By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on June 24, 2023)
“Without TCM, classic movies will die and with them, part of our culture.”
-from the “TCM Mantra”
In 1994, media mogul Ted Turner launched Turner Classic Movies, a commercial-free subscription channel dedicated to airing uncut classic and deep-catalog films ranging from the silent era to the early 80s. At the time of its inception, TCM’s only real “competitor” in the cable market was American Movie Classics, which operated under a very similar programming philosophy.
However, by the early 2000s, AMC (for assorted business reasons) was interrupting film presentations with commercial breaks; and once the channel went down that road, they were soon kowtowing to ad agency and sponsor demands – e.g., being pressed to incorporate more contemporary films into their programming. By default TCM was now the sole haven for classic film buffs on cable TV.
Consequently, over the ensuing years TCM has built a sizeable, passionate, and fiercely loyal coterie of fans (myself among them), as well as a (mostly) genial social media community (we’re not unlike the Deadheads; albeit more Ty Power than tie-dyed).
I say “mostly” genial, because once the news broke of some developments at TCM HQ earlier this week, those friendly villagers put torches and pitchforks on standby:
It’s not every day that Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson team up. But IndieWire has learned they will today: The three directors have scheduled an emergency call with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav about the layoffs of Turner Classic Movies’ top brass. […]
The network laid off much of its leadership [on June 20th ], including executive VP and general manager Pola Changnon; senior VP of programming and content strategy, Charles Tabesh; VP of brand creative and marketing Dexter Fedor; VP of enterprises and strategic partnerships Genevieve McGillicuddy, who also served as the director of the annual TCM Film Festival; and VP of studio production Anne Wilson.
These people were responsible for everything from curating lineups, to shooting intros and outros, and for creating original shows, documentaries, and video essays that serve as major contributions to American cultural history.
Scorsese has often said he has Turner Classic Movies on all day in the background when editing his movies with Thelma Schoonmaker. “It gives me something to turn to, to bounce off of, to rest in, to reinvigorate my thinking — just glancing at some image or combination of images at a certain moment,” Scorsese told the Los Angeles Times of his favorite network. “It’s more like a presence in the room, a reminder of film history as a living, ongoing entity.
Spielberg appeared at the last two TCM Film Festivals and in multiple TCM documentaries. Paul Thomas Anderson also was at the festival this year; in that same LA Times article, he called the network “holy ground.” […]
These cuts come as WBD CEO David Zaslav recites what’s become his rosary: He wants Warner Bros. to be a studio for filmmakers. He wants to build bridges with directors who were burned by the previous regime under Jason Kilar, who responded to the pandemic with a unilateral move for day-and-date releases on HBO Max.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “I just wanna be left alone to watch The Third Man on my couch in peace while I enjoy a pizza. What’s with all these corporate shenanigans?”
In brief: TCM’s tie-in with Warner dates from 1996, when Turner Broadcasting System merged with Time-Warner. That put TCM and Warner Brothers Entertainment under the same corporate overseers. Then in 2019, Time-Warner was acquired by AT&T, which renamed the company “WarnerMedia”. In 2022 (almost done) following its spin-off by AT&T, WarnerMedia merged with Discovery, Inc. Hence: TCM currently serves at the pleasure of the CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery; that position is currently held by Mr. David Zaslav.
Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?
You get up on your little twenty-one-inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.
– from Network (1976), screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky
Anyway, the reaction to this news on Film Twitter was swift and heartfelt:
Along with the established classics that continue to inspire actors, filmmakers, and historians, #TCM shows pre-codes, B-level noir, short subjects from comedy to travelogue, cartoons, B-westerns, silents, etc. We can't lose access to all of that important film history. #SaveTCM pic.twitter.com/4kPtlSyxjb
— James L. Neibaur (@JimLNeibaur) June 22, 2023
I just ran into a checker at the grocery store who loves @tcm. I gave her a box set of THIN MAN movies, and since then, we always talk abt what’s been on TCM.
— Lara Gabrielle (@backlotsfilm) June 23, 2023
And while I would certain subscribe to a streaming service, streaming means we lose that thing where you didn't know you needed or wanted to see the film until it was on TCM. Scrolling through menus is great, like shopping, but different. https://t.co/xlMAxb21Lk
— Farran Nehme (@selfstyledsiren) June 21, 2023
Chris Licht was bad enough. But if Zaslav kills TCM, I'm raising an army. #SaveTCM
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) June 22, 2023
Out of my nearly 4,000 DVD/Blu-ray collection, over half are DVD-R copies sourced from TCM broadcasts (for private use only…and yes, I've been a legit, paying cable customer since the mid-1980s). In light of what's going on at TCM, I suddenly feel like a film preservationist.
— Dennis Hartley (@denofcinema5) June 21, 2023
Speculation continues to rage regarding what the management shakeup portends for TCM; but this breaking news from across the pond did little to allay “worst case scenario” fears:
It’s the end of an era for the British television landscape: Turner Classic Movies (TCM) UK, widely known as TCM Movies and a cornerstone for film enthusiasts, is preparing for its final act.
This dedicated channel, which has showcased the rich filmographies of Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros., is set to close its curtains on July 6, 2023, marking a poignant farewell for UK’s classic movie lovers.
This sombre news comes amidst a backdrop of global uncertainty for TCM. Across the Atlantic, the future of the American TCM channel hangs in the balance following recent layoffs announced by Warner Bros. Discovery.
As the UK prepares to say goodbye to its beloved classic film channel, the struggle to preserve its American counterpart underscores the ongoing challenges and importance of maintaining the legacy of classic cinema worldwide.
Forgive me, I’m going to curse in “UK” now. Bugger bollocks bloody hell (I feel better).
Still, the news wasn’t all gloom and doom. This glimmer of hope broke on Friday:
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is attempting to calm the waters after stirring up a storm over Turner Classic Movies earlier this week. Zaslav is moving oversight of the channel to Warner Bros. Pictures bosses Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy, sources with knowledge of the situation tell The Hollywood Reporter.
The move is meant to reassure the film community after WBD announced a restructuring this week that saw TCM chief Pola Changnon exit after 25 years, along with key team members. […]
According to sources, putting TCM under the auspices of De Luca and Abdy — executives who are well regarded in the film community — will satisfy Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson. The hope is the trio will be involved in curating for the channel. It’s unclear at this stage if any of the TCM staff who departed earlier this week could return, but sources say WBD is prepared to spend more money on the channel and will not consider selling it.
The key word is “curating”. Because I think the programming philosophy that informs an enterprise like Turner Classic Movies has deep roots in the repertory houses that have all but disappeared. In a 2017 piece about the death of the “neighborhood” theater, I wrote:
Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).
Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.
Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.
Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.
That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 3 years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.
[*sigh*] Those halcyon days of power-grazing on repertory theater triple-bills are gone, but for me, TCM is the next-best thing extant. And it would be a damn shame to lose that too. In the meantime, keep fingers crossed-and as TCM presenter /”Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller advised, keep those cards and letters coming, folks.
WHAT CAN WE DO? I have been asked repeatedly this week. If you write to WBD (I'm sure someone will put the emails in the comments) PLEASE express your love for and devotion to TCM. Do NOT succumb to rage or engage in name-calling. That is NO HELP. @tcm @NoirAlley @noirfoundation
— Eddie Muller (@EddieMuller) June 23, 2023
Apparently this email address has been disabled, but you can still send snail mail to the physical address listed ^PG https://t.co/LEur62gCKh
— #SaveTCM Party (@TCM_Party) June 26, 2023