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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Turner Classic Movies: Bonus content!

Print editions being what they are, my cover story on Robert Osborne and Turner Classic Movies felt woefully short even given the fact my editor was kind enough to let me go over the traditional word count.

But there was practically another cover story’s worth of information that could have been crammed into the piece, so here’s a laundry list of some of the items:

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• Robert Osborne’s Oscar book. Every five years, Osborne, who also is a longtime columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, updates an impressive coffee-table book on his favorite subject. In 2003, Abbeville Press published 75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards, and it’s a mammoth endeavor. Over its 416 pages, the book serves up loads of black-and-white and color images, Osborne’s overview of a year’s highlights, nominees and winners, and extended comments from participants. When I asked him in January if he was concerned about how the (now-settled) writers’ strike might affect this year’s Oscar ceremony, Osborne seemed more excited than concerned. Not only would the drama serve as great fodder for his upcoming update for the book (due out this September), he saw it as an opportunity to revamp the ceremonies.

“What would be really wonderful is if the 80th year is like the first year, and there’s a banquet, no television and they just presented the awards,” Osborne said. “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful full circle?” (Shameless Oscar plug: CL film critics Felicia Feaster, Curt Holman and I will be live-blogging during the awards ceremonies this Sunday, Feb. 24, starting at 8 p.m. Please join in the fun.)

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• Original programming. While it’s still a little unclear how different TCM’s programming will be now that it's tucked more snugly inside the Turner umbrella, there are plenty of programming options to get excited about. I briefly mentioned two of them in the article: the continuation of the Race and Hollywood series, and the premiere of "Under the Influence with Elvis Mitchell." The latest in the "Race and Hollywood" series, which will air in June, will focus on Asian images in American film, with University of Delaware film scholar Peter X. Feng serving as the primary source. Feng, the author of Screening Asian Americans and Asian American Film and Video, will discuss films such as Shanghai Express, Mr. Moto, The Good Earth, Enter the Dragon and The Joy Luck Club.

Since leaving his gig at the New York Times, Mitchell has become a fixture on National Public Radio with his essential Hollywood program, “The Treatment,” which originates from Santa Monica’s KCRW and allows Mitchell to discuss a wide range of aspects of the film business with an equally wide range of figures. (I’d love to get a crack at HIS Rolodex!) “Under the Influence” is inspired by TCM’s original documentary, and host Mitchell will interview film figures about the movies that inspired them, in July. Quentin Tarantino is an early scheduled guest.

As for TCM’s famed themed approach to programming, look for the second installment of the "Forbidden Hollywood" series in March, including the documentary Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. (The Warner Home Video collection comes out March 4.) Also keep an eye out for upcoming movies about railroads in April (think Murder on the Orient Express) and a celebration of Frank Sinatra movies in the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of his death, with his children Frank Jr., Tina and Nancy discussing his movies, in May. Look for a special festival of Abel Gance (Napoleon) movies in April.

• The website. Clearly there’s a push to maximize commerce traffic on TCM’s website, but what I really find fascinating is how the site is at its best in promoting a bona fide film culture online. There are the Featured Articles, Movie News and Book Corner, all of which keep movie fans updated on what’s happening. But the serious film geeks flock to the blog, Movie Morlocks, and the message board that has fans discussing everything from TCM programming choices (I remember someone telling me execs troll the message board looking for ideas) to their favorite genre-based films. The most famous of the posters is Kim Punk Rock, who is such a fan that TCM sent weekend-afternoon host Ben Mankiewicz and a crew out to film her getting the network’s logo tattooed on her arm. See the video here.

“It’s huge,” Richard Steiner, VP for new media/interactive at TCM, TNT and TBS, and confessed film geek, says of the site's importance to fans. “It’s something we talk about so much.” Steiner says there are plans to develop new features “to help fans talk to each other and get more involved in that discussion. We want to develop more social networking communities that can get classic film fans to connect with each other.

