Friday, October 3, 2014

Cinefest 2015: The End of an Era

Since a number of people over the years complimented me on using my weekly blog to keep folks abreast of the latest developments in the hobby, this posting will maintain that status quo. Cinefest, an annual film festival held in Syracuse, New York, announced this year's dates: March 19 to 22, 2015. But it appears that Father Time is playing a serious toll against the very society that puts the film festival on and as it was announced earlier this week... the 2015 Cinefest will be their last... closing doors to 35 grand years.

The Syracuse Cinephile Society was founded by Phil Serling in 1967, with the intention of gathering every month to watch old movies and talk about the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In 1978, they hosted the first Cinecon Film Festival and out of that success grew Cinefest, first held in 1981. There have been three major themes motivating the annual migration of cinephiles to Syracuse. Bringing film historians, educators and archivists together with private collectors for their mutual benefit, screening "lost" and obscure vintage films, and involving students of film history, restoration and preservation. The Board of Directors, who handled the monumental task annually, succeeded on all counts. Last year I recall chatting with film students from the George Eastman House who were eager to learn more about classic movies, offering a promising future for film preservation. Those students were not afraid to ask questions and learn something new.

Pee break in between movies in the massive movie room at the hotel.

When Phil Serling passed away in 2002, a number of people speculated an immediate end of the organization. When founding fathers pass away from an untimely death, or convention promoters pass the torch to someone younger and able, there always seems to be a few contentious and argumentative who believe "change" is for the worse. But Cinefest held on and the dedication and hard work of the Syracuse Cinephile staff kept the show going for an additional 13 years following his death.

It seems in an era when Comic Cons are the new rave, drawing in a younger crowd eager to dress in costume and pose for cameras, conventions with a nostalgic theme seem to be suffering from dwindling attendance. The reasons are many... ranging from an aging fan base, lack of enthusiasm from the younger generation, and a temporary declined economy. Take your pick. Everyone has a theory (stubbornly insisting they themselves know the exact answer) but the general consensus is what can be obvious from repeat attendance: an aging fan base. If the attendance was growing every year instead of shrinking, the continued success of any convention is strength in numbers. I remember at an old-time radio convention a celebrated film historian pounding his fist on the table and exclaiming, "the hobby needs younger people and more preservation." The room clapped and cheered in agreement. One year later, I saw no new young people and no movements to preserve OTR beyond what was already a collector market. Everyone agrees, everyone complains about what is wrong, but very few make an effort to patch the cracks in the walls. (I am proud to say that I do my part in attracting a few people to the conventions I attend, every year, and have succeeded in helping to build the attendance, no matter how large or small.)

A friend of mine recently agreed with me, adding: "I have also noticed that many collector clubs, beyond the film related ones, are suffering the same preponderance of white-haired members. We are turning into a society where out younger member's focus is firmly on mobile phones and tablets -- and our sociability is measured solely on the number of Facebook friends. Many tweet or text, rather than talk or engage. Earbuds have replaced speakers. Free illegal downloads and file swapping is killing pop culture media which needs fiscal dollars to survive. To quote Miss Garbo, we want to be alone and now have the tools to facilitate it."

Lots of vendors selling books, magazines, film prints and more!

I agree with Bob when it comes to "circulation" and "exposure." Young people will get into classic movies if they are exposed to them. The dwindling attendance at classic film festivals mirrors what happened to old-time radio conventions. For years, conventions recognizing and celebrating vintage radio broadcasts (The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Jack Benny, etc.) boomed large with attendance. But when radio programs became "free downloads" as a result of a compressed (and on a technical side, inferior) format, the conventions began hurting. Consensus was divided in two. Half the room insisted the dwindling attendance was an aging fan base and lack of younger enthusiasm. The other half insisted the internet was the culprit. Vendors who paid for table space to sell old-time radio shows (usually un-circulated and newly-discovered "lost" shows) ceased coming to the shows because sales were down and former customers admitted that free downloads were economical -- and you cannot beat free. Vendors responsible for buying transcription discs of "lost" radio programs stopped investing the money. Three days after Ted Davenport spent $1,000 on dozens of 1939 Shadow of Fu Manchu radio programs and released them to his customers, they were available for free downloads on the internet. They were the last of the "lost" shows Ted invested in. When vendors began dropping, so did the attendance. Others debate that the internet exposed old-time radio to a crowd that might otherwise not have jumped into the hobby, and I would agree that the new technology has both pro and con. In relation to classic film festivals, the pro is only at the advantage of the collector. The con is that film festivals are suffering from this problem.

