I Googled “programming guru” and Charles Tabesh’s name didn’t come up. I’m speechless.
It’s been a hell of a year for Turner Classic Movies! A leading authority in classic film, the network kicked off what is by my estimation its most diverse year of programming ever by, as Robert Osborne described it, “tooting its own horn” leading up to the 20th Anniversary in April. As fans who depend on TCM for that “home” feeling only our beloved classics can provide we tooted right along with them.
As one of the many TCM fans who tooted and continues to do so, who stays tuned to the network on a constant basis, who sets her schedule according to its programming, who discusses
the films it features on a daily basis and so forth I was interested in celebrating the landmark year that was 2014. So, I reached out to TCM’s Senior VP of Programming, Charles Tabesh to see if he’d mind answering a few questions for me. If you’re not familiar with Tabesh’s role at TCM let me put it in perspective – if, as a recent New York Times article noted, Robert Osborne is The Face of TCM then Tabesh is its heart and soul – the ultimate authority on the network’s unique programming, the ultimate reason why we tune in every day.
Without further ado, my interview with Charles Tabesh – what I want to know…
Q – As I peruse the Now Playing Guide for December and make note of the superb schedule awaiting us it occurs to me 2014 has been a stellar, diverse year of TCM programming. While the network remains a beacon for classics, I imagine considerable effort goes into finding new avenues for programming diversity. How much time/effort would you say goes into finding a balance between the two? And/or how difficult is it to find that balance?
A – Thank you very much for the comments. Yes, we definitely try to keep things as fresh as possible, whether that means introducing new films or focusing on themes, actors, directors or other artists who don’t get a lot of attention elsewhere. One of the main challenges with the job is trying to determine that balance. We have a programming department that includes Dennis Millay, Stephanie Thames and Mille de Chirico, in addition to me. We’re all involved in that process. But it’s hard to determine how much time is put into working it out since it’s just an ongoing part of the job.
Q – Along those lines – it seems that 2014 featured a large number of TCM premieres and series that included more contemporary films than you’ve aired in the past. The Friday Night Spotlight series like “Science in the Movies” and “New Wave Australian Movies” for instance had many more “newer” films featured. Am I correct?
A – You might be correct, but I can honestly say that wasn’t a goal or something that we did consciously. Whenever we play more contemporary films there are complaints and fears that we’re changing or abandoning older movies. But just this month our “star-of-the-month” is Silent Stars, and we just came off a month of pre-code classics (which you reference below). But if we see a theme that we want to pursue – like Australian Cinema – that by its nature has a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s films in it, we won’t shy away from that. We consider TCM to be about the history of movies, and that includes some newer movies in addition the older ones, when appropriate. In addition, there are times we were with talent, like Bill Hader on our Road Movies festival, and if he requests certain films (and we can get them), we’re happy to play them. Ultimately, we’re very driven by thematic programming and there are times that themes lend themselves to some newer titles.
Q – Do you see this as a trend going forward? Or is it simply a matter of staying true to particular themes? Do you take the era during which a film was made into account when deciding on programming a series, whether the majority of films fall outside the traditional classics era, etc.?
A – I might have addressed some of this question above. Over the years we’ve done festivals devoted to filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Hayao Miyazaki or we’ve played newer movies as part of themes (for example, many years ago we did “The History of the Romantic Comedy” that included films from the silent era, up to and including “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally”). Those decisions weren’t based on an attempt to play more recent titles, they were just parts of film history that we wanted to explore. But I will say that if we decide to delve into a theme or a person that features a lot of more recent titles, we try to balance out the month on the other nights as much as possible with more older films.
Q – Can you discuss any special or original programming planned for 2015 and beyond? Any new goals planned for the network perhaps, if there are any?
A – As of now the only 2 originals we’re planning for next year are specials we shot at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival: A Tribute to Robert Osborne, and Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival: Alan Arkin. It’s possible we will add more if the right project comes along, but budget is certainly a consideration as well. I think anything more than those next year is unlikely.
Q – If memory serves, among the series that generated the most buzz in our online communities (particularly via Twitter) was the September Friday Night Spotlight dedicated to Pre-Code films. And the Betty Grable day, one of the (I believe) eight new stars featured in the Summer Under the Stars marathon this year was also very popular. How closely do you and/or your team monitor online communities and fan commentary/reaction to your programming – aside from the TCM discussion boards on the official site? Also, are you familiar with TCMparty and do you ever visit the hashtag to peruse commentary?
A – Yes, I follow TCMParty and several classic movie fans on Twitter. And, as you suggest, we keep up with what’s happening on the message boards, as well as film recommendations, in addition to our Facebook page. We take a lot of ideas from all of these places. Sometimes it takes years for us to make some of them happen (and sometimes we can’t do something even if it’s a great idea). But that kind of feedback is very helpful. If we receive complaints, for example, it’s always good to try and think about whether there’s some merit to them and whether we should adjust. (As an example, just last week someone mentioned to me they thought we did a lot of actor and director tributes, but not enough devoted to the craftspeople like cinematographers, production designers, etc. I thought that was valuable feedback and something to consider). And it really is helpful to get ideas for films and themes – there are lot of very knowledgeable people out there who bring a different perspective.
Q – There’s no doubt that TCM goes far in showing how much it appreciates its fans and the new ‘Fan Favorites’ segments go a long way in bringing that message home. As you know I’m one of the four chosen to comment on a Holiday movie to air during Thanksgiving weekend and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Whose idea was it to revive the ‘Fan Favorites’ segments and will these become a regular happening?
A – The idea came from Sean Cameron, our VP of Studio Production. I think it was a great idea and I expect we’ll be doing more.
