanks for being so gracious, those of you I had to tweet and ask.)  It’s probably full of typos as well, but it’s late and I am tired and also trying to process an earlier viewing of  The Place Beyond the Pines right now.

So, after watching the documentary The Rep (as covered in Part 1), we were treated to a panel discussion/Q&A with a decent cross-section of rep programmers and cinephiles. The original line up included:  Ian Rattray (programmer [including ex-programmer at the PCC]. Also a director of FrightFest); Josh Saco (Cigarette Burns – put on a very highly spoken of showing of The Fog in an old church just this weekend. It was sold out.); Kate Taylor (who works at the Independent Cinema Office); and Paul Vickery (the PCC’s own programmer. Paul also ran the Q&A with Rian Johnson). A last-minute(ish) addition came in the form of Kris Kadas*- who appears in The Rep as programmer for the Underground Cinema, and who worked with the director of The Rep, Morgan White, travelling to other cinemas across the States.

Apart from the panel being very interesting, the cross-section of personalities and opinions was great as well. I started to try and describe everyone’s speaking style just then and lost my words, but whatever – it all worked well together, cynical, calm, laidback, passionate, knowledgeable. It was clear that everyone on the stage has a huge amount of love for what they do, but also that they are very realistic about the problems facing rep cinema and the future of it.

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The panel (left to right): Ian Rattray, Josh Saco, Kris Kavan, Kate Taylor and Paul Vickery.
I really need to start sitting closer to the front at these things, if only for the photo.

Now that I’m working on this, I don’t even know how to begin covering everything that was covered in the conversation. I just did a speed type-up of notes and what I remember and there’s a lot. So I’m going to try and break it down topic by topic, I suppose. This might turn out to be boring, but honestly, that’s just my writing. I swear it was interesting on the night. I saw somewhere on Twitter that somebody filmed it – if that’s the case and anyone knows if the video is available somewhere, please tell me where and I’ll post a link.

Being a programmer – what works, what doesn’t

This topic was returned to over and over, but I’m jamming it all under one heading. But the panel discussed the joy of a film you love filling the seats, and the total low of no one coming to a film you think is great (this was the case with a Tim Burton doublebill I saw a while back. It started at 4pm on a Sunday and there were maybe 8 of us in the audience. I was there by myself and going “WHAT THE HELL! It’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS! PHILISTINES!” and so forth, in my head); the annoyance of showing films you hate to pull in an audience – but then you also get to sneak in the films that you think the world should see.

The mention of the community of the audience came up, the use of social media to build a connection (Paul – “I recognise a lot of faces in tonight’s audience from the community that comes here.”). A question about whether the PCC would ‘go back’ to showing grindhouse – aside from dispelling the myth of the PCC as a grindhouse cinema (Josh: “That’s a really weird question…” Ian: “We’ve never shown grindhouse, ever.” Where does that come from then? “It’s fucking Tarantino’s fault. We were showing a Chinese doublebill and he called up and said he was coming to watch, and since then we’ve got a reputation for grind house. And he never even fucking showed up.”)  –  did bring up the importance of programme timing. It was generally agreed that Grindhouse is a niche viewing market (The Alamo in the US does well, but it’s spent many years building its audience) and also a midnight viewing genre– but the position of the PCC in central London means that midnight viewings don’t do well. It’s all well and good during the day, but people don’t want to watch a film for an hour and a half, and then spend three hours on the night bus to get home. Paul: “The Ritzy and the Roxy – cinemas in more community based areas – are better for that.” Then Kate put Josh on the spot – “You had an interesting point earlier.” Josh: “Er, I’m not so sure it sounds good up on stage…” His theory – the changed drug scene. People don’t wander into a cinema at night ready to smoke a joint and drink beer and watch a movie – “they do that at home now, in front of the TV”. People out at night in London are probably clubbing.

On the way home, Coffee Monster wondered about position being part of the death knell of the Stateside reps. He pointed out that multiplexes have car parks, but the smaller cinemas are in areas without parking, “And folks love their cars.” He has a point. Transport is an annoyance.