The costs to have film prints transported to Syracuse every year from the Brigham Young, Library of Congress, George Eastman House and private collectors continues to rise. These increased costs need to be counter-balanced by paid attendance. The hotel where the event is put on will not donate the facilities out of charity. People who used to attend the show for years and have since stopped attending have been asked why... and they continue to provide a common answer: "Why should I pay to attend a film festival when I can watch old movies on TCM in the comfort of my own living room?"

Film festivals like Cinefest offer a few advantages you cannot find within reaching distance of your remote control. Meeting people who share a common interest in the same films you like to watch, sharing your passion for old movies, and building friendships with folks you wouldn't otherwise meet outweigh the admission cost. Friends at the festivals recommend titles you never knew existed. You learn about what goes on behind-the-scenes in the hobby (ranging from recently film discoveries, up-coming DVD releases and new restoration techniques). For folks who live in upstate New York, the opportunity to attend an annual gathering and join the excitement was convenient because of location. There are other film festivals along the East Coast but travel distance is sometimes taken into consideration.

The Cinefest organizers site a number of reasons for the finale. Changing technology is one. Every Saturday at the convention, for the last few years, a local movie theater opened the flood gates for the screening of 35mm archival films. Attendees hopped on board a bus and went down the road a few miles to watch classic black and white gems not available anywhere else. Last year, the transportation was cancelled. The local movie theater converted to digital projectors and 35mm format was obsolete. So the Saturday afternoon screenings remained in the hotel with 16mm reels... as it was throughout the rest of the weekend. Once again, the contentious and argumentative took a pessimistic view.

Finding "lost" films has also become a challenge. One of the highlights of the film festival was to watch movies you could not see anywhere else -- literally. But with the movie studios opening their vaults to MOD (Made-On-Demand) custom DVD releases on DVD-Recordable format, rare gems are becoming difficult to find. Years ago, no one in the hobby would have dreamed that the 1930 Billie Dove classic, One Night at Susie's, would have been released to DVD. Now, Warner Archive has made that available. (If I am not mistaken, it airs in a few days on TCM.) Thankfully, I had the pleasure to watch a color commercial made for movie theaters starring The Three Stooges, which has yet to be released to DVD even on the grey market. Mickey Rooney's early screen appearance in a delightful film, Orchids and Ermine (1927), was a pleasure to view. Boris Karloff in an RKO Information, Please film short was a Friday morning treat that has yet to be repeated anywhere else. None of which are easy to acquire even on the "grey" market. As recently explained by the Syracuse Cinephile Board of Directors, "this has also made the Cinefest programming of rare titles that cannot be seen anywhere else increasingly difficult."

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Billie Dove in One Night at Susie's (1930).

The well-deserved retirement from the organization of several key staff members can also be added to the numerous reasons why the March 2015 will be the final convention. The group will continue their monthly gatherings of old movies, but the big event held annually will cease after 2015.

Running a convention is no easy task. As a convention promoter myself, I understand how the "little things" can weigh heavily on one's shoulders and, over the years, continue to build until the promoters either pass the torch to someone more energetic or close the doors indefinitely. For that reason, I would like to publicly thank all of the individuals responsible for Cinefest over the years for all the hard work and hours of entertainment.

Reporting sad news is never a highlight of this blog and with luck, I won't have to report sad news for quite a while. But if you are reading this and always had an itch to attend Cinefest, make plans to attend the film festival in March. They are going to close with a very special and exciting finale, and it would be better to say you were there to experience the fun than the oft-quoted phrase, "I always wished I could go." My motto has always been to do -- or not do -- to prevent regrets tomorrow. Don't create reasons why you should stay home this March. Instead, pick up the phone and book your hotel room and ask the boss to take a few days off work. All the necessary information including hotel contact can be found on the convention website:


Anonymous said...

Re: old time radio. I do understand the frustration. I have several hundred AFRS discs (ca.mid 1940s-early 1950s) that I bought from someone whose father rescued them from a VA Hospital many years ago. (Apparently, there was some connection between the VA and Armed Forces Radio.) I've put very few of those discs into circulation because there's no way to make my money back on them. Not enough people are willing to pay even a minimal amount for old radio shows anymore. They want them as free downloads. Not just want them, but demand that they be free, and they resent you for having the gall to think they should pay for them. Which is fine. As other collectors decline to put their discs into circulation for the same reason, it'll be the hobby's loss. People can go on listening to their downloads of the same old shows, mastered from thirty-year-old, poorly dubbed, tenth generation audio cassettes, and poorly encoded at low bit-rates. Enjoy.

