The Tipping-Point Teeter-Totter

In 2012, I was lucky enough to get to see Napoleon (1927) in a rare theatrical run in Oakland, Ca.  It was a wonderful experience that I’ll always treasure.  Even better, I got to have dinner with Kevin Brownlow, an unexpected benefit.  I had been struggling just to continue doing the work I was doing and, as often happens, was at the brink of giving up.  But I thought, hey, maybe this is all starting to work out.  I was excited.  And, as usual, something happened to bring me back down to earth.  A friend called me just before my plane left and told me his computer had crashed.  He wanted me to come right over and fix it.  I told him I couldn’t, because I wasn’t even in town.  I hate fixing broken computers.  It was my old job.  Maybe I had taken a step into the larger world, but I wasn’t there yet.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about a tipping point in his book where an idea starts to take off like wildfire.  The principle is that you add a little bit to it slowly and nothing happens, but suddenly, unpredictably, the whole thing goes viral.  I realize I’m taking Gladwell out of context, but then again he probably would take me out of context as well.  For years, I’ve been trying to get the idea of classic films to tip.  I’ve also been trying to tip the idea that I’m a viable person to do this kind of work.

And it does tip.  Except it tips backwards too.  I guess I’m right on the edge.

Now before we go on, let me warn you that this blog will be another in my series of blogs about how I’m trying to market what I do.  I know some of you hate these… it’s like a Meg episode of Family Guy.  So if you’re one of those, click past this one.  And before you ask, “Why are you writing about this stuff when you should be working on King of the Kongo?  Well, I am working on King of the Kongo even as we speak.  I’m rendering three reels of it in different programs! 

Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), WKRP’s head of cheesy, in-your-face marketing.

I never quite get the idea of marketing and I see those who are successful at it are much more ME ME ME LOOK AT ME than I can stand to be.  It just bugs me.  I think of Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati.  If you don’t know that reference, stop now and watch a bunch of episodes.  It was a great show.  I’ll wait.

It’s occurred to me that I’m trying to sell a concept (older films) that’s tipping away from relevant while I’m trying to tip myself toward relevance.  I’d like to see both of those tip toward relevance, but what are ya gonna do?

There’s an increasing idea in society that movies and music are “free goods,” meaning that there’s an unlimited supply and we don’t have to pay for them.  Sorta like air is a free good.  We all need it, we all want it, but we don’t pay for it.  Movies are getting like that.  So the idea that I can introduce and discuss movies is rather like tuning an air guitar.  What’s the point?

This was brought home to me the other day when I got an email from a guy I often hire to do scores for me.  He’s a local fellow, a very good pianist, and he shows up on time.  All good things in my book.  He asked me what the run time on the 1925 Ben Hur was.

I told him I didn’t know off the top of my head.  He said that he needed to know in order to get an estimate on how much to charge a local non-profit organization.  He and I had run Little Orphant Annie there and he did a live score.  Except I didn’t know they were running Ben Hur.  They hadn’t told me.  They only wanted an accompanist.  I can imagine the staff meeting.

Lest you think I’m being cynical, I’ve actually been in those meetings before and many times I’ve heard the results reported to me.  These all end up in one of two ways:


“Let’s hire Eric.”
“Eric’s films are making money!  Let’s do more!”
“Wow, we’d make even more money if we didn’t have to pay Eric!”

“Let’s download stuff from”
“Oh, no one is showing up now.  I guess they are burned out on movies.”

“I guess movies don’t work here.”


“Let’s hire Eric.”
“We hired Eric to run cheap films because we didn’t have any money.”

“Eric is bringing in crowds.”

“Wow!  Now we have money!  Let’s run popular stuff!”

“Eric specializes in classics and older stuff!”

“Who cares?  It’s Disney and Harry Potter from here out.”

The idea of showmanship, the idea of getting a print of something and running it on a projector, the idea of showing quality old films the right way is lost on these folks.  The problem here is that what they’re doing is ultimately self-defeating in either case.  People won’t support old films unless they look good, unless they can’t see them elsewhere, and unless someone gives them the inside scoop of what they’re seeing and what they’re looking for.

I’ve often said that if a movie is more than about 15 years old then you need to give it some context before you show it.  People just don’t get it.  And that’s what kills these shows.  I know people are cheap and they don’t see the value in what I add, and that’s fine, but what I’m doing is often what saves those shows.  I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but without that extra oomph, people are just going to stay home and download the film from for free.  They need something special to show up.