Someone else asked about the need for a hook – how much of a competition are the immersive cinema and event cinema like Secret Cinema and Hot Tub cinema? A different type of competition – everyone needs a hook, hence The Fog in an old church, and the PCC all-nighters and director Q&As, but event cinema is more about the experience than the film. Rep audiences tend to be in it for the movies, not the hot tubs. That leads us, sort of, to…

Differences in rep cinema between London and Toronto

One thing mentioned by Kris at the beginning of the talk was the lack of support for The Rep in the the rep cinemas in Toronto. “We don’t show it in the film, but the other rep cinemas were really unhappy with the guys opening another cinema. Competition. And even though some of them appeared in the film, they either wouldn’t show it, or they showed it at really unpopular times, like 3 in the afternoon.” The impression given was that the Toronto rep scene is vastly more competitive than London, fighting for films, space and audience, even though the number of independent/rep cinemas has shrunk drastically. I did a bit of reading, and apparently in Canada there are limits to the number of cinemas that can play a film on a second-run within a certain radius, so that possessiveness of space makes sense. London, though, said Kris, everyone seems a lot more supportive of each other… He gestured at the stage at this point. Paul, Josh and Ian agreed – there’s competition, but it’s friendly competition. If people don’t want to watch what you’re showing, they won’t come anyway, so why be upset if they go somewhere that’s showing something they do want to see? However, while London may foster a friendlier approach – Toronto has due diligence allowance for film rights and showings where 35mm is available if effort has clearly been made to find the rights; London has no such slack, so even if you have the film, if you can’t find who owns the rights, you’re sunk. Swings and roundabouts.

The rep and independent cinema scene outside cities

Obviously Toronto has a massive rep cinema scene, and rep cinema, if not in its purest form, is having something of a moment thanks to the event cinema (I seem to get new info every day on Roof Top Cinema, free showings in parks etc). Kate: “I get a couple of phone calls a day from people who want to set up cinemas to show films they like. I have to ask them why they want to do that.” But does this sort of interest exist outside London? Ian thought not, but Kate disagreed, saying that there may not be many but they are out there (Pete Genders of The Ritz (Lincoln) and Graham Denison of The Ritz (Thirsk) confirmed this by commenting on Part 1). She went on to say that she wished the UK was like Paris in terms of cinemas, which has a strong independent scene. I wasn’t aware there was such a massive scene in Paris (though my baby sister tells me the last nostalgic all-nighter she went to was there) – but I do know that one of my favourite arthouse (and I think independent) cinemas ever is a place in Bordeaux called Cinema Utopia, which is built in an old church and shows everything original language. That was one of loads of good cinemas in the city – I watched a lot of films when I lived there. France is pretty fecking good at its film showing.

35mm v digital

Studios are phasing out and destroying their 35mm and 16mm copies of films, and will cease printing them altogether at the end of this year. That’s a massive blow for the rep cinemas in terms of equipment (the cost of buying digital projectors). Also there’s the fact that a lot of films will simply be lost to digital audiences because they won’t be transferred to digital. Sometimes, said Paul, after you find the reel for a film, it will be transferred to digital, but so sloppily it’s not worth showing the digital version.  There was a debate over whether 35mm attracts more people – is it worth the time it takes to track down the film (endlessly chasing and calling studios and distributors and bugging them for a small film they don’t care about anymore and often aren’t sure they own – months of work for the programmer and a chicken & egg scenario in term of getting the rights or the film first). Ian said that most of the viewing audience don’t care; Paul said if one person cares, that’s an extra bum on a seat so it’s worth the effort. That argument carried on for a while. I think they both have a point – Coffee Monster is particular about his film formats: 35mm in a cinema for nostalgia is fabulous. High Definition at the multiplexes is preferred. Meanwhile I honestly can’t tell the difference between standard and high definition, and probably can’t spot 35mm, but knowing it’s 35mm does give me a cosy feeling. Like listening to things on vinyl.

