Whenever we put together an Astor calendar we receive an influx of comments, feedback and suggestions so we thought this would be a great opportunity to tell you in a little more depth about how and why we program the way we do.
Since 1982 George Florence (Proprietor) has conceived of and developed the unique style of repertory programming the Astor is known for. And whilst in an idyllic world the process would be as free and wonderful as choosing two quality films that compliment one another – be it by theme, director, stars, genre, tone, etc – there are a multitude of factors that restrict the options available to us, which is why we find you sometimes asking why we put Labyrinth with Killer Klowns from Outer Space and why John Carter is a single session rather than a double feature.
The primary concern for double features is that both films must come from the same distributor – this is due to Box Office Returns; a percentage of all ticket sales go back to the distributor.
The next concern is available theatrical rights. Just because a film exists, and indeed, even if it has a Home Entertainment release, doesn’t necessarily mean that there are valid theatrical screening rights. All films shown here must have valid theatrical screening rights and even though in some cases we might have shown a film in the past, doesn’t necessarily mean that the film will always be available to screen. Bladerunner is one example where, following our season a couple of years ago now, the theatrical rights have since expired. Conversely, Dirty Dancing and The Princess Bride are films where the rights had lapsed but have recently been renewed, and so we are once again able to screen them.
Then there is the issue of available film formats. Prior to June last year we were only able to screen films with available 35mm or 70mm film prints. And even though we are and will always be committed to both screening and protecting film prints, it is certainly true that since installing our 4K digital projection plant, opportunities to screen many previously unavailable cult and classic titles have now been made available to us. Certainly we could not have held our most recent re-release seasons of Taxi Driver, Dr Strangelove and Labyrinth if it weren’t for new digital restored and remastered DCPs being made.
The same is true of our upcoming major season exclusive Australian 2K digital re-release of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whilst there were once perfectly good quality film prints available of all three Indiana Jones films – Temple of Doom in 70mm in fact – they were junked many years ago and as such, were until now, absent from the big screen. We very much hope we will see Raiders followed up later in 2012 and into 2013 with re-releases of The Temple of Doom & The Last Crusade. Hopefully one day we will be able to present them to you as a trilogy, as we have done recently with The Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future.
There are also certain restrictions for us as a repertory cinema with regard to release dates and the time periods after which we are allowed to screen the films. Usually new release titles will screen here 5-8 weeks after their initial release, with the earliest we are able to screen a new title being 4 weeks with some distributors.
There are also often restrictions placed upon which new titles can be paired with which other new titles and much of this is at the distributors’ discretion.
So, despite our efforts to avoid odd pairings and really weird double bills, we do sometimes end up with things like Safe and Cafe de Flore on the calendar. An example of a double feature that was originally intended to be Silent Souls and Cafe de Flore, but unfortunately the release date for Silent Souls was pushed back which meant we couldn’t include it on this calendar. Still wanting to screen Cafe de Flore, we looked at the next most seemingly interesting to an Astor audience title available. In other instances, with films like A Separation, we decide that it might just be better to let the film screen as a single session rather than a really weird double. Please also bear in mind that as we program for three-month blocks in advance, it isn’t always possible for us to have personally seen the films prior to putting them on the program. If it were, we might not have shown The Darkest Hour or Albert Nobbs on our last calendar.
But beyond what we think are quality films and what films we might like to support there is unfortunately commercial viability to take into account. Sure, I’d love to see a season of experimental films including Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage on our SuperScreen but the reality is that almost no one would turn up to see them – as our John Waters mini retrospective rather clearly indicated.
As we are presently still a commercial entity and without any funding currently available to us, we do have to give some consideration to making enough money to keep the doors open. And whilst our aims and intentions are to provide a unique cinema-going experience rather than to “make money” we do have to consider whether or not a film is likely to have an audience or 30 or 300 people attend. There is of course always a balance and sometimes we will persist with a certain title because of its merit and indeed we have again programmed The Art of Flight despite it not necessarily being a film that attracts several hundred viewers and certainly the session on our last calendar was decent but not staggering. The reason we are screening it again however is because it is one of the best quality digital presentations we have ever screened. The 2K is incredibly sharp and the cinematography quite impressive – something we strongly believe deserves to be seen on the big screen.