None of this is particularly new.  I’ve seen it for a long time.  I am only now slowly being seen as a film expert (one of the things that helped me do that is to quit doing projection-only jobs as much as I can… for whatever reason projectionists are seen as societal idiots!)

What is new is that this syndrome seems to be getting worse and that people are more blatant about ignoring me for doing shows.  They ask for “an old war horse picture that people know” and there are only so many times you can run Phantom of the Opera for Halloween.

It has gotten me cynical to the point of not really pursuing live shows much these days.  That’s too bad, because I enjoy doing them and I think the audiences agree.  It’s always the money people I have to hassle with.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I like to work with small non-profits.  I like to help get them going.  I like the chip-in can-do spirit that many of them have.  That’s a sword that cuts on both edges, though.  When I work for them for small cash, it tags me as a low-rent not-very-good act.  When I help them get successful, I’m left in the dust.  I’m remembering Ernie Kovacs’ dictum of “Charge them through the nose or else they won’t think you’re any good.”

And before you think that this is relentlessly negative, it’s not… because I said the balance is flipping (remember that?)  Some of you are probably aware that I’m doing a series of articles for the magazine Classic Images.  I have always liked CI, glad to support a place like this.

But it was funny… they approached me very carefully and asked me to write for them, as if I were some “superstar” in the film world.  It’s great to be considered that way, and I appreciated it, but I don’t take myself very seriously.  I thought, “Are you kidding?  My accountant laughs at me!”  But Classic Images was quite serious.  They’ve treated me respectfully.  I loved it since I’m so often given a brush off.  Later, another venue changed management and asked me if I would “consider” letting them premiere King of the Kongo at their theater.

Whoa!  This was the same place that a couple of years earlier had said, “Oh, yeah, if you want to run your boring old movies here, we can talk, maybe.”  I realized that somehow, somewhy, my reputation/awareness/brand recognition had suddenly changed.

I’ve been working on this very thing for years.  You see, you can’t just put yourself out there as a film expert.  People don’t care.  You have to be “known” as a film expert, and this is hard.  I always struggle with this, because, as I’ve said before, I’m the guy who likes to sit at the back of the party and eat ripe olives while talking to no one.  Alas, in order to be known, in order to actually get work, I can’t do that.  

And it’s paying off.  If I knew what I was doing right, I’d do more of it, but it’s happening.  It’s happening without me turning into Herb Tarlek, which I just can’t do.  I can’t tell you how exciting it is.  After being told NO consistently since 2004, it’s moved to “well, maybe,” and occasionally “hey, help us out!”  That’s real progress.  That doesn’t mean I still don’t get ignored a lot, but it’s gotten better.

I’m not exactly sure why this happened.  I’m not exactly sure when it happened.  It’s a great thing to see, because now when I talk to these places, I don’t sound desperate for a job.  And, in fact, although I can always use cash, I really need to get some of this work off my plate, so I’m not as anxious for a cheapie film job as I had been.

I think maybe it’s the work with King of the Kongo that’s putting me over the edge, although I’m not sure.  Little Orphant Annie should have. I thought it was a good restoration, and a fun film, but the nasty review by Movies Silently is killing it.  It’s the first one you see on IMDb.  (I keep hearing people tell me they didn’t want to see it because of this review.)  Well, I’m not sending her a review copy of Kongo, because next to it, Annie is Lawrence of Arabia.  My goal is not to release good or bad films.  My goal is to release stuff that’s been ignored and is hard to find.

So Kongo is getting me recognition, and I haven’t even released it.  I’m now employing 3 helpers with no money.  It’s a weird world, folks.  I’m an unknown success, a manager with no company, a businessman with no business, a label with only two releases, and a guy who has too much work to do but no money coming in.

What I do is a contradiction of a contradiction, and I realize that for what it is.  I know that no one else quite does what I do, and so it’s hard to quantify.  Shows?  Sure.  Restorations?  Yeah.  Articles?  OK.  I have so much work backed up here that it will take me years to get through it all.  King of the Kongo has proved to be so much of a challenge that it’s taken way longer than I would have anticipated.  But it’s an odd combination of a rare film and one that people want to see, so I guess it’s getting some interest.

I seem to be right at the tipping point, but it’s still back and forth.

Has this taught me anything?

Yes.  I don’t charge enough for small non-profits.