Ian pointed out that it doesn’t matter; 35mm is dying. He related getting the 35mm for a particular film at FrightFest and the cinema they were using refused to use the reel. They used the digital version instead. (Coffee Monster, who films at FrightFest, recalled this as well – “It was sad, just lying on a chair, not being used.”) phasing out (Paul= in five years; Ian=end of this year). This took us on to the loss of jobs for projectionists – now front-of-house folk at the multiplex know how to be a ‘projectionist’ – you just press a button (CoffeeMonster again: “Yeah, even I know how to work a digital proector – plug in the USB stick and hit play.”

Bums on seats

What it comes down to: get the audience in. Remind people of the joy of the group experience of watching. If we want to keep our smaller cinemas, we need to speak with our feet and arses and wallets. Show up, bring friends, remind them why a night out is better than sitting in with the tv. (Paul: “If you’d each brought one friend, this place would be full tonight.”)

I feel as though I’ve left out an awful lot; misunderstood a lot of things; probably misattributed quotes; have a lot more to dicuss. But I have to stop, because this entry is bordering 2,000 words at this point – and the panel was actually kicked out the room for spilling over its time slot, so I suppose this is in keeping with the spirit of the night. Anyway – comments, thoughts, arguments (or corrections), anyone?

In conclusion

Support your local indie and rep cinemas, go to the screenings, take your friends, have fun. Also, show some love for the rep cinema programmers – they work hard and they do a damn good job.

 

* corrected from Kavan. Sorry Kris! – and thanks to Morgan for point out the error.

“We do it for love, but we need money”: The Rep – Part One (the film)

This is going to be a long one – in fact, it turns out, has required splitting into two parts –  so bear with me (or not, if you get bored).

Usual disclaimers: I am not a journalist and recorded nothing except a blurry photo, so this is all memory, bad research and my opinion. ‘Quotes’ are not verbatim. If I get something wrong (not my opinion, mind, but an actual fact/quote) then please tell me.

Regular readers will have heard me mention the Prince Charles Cinema before (here, for example). I have a lot of love for the place and the films it shows and the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people who work there. Handily, I also have a membership card. I’m not sure I’ve ever really explained what kind of cinema it is though. The PCC is – and bear in mind that this is my description, not theirs – a part-repertory, part-second run and sometimes-first run (it was the only place I found showing Waltz with Bashir when it came out. Also Beasts of the Southern Wild – which I was hankering for after months of reading on the internet. The PCC showed it pre-Oscar nomination. The chain cinemas jumped on the bandwagon for that film months late) small two-screen cinema in the West End. When I first came to London, the people I was moving in with listed it in the first few things they told me I should check out (they also mentioned the Roxy in Borough, the Peckham Plex and a few other places, but truly, The PCC is my most-beloved indie cinema). And I did, a couple of times, shyly and on my own, and never felt unwelcome. I’ve been going there more and more as years pass and gathering friends to go with. I associate different parts of the building with different films and events. Like I sort of assume, at this point, that any film I see in the upstairs screen is going to make me cry, having come out of there utterly destroyed by the aforementioned Waltz with Bashir and Southern Wilds. It’s also where I caught the Sofia Coppola doublebill. Downstairs by the bar tends to be the fun stuff for me – the action/comedy double bills, time with friends, events with directors. Right before the screening I’m going to talk about below – and this is very relevant – I saw that the PCC is hosting another of their pyjama parties in July, on a weekend when my baby sister is visiting, and that they had picked all the films from my youth that I love and have strong memories for. I was and am so, so excited (as is my sister). Tickets have been bought and friends talked into coming. I had the same excitement when I discovered the Edward Scissorhands/Batman double-bill a few months back. This cinema taps into a rich vein of nostalgia and geekiness for me and many other people, and we all get to be young geeks together. That’s what a rep cinema does. It’s a magical place, and I don’t say that lightly.

