I generally avoid talking about my local exploits on the Dr. Film blog, because I know I have to pitch for a national or international audience. I don’t get enough local traction to stay in business! However, this is a special case, and it touches on a lot of ideas that are universal. A lot of it deals with how we perceive and build audiences.
When I became a full-time film geek in 2004, I had no idea how I was going to do it. I went to various places and told them I would like to run a film series. I got the same guff from most of them:
“We only want to run movies from the last ten years.”
“Indianapolis audiences are not sophisticated enough to support classic films.”
“You can only do something like this in Carmel (the rich suburb north of Indianapolis), where people support the arts.”
“If we’re not getting 50 or 75 people, then we’re not getting enough, and we’ll shut it down.”
These arguments annoyed me. Frankly, they still annoy me. I got several places to give me a chance, but they shut me down after a few shows. They didn’t know how to promote it, and they didn’t get enough people, and they just stopped.
Even more annoying were the places that would start having me do shows and see some limited success, then going with this idea: “Eric charges us, so we can download stuff from archive.org and just run that instead of having him here, and then we save money.” Without exception, those have died out too.
I’d like to think it’s because of my smiling face, but the reality is that people don’t want to leave the house anymore, and you have to give them a good reason to do it. What I’m giving them is a special show, some history, and a behind-the-scenes introduction. I try really hard not to run junk prints, and I always run on film, usually material that’s not just super easy to find elsewhere. Either that, or I’ll run a long version or a Technicolor print that you can’t see at home. In short, they’re seeing a curated movie series. And people respond to that.
People also respond to seeing films in an audience setting. I think that this is an endangered art form. We’re perilously close to losing the audience experience and replacing it with sitting in front of our 60” screen. That has advantages: no rude patrons, phone conversations, etc, but older films (and especially silents) were designed as a participatory shared experience. The Marx Brothers films, to name just one example, are timed for audience response. There are dead spots you’ll find if you watch them alone.
So in doing this work, I’m not only preserving films, but I’m preserving a way of watching films. This is a critical thing for me. I put the message, “Go out and see an old movie,” as the last title in the Dr. Film pilot. Yes, I believe in it that strongly. I can’t tell you the number of times I watched a movie with an audience—one I’d seen before—and it came alive for me, whereas is just sat there like a lump when I saw it at home.
As I continued doing film work, I moved more and more toward preservation and less and less toward doing movie shows. Movie shows are just too hard. The venues don’t want to deal with me, and you’re just spitting into the wind most of the time. I get tired of the same arguments, running Wizard of Oz and Casablanca to the exclusion of anything else.
There’s a fear that arts organizations have, and a certain cynicism. The fear is they can’t attract an audience, and they have to run only a sort of “best of” for a film series. The cynicism is that they don’t think the audiences are smart enough to deal with anything else than a “best of.” I continually am amazed at the idea that no audience will embrace anything older than the 80s. I call it the “Let’s run Ferris Bueller” mentality. It’s one reason I have steadfastly refused to run anything newer than Star Wars when I pick the films. Why? Because you can see those films easily, and you know them. Why run them again? (OK, it might be nice to see an occasional one in an audience setting, but not all the time, please.)
I’m in the business of selling a special experience, something you can’t easily get at home. I’m sure that Ferris Bueller is running somewhere 24/7 on some channel. I don’t need to show it to you again. I will run a “war horse” occasionally, but it’s got to be a special case: I got a nice Technicolor print of Singin’ in the Rain and those are holy grails for film geeks. It doesn’t look like that on video.
That fun in recapturing the thrill of a theatrical performance keeps film series alive. On the other hand, what kills a film series is inconsistency: you run too sporadically, and people don’t find you. You also have to promote it correctly or people won’t find you either.
And that brings me to why Garfield is so special: they put up with all this and stayed with it. They promoted properly, and they were willing to deal with the slowly rising curve of audiences finding us. A number of other people have approached me about doing film series: a place in Carmel told me they could only run films that were related to “the great American songbook,” another couple of places started off with me and then decided to run a selection of all Disney classics, and another place set up a beautiful film theater (in part at my direction) and instead runs The Goonies and Ferris Bueller from Blu-ray several times a year. I see it as a waste of potential and an assumption that audiences are ossified into the 80s. People are and more diverse than this. (For the record, I loved Ferris Bueller but The Goonies makes me gag.)
When I started at Garfield in September of 2009, we had four people. It was a selection of shorts. When we ran the first feature, Our Town (1940), we had four people again. The director at Garfield Park Art Center at the time, Tom Weidenbach, told me that he was impressed that I’d picked an appropriate movie for his Day of the Dead celebration and wanted to stay with this. It was incredibly brave. For the next several months, we struggled with low crowds, but we stayed with it.
“Staying with it” for so long has allowed me to run a wide variety of films. I’ve run westerns, musicals, crime dramas, comedies, great films, and terrible films. The oldest film we ever ran was The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots from 1893 or 4 (depending on your source) and the newest was Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger from 1977. That showing of Sinbad was the most popular in terms of one-off attendance, but we got repeated requests to re-run certain titles: the record is The Great Rupert (1949) which we’ve run three times (and we still have some requests to repeat it again). I love to run silent films (we always have a live score) because I think silents are great with an audience and so few of them are ever seen.
Today, we’ll get a consistent audience of 30-50 people at a Garfield showing. That may not seem fantastic, but for an Indianapolis showing, it’s great. There’s an unfortunate local cultural bias that no art happens south of Washington Street in Indianapolis, and it’s just not true. Now that the Red Line buses stop near the park, I’m hoping attendance goes up.
We upgraded screens a few years ago, thanks to donor Scott Keller and metal sculptor/designer Todd Bracik. I bought new projectors from a place in Florida, and they’re regularly maintained (often because they BREAK) by a guy in Detroit. And we’re shooting for year 11 for 2020!
Thank you to all the directors of the Garfield Park Art Center who supported this through the years:
You helped make this the longest-running classic film show in Indianapolis.