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Let’s Hear It For Showmanship

by Leonard Maltin
November 6, 2013 3:35 PM
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I’ve received unprecedented response to my recent YouTube rant about sloppy presentation at a nearby multiplex, but I’m happy to report that showmanship is not completely dead. Individual theater owners keep it alive in their communities and earn the gratitude of their customers. A friend recently sent me two trailers prepared, pro bono, by a Portland, Oregon filmmaker to help support and encourage his local non-profit movie palace, the Hollywood Theatre. One of them profiles an 85-year-old woman who recalls her tenure as an usherette at the Hollywood in the 1940s. The other features a painting contractor who volunteers to help keep the non-profit theater looking fresh. What a lovely way to build audience support for this moviegoing mecca…and how nice that the Hollywood has been able to restore its original 1926 marquee.

No one knows more about the history of exhibition, particularly in the South, than John McElwee, who has a loyal readership at his website, Greenbrier Picture Shows If you haven’t latched onto this entertaining and informative site, or even if you’ve enjoyed John’s colorful posts over the years, you’ll want to own a copy of the handsome new hardcover collection of his columns, Showmen, Sell It Hot! (GoodKnight Books). His chapters on the distribution history of such classic films as The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein, Dracula, and A Night at the Opera illuminate a facet of their history that many others ignore: their long theatrical life through repeated reissues. McElwee doesn’t rely on his memory or anecdotal evidence: he cites trade journals and box-office figures to show that many of these movies found their true audience the second or third time around. Every chapter of this lavishly illustrated volume is packed with information that was new to me and fascinating to learn. (Did you know that in the wake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 20th Century Fox made up new 35mm Technicolor prints of 1939’s Jesse James with Tyrone Power and circulated them for years, especially in the South?) I can’t say enough about this entertaining book or the ongoing research John McElwee offers at his site.

One of Joseph O. Holmes’ beautiful photographs from "The Booth: The Final Days of Film Projection," taken at the Kent Theater in Brooklyn, New York

Finally, if you’re visiting New York City over the winter, you might want to check out a photography exhibit by Joseph O. Holmes at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s called The Booth: The Last Days of Film Projection, and it chronicles some of the surviving projection booths (and projectionists) in the New York metropolitan area. It may be difficult to grasp but, in modern theaters, booths—a fixture of exhibition for more than a century—are now essentially obsolete. Without bulky prints to store and prepare for showing, or trained operators to splice and rewind reels of film, all a multiplex needs is a shelf to hold a digital projector—which in some cases is operated by remote control from an iPad!

Purists and nostalgists will certainly relate to the environment and equipment so beautifully captured by Holmes in his photo essay, which you can also purchase in book form HERE.

And if you haven’t heard me spout off about a recent encounter I had with non-showmanship, please click HERE.

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  • mike schlesinger | November 8, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    Back in my film booking days in Cincinnati, the local Fox exchange did indeed have a print of JESSE JAMES, and we almost literally ran the sprockets off it in the many drive-ins of Kentucky and West Virginia. And funny how no one ever complained that the 1.33 film was being shown 1.85--but then again, most drive-in patrons were probably otherwise occupied. :-)

  • Shawn Moore | November 7, 2013 6:56 AMReply

    Thanks for recognizing that there are lots of folks dedicated to putting on a great show for movie goers. If you are ever in Durham, NC, please target a Friday night when the Carolina Theatre is presenting one of their Retro double features. In combination with two fun films, Jim Carl includes door prizes, an intro, credit to the provider of the 35mm prints, and trailers from the years the films were released - a great program overall. He does this 3 Friday nights per month, and also programs special retrospectives, such as an annual 2 weeks of Hitchcock, a "Groovy Movie" festival, "Escapism" festival, and he just did a Universal Horror week for Halloween.
    There is even a Fan Appreciation events with free screenings and free popcorn! All at a non-profit!
    I think you'd be right in your element.

  • Curtis Emde | November 7, 2013 12:58 AMReply

    Excellent posting, Leonard - same goes for the youtube video (not really a "rant," since you are entirely reasonable and measured in your criticism, giving good reasons and examples!). We can all relate to the decline in quality of the movie-going experience thanks to automation and other multiplex-style factors. Thanks too for pointing me towards John McElwee's website and book (I'd love to get my hands on that), as well as Joseph O. Holmes' exhibition - beautiful images.

    My wife Silmara and I have a special interest in the 35 mm/digital exhibition topic, as well as cinema presentation in general, since we started working on a photo/video project documenting the end of film projection in British Columbia, Canada, a couple of years ago. If you get the chance, have a look at our own site:

    (we are planning, by the way, a trip to Portland, in the next little while, and can't wait to take in that city's Hollywood & Bagdad theatres, which are setting an example for quality & comfort for the whole industry, by all accounts).

  • greg snider | November 6, 2013 10:16 PMReply

    The Hollywood Theatre in Portland, OR is the real deal. It balances a love and respect for film history with modern innovations of film based-event programming. Over the past few years, it has become the cornerstone of film culture here in Portland.

  • John Andersen | November 11, 2013 6:47 AM

    In Portland, OR in addition to the Hollywood, there is Cinema 21, and the Laurelhurst that fit into the same category of "love and respect for film history."

    And there are several other vintage theaters as well.

    That is why Portland is such a great place to view movies.

  • Doug Whyte | November 6, 2013 7:47 PMReply

    Thanks for the shout out Leonard! We take our film presentations very seriously - even though we have gone digital (yet still capable of 35mm and 16mm) we still always have a projectionist working. We are constantly thinking hard about what it means to be a movie theatre in this day and age and everyday we try to improve our film-going experience through technical excellence, personal customer attention, and high quality, innovative programming. People notice it and it pays off!

    Doug Whyte
    Executive Director
    Hollywood Theatre

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