So a month or so ago, when I saw they were planning to screen a film called The Rep – a documentary about a year in the life of running a repertory cinema – I leapt on it and (assuming it would sell out) booked tickets for me and Coffee Monster. I did this because I had no idea how the magic at these cinemas is created; I don’t know who puts things together or how or the amount of work involved – I only ever enjoy the end result. I thought this would be a nice little film about behind the scenes in a rep cinema. Sort of like High Fidelity was to record stores (which the fellas I knew who worked at the late-lamented Cob Records in Bangor assured me was actually fairly accurate).

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Looks cheerful, doesn’t it?

As it is I came out of that tail-end of that movie utterly fucking heartbroken. And inspired, amused, angry, impressed. But mostly heartbroken. Because, although I’m not as hard core as some folks, I love film, I love old films, I love cinema and the community at the small cinemas, and this was a film about the death of them.

Now I’m unsure how much detail to give about the film itself because spoilers and whatnot. But it’s not on wide release. Director Morgan White took NO box office for the showing at the PCC – he just wanted it seen. Oddly, other small cinemas have refused to show it (more on that later, in Part 2 of this subject once I’ve finished it). During the panel talk after the film, Paul – the programmer for the PCC – actually said they were happily surprised at the number of people who showed up for it, especially given the hot weather and it being early evening on a Tuesday. Maybe it will make it on to Netflix in the future which, given the subject matter, would be a kick in the teeth, really.

So, The Rep. Not a funny film with a few tragic moments about running a repertory theatre in Toronto, but a fairly tragic film with a few funny moments about trying to open and keep running a repertory theatre in Toronto. Three friends who met through film one way or another decide, having no jobs but plenty of inspiration, to reopen an old cinema in the basement of a condo in Toronto – The Toronto Underground Cinema.

They have never started or run a business before. Hell, one of them has never even had a job before. They enter into the project with much gusto but very little know how. There’s highs and lows, but mostly lows. You watch the clashes between the three partners – and then are impressed at how well their friendship survives them; see the cinema owner being quietly supportive about, well, everything; meet the audience member who became a roommate, his life having been saved by having a little cinema to go to where he felt at home. When a screening goes well and sells out after much stress (Adam West!) you cheer for them; when they hit rock bottom with debts and having to play a DVD that skips instead of a reel, the audience is plunged into despair right there with them. Back to happy again as they survive until their first-year anniversary and things seem to be on the up. And then, at the end, the kicker. After shot after shot of closed indie cinemas… The Toronto Underground Cinema is also, now, closed.

The cultural background to all of this is given using interviews with other rep and indie cinema programmers and owners. As the film goes on the audience realise that, with the advent of Netflix and co, that this is a species of entertainment that is very much under threat (as well as starting to understand the pressure and love that goes into running a place like this). Showing old films doesn’t cut it anymore, and people need a hook to come out and watch. Cinemas all over the States and Canada are being closed and knocked down – particularly memorable and poignant are is the interview with Sam Sharkey, on the closing night of the Red Vic in San Francisco, a cinema that had been running as a collective for 31 years. Old films are being lost to group audiences forever. As one interviewee says – and I can’t remember everyone’s names,  sorry – this is the filmic equivalent of museums being closed down, only the art, which is the shared viewing experience of the old films isn’t being moved or protected. It just vanishes.

The panel discussion after the film went into more detail about the rights and finding the films and so forth – with the exception of money troubles, the film itself sort of skimmed over that side of things, except to show us the warehouse full of 35mm reels owned by one projectionist (“I stopped buying DVDs after I started collecting these.”)  – but the message is clear. Independent cinemas, not just reps, are being pushed out.

This is a film that needs to be seen, really. I know that the number of people who love to watch old movies in cinemas is probably lower than I’d like, but it was an eye-opener as to what’s being lost if we, as an audience don’t fight for it. Unfortunately, because small cinemas are closing down all over the place, the people that need to see it probably never will.

Part two – The panel discussion will be available soon