Q – Part of the reason why I wanted to reach out to you is to send you a personal THANK YOU for choosing Cary Grant as the Star of the Month for December. As far as I’m concerned it’s a perfect way to end 2014. I read that Mr. Grant’s one of your favorites as well. If so, what do you think it was about him that makes him such a classic classic? And, what’s your favorite Cary Grant movie?
A – When I was a boy I wanted to end up being just like Cary Grant: smart, handsome, charming, always with the witty comment, knowing exactly what to say. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that’s not who I am, but it’s something that I’ve always admired and very much enjoy seeing on-screen. It seems impossible to select a favorite, but my list would include a lot of the obvious ones: His Girl Friday, My Favorite Wife, That Touch of Mink, Notorious, The Awful Truth, To Catch a Thief. Your question is making me excited for December too.
Aurora – Although I don’t have a lot to go on with only two announcements made thus far regarding the 2015 Classic Film Festival, I’d be remiss not to take this opportunity to ask a few questions…
On the theme, “History According to Hollywood” –
Q – The history of film is inherent to TCM programming whether by way of pure entertainment or if a particular series is designed to educate. That said, I think it’s interesting that this particular theme was chosen on the year after the network celebrated its 20th anniversary. Sort of moving forward by looking back, a way to emphasize that TCM remains dedicated to its classics core going forward. Am I over thinking this? Or is there a message in the theme beyond the all-encompassing aspect to a choice that lends itself perfectly to classic film and TCM?
A – I’d say you’re overthinking it. This year, Family in the Movies felt just right because we wanted to celebrate the idea of a TCM community – what we call the TCM family – as part of our 20th anniversary. So that was very intentional. But one of the themes we’ve had as a possibility for a while is History According to Hollywood. It’s meant to be a way to explore how Hollywood as shaped our view of history and to consider what we’ve learned from movies as well as how we’ve in many instances been misinformed. I think it’s very interesting and a lot of fun to think about, but it wasn’t meant (at least intentionally) as a follow-up to our 20th anniversary.
Aurora – The first festival programming announcement lists four film restorations set to make their world premieres at TCMFF 2015. Among these is Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13, a film celebrating the 20th anniversary of its release next year. The inclusion of this film on the roster has caused some buzz among festival attendees. So, here goes –
Q – Is it safe to assume that at least one of the actors or Ron Howard himself will be in attendance at the Festival to discuss/introduce the film? Some believe this is one way to make such a screening a viable choice in a festival dedicated to classic film. Your thoughts?
A – We will try, but I can’t say it’s safe to make any assumptions about talent. It’s often difficult to confirm filmmakers until much closer to the festival – sometimes we just need to select the film and do our best to invite some of the people that were involved. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
Q – Many of us are also curious as to why a 20-year-old movie would need restoration. Can you comment on this?
A – I don’t know. The film was suggested to us by Universal, with whom we have an outstanding relationship. I think they wanted to do something special for its anniversary. But to be honest, I know very little about the process of film restoration or what would make a film a candidate to be restored.
Q – The 2015 Festival dates are earlier that they have been in recent years, March 26-29. Can you discuss the factors that affected scheduling the earlier dates?
A – This isn’t my area, either: Genevieve McGillicuddy is the festival director, and she does a lot of work to determine the specific dates. I do know that one of the challenges she faces is lining up all of the venues that we use: the theaters, hotels, etc. Making sure we can get everything at the same time isn’t easy and my guess is that had a lot to do with it.
Q – Without divulging specifics about whether they will be screened at this time, can you name movies you’d love to see screened at TCMFF 2015?
A – Any Woody Allen film (we’ve played a couple). Any Astaire/Rogers film (we’ve played 3 so far). “Roman Holiday,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Top Secret!,” “The Sting,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” more classic documentaries, “Cinema Paradiso,” “The Awful Truth,” “Laura,” “All the President’s Men.”
Q – As fans of classic movies and the stars that made them so special, we are aware that there are a relative few classic stars left with us. It’s tough to consider, but it’s reality. Given the fact that the stars play such an important part of the TCMFF experience, how do you think it will affect programming in the future? If at all?
A – I don’t think it will impact the programming. We always want stars to come and there will always be movies made recently enough that we will have plenty we can invite. But we want a mix of films from all eras of film history and that should stay the same. As we’ve done in the past, we might be able to entice younger stars who are fans of classic movies to come and introduce them. And there should be plenty of opportunities to invite stars and filmmakers from the movies we play that were made more recently.
Q – I read that Sophia Loren is the one actor Robert Osborne would most like to interview. Ms. Loren made a number of historical pictures. What are the chances for TCMFF 2015?? If you can’t answer with specifics, how about on a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being I should go get on line right now?
A – Don’t get in line. She was just in L.A. to be honored by the AFI and it might be difficult to entice her to make the long trip again so soon. But we’re trying, as we always do. We love her and really hope to include her someday, even if it’s not this year.
Q – My own personal wish list of films for the festival has changed almost daily since the dates were announced, but today the following would top my list. What do you think?
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955), THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939), YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), LIFEBOAT (1944), BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925)
A – I think it’s a great list. I can tell you that at least one of them is planned for this year’s festival, and it’s possible we will include more as the lineup comes together.
Q – Finally – your “ideal” evening of classic movie programming would include which movies? And have you aired that line-up on TCM?
A – That’s the hardest question you’ve asked and I don’t think I can answer. As soon as I come up with something I then think of something else. I’m afraid to commit to any one lineup.
I ended by thanking Mr. Tabesh for making TCM much more than a network, for making it a “welcome home” each time we tune in. I must also thank him for taking the time to answer these questions for me, particularly during a holiday week.
And…um…at least one of my TCMFF 2015 picks noted here will be featured at the festival!! JOY!!
Here’s to Turner Classic Movies!