There are also some films that we screen regularly due to the film prints being very rare, these include; Hamlet in 70mm, Baraka in 70mm, Apocalypse Now Redux in 35mm and Grindhouse in 35mm. I’m sure many of you already know the story of Hamlet, but if not – it is a great example of why the Astor is important not only as a cinema but also in the continued preservation and exhibition of rare film prints. Following a strong release season in 1996 Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet has screened on every single Astor Calendar since. Earmarked for junking (the destroying of a film print), George contacted Kenneth Branagh and notified him that the rare 70mm print was about to be destroyed, but that we were very interested in continuing to screen it. Kenneth Branagh then directed the distributor to hand over the film print to us so that it can continue to be seen as intended. Similarly, with the hope that the distributors will not junk films we repeatedly book, we make sure rare film prints continue to screen at the Astor so that they won’t be lost to film history and so that future generations can continue to discover them on the big screen.
We are also very lucky here at the Astor to have someone so passionate as George about the protection, preservation and exhibition of classic films, film prints and now too high quality digital re-releases. In partnership with Mark Spratt, George co-founded and is co-director of Chapel Distribution – an independent repertory distributor for Australia and New Zealand with a library of many titles you see regularly appearing at the Astor. Films such as Flying Down to Rio, screening as part of a special event in June with the Cairo Club Orchestra live, and the upcoming 4K digital re-release of The Sound of Music, are titles that we are very pleased to see return to the big screen this year.
We are also very lucky to have film print enthusiast Craige Blencoe working at Chapel who devotes a lot of his time to sourcing rare film prints for some of the titles Chapel hold theatrical rights to. Recently, Craige discovered a 70mm film print of The Last Starfighter down a salt mine in Mount Iza and we are pleased to be presenting that in two weeks time on Monday May 14th. In a slightly different kind of discovery we will be presenting on Monday May 7th a 70mm film print of The Right Stuff - a film print recently discovered by Roadshow in the depths of their warehouse in Brisbane. We hope to be presenting even more 35mm and 70mm film print discoveries later in the year as they are discovered and, if the films, once tested, are in runnable condition.
In terms of seasons on this calendar we are also pleased to announce three Sunday evening double features commencing June 10th of The Marx Brothers: Carnival of Mayhem, featuring 4 35mm film prints and two digital presentations. We also very excited to see some of David Lynch’s films back up on the big screen from Sunday July 22nd. Although we tried our hardest to include his entire oeuvre, there were several titles unavailable in terms of theatrical rights in our territory. I’d like to thank the Edinburgh Film House for their assistance in the process of trying to track down the likes of Wild at Heart, David Lynch’s short films and The Elephant Man. Sadly these titles weren’t available to us at the present time here in Australia but we do hope that we might see them in the future and are still working on bringing some of these great films back to the big screen.
A few other sessions that we’re extraordinarily pleased to be presenting on this calendar include a special Melbourne Exclusive screening of The Chemical Brothers: Don’t Think and Faithless: Passing the Baton, both presented on 2K digital Friday May 18th, a special screening of CinemaLive’s Don Giovanni Opera Australia, two rare 35mm film prints of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Holy Mountain, a new 2K DCP of the 1968 musical Oliver!, a special event called Lebowski Bash Melbourne, which includes a Lebowski Tribute band, a Dude lookalike contest, a trivia competition and a Kahlua White Russian bar after party, as well as of course welcoming back regular event screenings of Grease Sing-A-Long, The Blues Brothers and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
We hope this goes some way to explaining at least some of the processes we go through when programming but of course, as always, we welcome your comments, suggestions and feedback so that we can continue to strive to make the Astor Calendar the very best in repertory film programming and so that we can continue to screen the very best in both film and digital projection.
Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre – excerpt from original introduction at May 2012 Calendar Launch.