News Column

Classic films enjoy a welcome encore in theaters

August 24, 2013


Aug. 24--In the center of one of the back rows at the Regency Janss Marketplace 9 theater in Thousand Oaks one night a couple weeks ago, Guillermo Rodriguez-Rivas sat eagerly awaiting a movie that's more than three times as old as he is.

He was there to see "Dr. Strangelove," director Stanley Kubrick's brilliant 1964 satire of the nuclear bomb threat. Rodriguez-Rivas, a 15-year-old Newbury Park resident and sophomore-to-be at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley, had never seen the film before but was there to bone up and maybe glean some tips; he wants to be an actor or writer someday.

"Seeing the classics," he said, "really gives me the inspiration to do it. It's kind of like a time machine when you think about it, going back to when these movies came out."

Lately, Rodriguez-Rivas and loads of other film buffs and casual fans have had more chances to jump into time capsules, big-screen style. Theater screenings of classic films have proliferated over the past several years and show no signs of abating, in Ventura County and pockets across the nation.

Suddenly, the heads of Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Stewart again stretch three stories high in the wondrous darkness, it's retro hip to like black and white, and some things old are new again.

Reasons abound: nostalgic trips down memory lane, general curiosity, a yen for full-splendor quality and, surprisingly, some ironic help from the digital age. Whatever it is, classic films are back.

"It's an attack of good taste, I think," Leonard Maltin, the longtime movie critic-historian-author, told The Star earlier this year.

Others also applaud. Roger Durling, executive director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, called it a "fantastic development," adding, "it's the way films were meant to be seen."

"You hear that people aren't going out to the movies -- that's B.S.," Durling continued. "Seeing them on DVD will never replace that feeling of seeing them on the big screen."

Row calls

That's what drew Leslie Hatland to the "Dr. Strangelove" screening in Thousand Oaks, her 14-year-old son Jackson in tow. She's seen others such as "The Sound of Music" at the Wednesday night classic film series at the Janss 9, and think it's "a great idea" to offer them on the big screen.

Looking toward her son, she said, "We're going to become groupies for the old movies."

Jackson, a freshman to be at Thousand Oaks High School, grunted, then said, "Mmm maybe."

A few rows back, Rodriguez-Rivas noted he has other options for viewing such movies.

"But I see them here -- why not get the full effect?" he noted.

Film buffs love Turner Classic Movies for keeping those old cinematic fires warm. But that's TV. And for all the increasing sophistication of home theater systems, their screen might is still measured in inches -- the average movie screen is 30 feet tall by 70 feet wide.

For Faye and Allan Mallinger, a couple of semi-retirees from Thousand Oaks, classic films are "pure nostalgia." They're regulars at the Janss 9, occasionally attend classic film showings in Ventura and are delighted at the opportunity to see films they grew up with in their full glory.

They liked "Dr. Strangelove." The memory of recently seeing "Singin' in the Rain," the 1952 Gene Kelly-Donald O'Connor classic, put a broad smile on Allan's face.

"They don't make movies like that anymore," he said.

Some screenings have drawn full houses, Faye noted.

"It's been packed for some of these films," she said. "I like that. You can feel the energy in the audience. Everyone is happy to be there."

It's been hit or miss locally. Some screenings have been borderline SRO, others play to half-full theaters and a few draw only a trickle of people -- but that's not unlike the batting average for today's movies.

The classic films trend is going on everywhere, said Phil Contrino, an editor and chief analyst for Box, which tracks the business of the film industry.

Some theaters show classic films, it doesn't work and it goes away, he said. But others try it and it clicks, he added. It's all about enthusiasm.

"It depends on how passionate the moviegoing public is for this, or how many film nerds per capita you have," said Contrino, who's based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Play it again, Sam

And to think, the grandpappy of this movement in Ventura County is all of 29 years old.

That'd be Andrew Gualtieri, district manager for Regency theaters in Ventura, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village, Agoura Hills and elsewhere.

Nine years ago, Gualtieri started showing classic films, first in Westlake and then in Ventura. Now, he shows them on Wednesday nights in Thousand Oaks and Thursday nights in Ventura.

He started it for the love of film, or as he once said, "I thought to myself, 'Why don't any theaters play cool older movies?'"

He's likened it to a community service.

