TCM Fest draws sea of cineastes to Hollywood

Four-day confab puts classics crowd together with vintage stars

It began nearly two years ago in the hey-let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland pics that are a staple of Turner Classic Movies: The cabler is throwing a glitzy four-day party for a few thousand of its biggest fans with the inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival, which unspools April 22-25 in Hollywood.

The idea for a festival that could double as a gathering for vintage film buffs was born out of the experience TCM execs had in 2008 when they invited fans of the channel to host airings of their favorite classics to commemorate TCM’s 15th anni.

The taping of those segments turned into long off-camera discussions about everything film geeks like to talk about when they get together. And as the strangers bonded over film esoterica, TCM execs realized there was an untapped market — and golden marketing potential — for getting their viewers together to revel in the best of the silver screen.

We definitely look at it as a marketing opportunity and a brand-value enhancer,” says Charlie Tabesh, the channel’s senior VP of programming. “Associating TCM with an impressive showcase of classic movies is one part, but the other is giving our fans the chance and (the forum) for getting together to grow their passion for movies. That passion is an important part of our brand.”

TCM execs predict the fest will draw about 2,000 people who’ve shelled out $500 for the all-access four-day passes, plus more from individual ticket sales to various events. Not surprisingly, most of the passholders are winging to Hollywood from points elsewhere. Tickets sales have been spread across 45 states and Canada, as well as the U.K., France, Italy, Poland, Romania and Argentina.

Bill and Stella Pence, co-founders of the Telluride Film Festival, were recruited early on to serve as consultants on the programming. (TCM has long been a Telluride sponsor.) Bill Pence helped arrange one of the TCM fest’s more notable gets, an appearance by 100-year-old Luise Rainer to intro the screening of 1937’s “The Good Earth” (which brought her the second of her back-to-back Oscar wins for lead actress).

In all, the TCM fest will encompass more than 50 film screenings, panel seshes, Q&As and, of course, plenty of parties at various spots in Hollywood near the fest’s hub, the famed Hollywood Roosevelt (conveniently across the street from Grauman’s Chinese, where many screenings will be held).

There’s a big emphasis on film restoration, with the North American preems of newly spiffed-up prints of indelible pics including Judy Garland’s “A Star Is Born,” “King Kong,” “The Big Trail,” “Metropolis” and “Breathless.” Illeana Douglas and Casey LaLonde were recruited to introduce the screening of 1941’s “A Woman’s Face,” which stars their respective grandparents, Melvyn Douglas and Joan Crawford. And there’ll be a poolside screening of 1949 tuner “Neptune’s Daughter” with stars Esther Williams and Betty Garrett on hand.

TCM has been billing the fest as the “first-ever” gathering, as it’s too soon to say whether it becomes an annual event for the cabler. Execs have emphasized the marketing value of the endeavor to TCM more than its moneymaking potential.

That means the fest may turn out to be a big success even if it isn’t a big success — a situation that recalls the memorable closing line from “Some Like It Hot” (Tony Curtis hosts that screening April 25): “Well, nobody’s perfect.”