Sidney Graves said...

The reason for this is because the old timers understood the historical significance and appreciated the value for said recordings. The new generation has no real appreciation for the recordings beyond the isolation behind their computer screens. Thank you, Mr. Grams, we're supporting the hobby as you have and I am sure the stories from your visits to such conventions and your personal collection of recordings are well earned. The ignorance of the new generation that believes everything should be free may not understand the damage that they cause but remember they are a generation that Will not support any hobby they claim to be a member of… They are only interested in supporting themselves.

Zack said...

I buy old radio shows from two dealers, both of whom use a variation on the iTunes model: you pay per show and you get a high-quality digital download. Unfortunately, that model has by and large been ignored by the old radio community, which is still mostly peddling CDs (both regular and MP3), despite the fact that many of us among the younger age groups don't want physical product. We want downloads, albeit high-quality ones.

We could argue all day about the pluses and minuses of physical CDs over downloads, but the fact is, most people my age aren't interested in physical product: CDs or DVDs. We prefer our media in download form. CDs are a pain to me. I just have to download them to my devices so I can hear them, and then I'm stuck with a disc I no longer need or want.

For the record, I have little use for all the free downloads that are all over the internet. Most of those truly illustrate that you get what you pay for: low-quality encodes from low-quality source material. Most of what's floating around on the internet for free sounds like garbage. It made me laugh to be told by someone defending the poor quality of the freebie downloads that poor sound made the shows "more authentic." "Old time radio isn't supposed to sound good." Which is a load of horse crap.

I can appreciate the position of Anonymous above. Guys like him, who have spent money on these original discs, have no incentive to make them available anymore. Even if you do get a few people to pay for what you've got, it's inevitable that one of those people is going to share the stuff and it's going to end up on every free site on the internet, anyway. It almost surprises me sometimes that the few dealers who are left keep plugging away at it. It must get discouraging. Like one former dealer told me, he tried to offer the highest quality possible, sourced from the lowest generation masters out there, but too many people are happy -- or at least willing to live with -- a crappy 32 kbps encode mastered from a badly dubbed, badly mastered, off-speed, thirty-five-year-old cassette tape that was probably at least a dozen generations removed from the original recording.

Then people bitch about guys like Anonymous and accuse them of being hoarders and whine because they don't share what they've got. Why should they? Even if they bought those discs with no expectation of making any money off of them, isn't the time they spend cleaning up those transcriptions, transferring them, and cleaning them up worth something?

And the irony is, I see people complaining on social media about the poor quality of so much old radio. There are obviously people out there who want good--sounding shows. They just can't see that you can't have both. You can't have both top-notch sound and an "I want it all for free" attitude.

It's the hobby's loss, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for alerting me to the news. I held off going to Cinefest because of the weather in Syracuse. I just booked my hotel room. Gerry

Edward said...

I agree. Zack summed this perfectly. The junk that circulates on the internet as free download files cannot be compared to the high quality I pay for from serious collectors. And we all get what we pay for. I, for one, spend money for good quality from direct transfers from masters. Another case where the internet is killing a hobby that was already suffering from a white-haired fan base. OTR conventions suffered from the illegal and free downloads. So do the film festivals.

Anonymous said...

I drove up to Syracuse to the Cinefest for the first time two years ago. Came again last year and will be there again in 2015. I really do enjoy the show. There is nothing like seeing the old movies on real film and being surrounded by an equally enthusiastic audience. So sad to see this come to an end.

Ken Farrell said...

I have been a collector and dealer since 1978. When I started I was after all the artifacts of my youth. The posters from the movies I loved, comics and toys from my childhood and music from my teens. All this was 15 to 25 years old at the time. I was never attracted to cast iron toys, Maggie and Jiggs or silent movies. I believe most of you had the same experience. Why would you expect the younger generation to be interested in your childhood. They are interested in their own. A Ghostbusters or Back to the Future movie poster is as valid as Day The Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet, and will most likely be as valuable some day.

Anonymous said...

Hoping someone picks up where Cinefest left off. Not too difficult, IMHO, to rent a hotel and screen old movies, allow vendors to set up and attract the same size crowd. If someone charges the vendors for their tables to equal the hotel rental, the convention can continue. Wish I had the money to do that.

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