Fast forward to now, and Gualtieri says business from such screenings is doing OK, a little off from peaks. He blames the downturn on recent competition from Cinemark, which also has plunged into classic films, first at the old Century 16 in east Ventura and now at its replacement, the Century RiverPark 16 across the river in Oxnard. That "kind of ticks me off," he said with a laugh.

"I'd like to say it's because we were doing it in Ventura County first," Gualtieri said, "but I think it's just coincidence. Cinemark does this at a lot of theaters nationwide."

Emily Park, general manager of the Century RiverPark 16, said she was working at an Apple Valley theater several years back when people started asking for showings of classic films. It worked, she took the idea to corporate, and they expanded it around the country.

Classic films have done well in Oxnard, she said, adding, "Word-of-mouth has significantly helped this series as it's gone on."

Park recently added a Sunday matinee showing of classic films for those who said they couldn't make the Wednesday showings.

More to offer

They've also branched out to offer showings of special events such as concerts, operas, ballets, plays and the like.

Bruce Springsteen, Josh Groban and The Grateful Dead are among those who've sported their chops on cinema screens recently. It's for those, Park noted, who don't want to travel to faraway venues or incur expensive concert ticket prices.

The Oxnard theater will soon show a Def Leppard concert, a Floyd Mayweather prizefight and a museum exhibit special on Pompeii ruins.

That's also not gone unnoticed. Gualtieri said he might soon try to add special event showings at his Regency Paseo Camarillo 3 theater.

Is all this due to audience demand, or to movie theater brass throwing any kind of programming up on the screen in the hopes something will put fannies in seats in these tough times?

Contrino thinks it's a mix of both in this chicken-vs.-egg economic equation. Theaters spur some interest by putting it out there, he noted. The interesting ripple effect, he added, is that it gets people thinking of what old movies they'd like to see in full regalia.

Gualtieri takes requests; on a recent Thursday night in Ventura, an older couple asked if he could bring in the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye gem "White Christmas" and the John Wayne-William Holden film "The Horse Soldiers."

Despite such enthusiasm, none of this is going to chase today's first-run films and stars off the screen. Contrino noted, as is true in Ventura County, that most of this stuff is put on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, when general theater traffic is typically light.

The last days of reel prints?:

Up in the film room at the Buenaventura 6, Gualtieri showed off a relic. It was a 35mm print of "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory," all spooled up on platters in its old grandeur, ready to go as the lights dimmed in the theater below.

Gualtieri still shows such 35mm prints, as he will this Thursday night in Ventura with "A Place in the Sun," the 1951 Elizabeth Taylor-Montgomery Clift classic that won six Oscars. But, he said, it's a dying breed.

Paradoxically, the burst of classic film availability on the big screen owes some of its life to the digital age that one might think would be killing it.

Old 35mm prints, Gualtieri noted, are expensive to copy and distribute. Over time, the films deteriorate, get dirty, scratchy and smudgy, and sometimes don't stay in the notches.

With digital, he noted, you just copy the film onto a hard drive, and it's there. It will look the same every time; digital projection is easier.

That's put many classic films on the big screen. Gualtieri remains the romantic, noting that film looks better and has "a certain warmth and personality to it," but concedes digital is the wave.

That said, the "Willy Wonka" print was eminently watchable, marred by only a few film cooties streaming by on the screen.

Old friends

Contrino thinks the classic films trend in theaters has staying power as long as there's enough film purists and nerds out there.

The American Film Institute Theater near his East Coast home recently showed a 35mm print of "The Graduate" and was about to embark on a series of classic 1980s cinema.

Gualtieri has bookings at both Thousand Oaks and Ventura through the end of the year. Park soon will launch a fall series at her Oxnard theater.

In the past couple years, Durling has shown classic films at his top-shelf film festival in Santa Barbara; among those at the most recent edition this winter were "The Sound of Music" and "Dial M for Murder." All, he said, were "very well-attended."

It's a way to introduce them to a new generation, he said. He's also shown his Santa Barbara City College film students such classics as "Casablanca" and "Annie Hall."

It's an age-old shared experience with strangers in an increasingly impersonal world. Against all that, the classic film continues to produce smiles in the dark.

Said Contrino: "It's like visiting an old friend, I think."


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