MEET TCM, SPECIAL EDITION: 1994-2014

Has it really been twenty years? Twenty years since Ted Turner stood in Times Square, flanked by Robert Osborne, Van Johnson and Jane Powell among others, and flipped a switch to bring TCM to life? Gone With the Wind was the inaugural film on that day, April 14, 1994, and it will be shown here on Sunday, in the newly refurbished TCL Chinese IMAX Theatre. But today, the focus at the festival’s first official event was on TCM itself, and a look back at its first two decades.

The annual MEET TCM panel has proved increasingly popular at this festival. In 2010, it was held in a little room upstairs in the Roosevelt Hotel, and was attended by about twenty people. In recent years it upgraded to the larger Club TCM space. This year, in its “special edition,” it positively graduated to the 618-seat Egyptian Theatre. And the house was quite full.

Following a screening of a new TCM promo celebrating twenty years of the network (which was extremely well made and should prove a hit with viewers), Senior Writer/Producer Scott McGee moderated a panel of eight other network executives: Jeff Gregor, General Manager of TCM; Charlie Tabesh, Senior VP of Programming; Dennis Adamovich, Senior VP of brand and digital distribution; Darcy Hettrich, VP of talent; Dennis Millay, Director of Programming; Alexa Foreman, Senior Researcher and Producer; Tom Brown, VP of Original Productions; and Richard Steiner, VP of digital activation.

The theme of this year’s festival is family, so Scott asked the panel to comment on how that applies to TCM itself. Not only do those who work at TCM in Atlanta feel like a family, with quite a few having worked there for many, many years, but the network feels a strong sense of family both with the legions of fans and with the “talent” — i.e., the stars and makers of the classic movies themselves. “It amazes us that you want to come hear us,” Jeff deadpanned, then added that TCM fans “really direct what we do. We really take it to heart… We have transformed from a network to a lifestyle brand.”

Dennis Adamovich agreed: “TCM has the most passionate fans in the Turner universe. People have met here [at the festival] and gotten married. We now have a pastor on the staff!” he joked.

Darcy and Alexa spoke of building relationships with talent over the years. Now, they said, as the remaining stars of old Hollywood sadly grow fewer and fewer, TCM is increasingly keeping in touch with their descendants, and cultivating those relationships.

In other topics, Charlie said that the festival has grown a lot since 2010, with the number of films shown practically doubling from 40 to 77. In 2010, the films were shown almost entirely in 35mm. Now it’s about 50-50, film and digital. And Club TCM programming has quintupled, from three to fifteen hours.  Charlie also noted that four years ago, TCM had to contact studios and archives to procure titles for the festival. “Now they reach out to us,” he said, “to showcase their restorations.” This year twelve films are making their world premiere restoration debuts.

Richard reported that the Watch TCM mobile app, which allows users to view TCM movies on demand, is proving very popular, and many improvements have been made since it launched months ago. No less than Francis Ford Coppola is a fan of the app, he said. Coppola contacted TCM when he had trouble setting it up; Richard and some technicians helped him, and the director sent them a bottle of champagne as thanks.

And Tom said that TCM Original Productions had been helped greatly in the last decade by the fact that TCM has been licensing more and more films from other studios and libraries, beyond the core Turner holdings. The result has been the chance for original programming to delve into wider-ranging themes. Tom said he hoped one day to produce a continuation of the Moguls and Movie Stars documentary series into the modern era. The Holy Grail, however, seems to be a Doris Day interview conducted by Robert Osborne. Ton and Darcy were hopeful that the reclusive star might one day agree to it.

McGee opened the panel up to audience questions. One fan asked if Ted Turner had been invited to the festival, given the fact that TCM’s twentieth anniversary is being celebrated. Answer: Turner was indeed invited to introduce Sunday’s screening of Gone With the Wind, but was unable to make it.

“We all love TCM so much. Can you promise to keep it the same over the years?” another asked. Charlie simply replied, “Yeah,” drawing a laugh.

Someone else suggested a documentary about the Mankiewicz family, which went over very well with the executives.

And in response to another question, Charlie mentioned there are some classic titles he would love to show but can’t, like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Sound of Music, because they are under long-term exclusive licenses to other (advertising-driven) networks.

It would indeed be great to see those pictures on TCM, but there are still plenty of other bona fide classics making their TCM premieres every month, thanks to the expanded licensing. Case in point: Laura, which astonishingly has never played on TCM before but is set to make its debut this April 19.