“I’ve met them, and they’re really just great, average folks," Steiner continues. "We always tried to pinpoint the commonalities that bring someone to how they fell in love with classic movies. There are all kinds of different people on our boards. Some [became fans] because their parents did, some did it by accident, some [started] in college, some because there was a repertory theater in their town.” (Kudos to “kjolseth,” by the way, for rightly posting last week on Movie Morlocks that it was the since-departed Roy Scheider’s work in All That Jazz, and not Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, that deserved the 1979 Oscar for Best Actor.)

• “Brands without borders.” It’s a bit of a catchphrase over at Turner, and if I didn’t go into it in sufficient detail in the cover story, here are some more thoughts …

Really, it’s all about integrating the other Turner networks so they're working for each other and not for themselves -- and yet Turner execs suggested that right now that’s a one-way street, with them hoping to use other networks such as TNT and TBS to help drive viewers over to the smaller-audience TCM.

“We want our brands to transcend the linear network,” explains Molly Battin, senior VP for brand development and digital platforms, TBS, TNT and TCM. “We want those brands to live on multiple platforms. That’s how the future is going. We have to build a brand strong enough to connect to our viewers anywhere and anytime. We’re looking for new ways to reach our brand lovers.” This basically means Turner wants TCM to be THE place for classic-movie fans to come for content, discussion, viewing, you name it.

One of the ways not mentioned in the cover story was last summer’s New York project Celluloid Skyline, based on a book by James Sanders about the use of New York in classic movies. “We were able to go into Grand Central Station showcasing backdrops of all these classic movies,” Battin says. “It was a fixture there at the station. That’s a great example of a ‘place-based opportunity.’”

As I mentioned in the article, branding (one of the most important trends in recent corporate-culture history) is incredibly important at Turner, which received tons of industry credit for rebranding TNT as a drama network and TBS as a comedy network. Right now, you see it in little things like making sure to slap on the TCM.com web logo sporadically during movies (which some purists would suggest challenges the "commercial-free" aspect of a movie showing). Time will tell how other branding strategies pop up.

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(Photo courtesy Turner Classic Movies)

• What is a "classic"? This is something I would have loved to have gone into greater detail about in the cover story, because it's clearly a point of discussion among hardcore fans on the website's message board. The "31 Days of Oscar" programming, by presenting films by decade, obviously included lots of movies from the 1990s and 2000s, leading many to question if some of these movies have been around long enough to "qualify" as a classic. For example, is 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- which has played on the sister network, TNT -- already a classic? Is showing the movie on TCM a bit of overexposure? I'm not sure. You can argue both sides: Yes, it's duplicating something at the sacrifice of older, more worthy fare that already has achieved classic status, but it's also an opportunity to see a very long movie without commercial interruption and in letterbox format.

Here's Osborne's take on it, which didn't make the print version:

"Classic" is really something that’s been around for awhile. Now, I think it means something that’s kind of out there and has some value of some kind. I think there are movies we would never show here, but even some of those now have curiosity appeal. What’s more important is it’s a channel for everybody. Even if they’re not your kind of movies, you have a chance to see them.

During "Summer Under the Stars" we had Roy Rogers movies, [including] some of them we’ve never shown. It’s interesting to see what might have appealed to you about them at that time. My theory is that almost any movie is interesting, bad or good. And that’s my job as the host: to talk about some things to make the movie interesting that will make you stay and watch the movie. There may be something in it, maybe something that was happening in the actor’s life at the time, what was happening at the studio at the time. One of my favorite examples is Desire Me, which came out in 1947 with Greer Garson and Robert Mitchum, and it was one of the great disasters of her career, and her career had never really recovered from it. And she’d been a great star up until then. And it was considered so bad that [director] George Cukor … would’t put his name on it. It’s the only movie from a major studio with no director credit on it. And I love to show that movie and talk about it because if you talk about that movie and judge it from that standpoint and not, "This movie isn’t that good," that it is interesting. And then I point out some of the good things about it: It’s got great cinematography, it’s got a beatuful music score, it’s got Robert Mitchum at the beginning of this career. So if you know some bacground, even on a bad movie it can be an interesting movie to watch.

• Correction: I inadvertently referred to Lucille Ball's husband, Desi Arnaz, by his character's name on "I Love Lucy." It's fixed in the online version. My apologies.

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