How does TCM plan to survive WarnerMedia Discovery?
TCM projects to survive big changes at WarnerMedia Discovery. But the classic film faces a much bigger crisis in the streaming era.
Last week, the National Society of Film Critics awarded “TÁR” as the best film of the year, but also awarded the prize calling for corporate investments. As one of the winners of this year’s ‘Film Heritage Awards’, Turner Classic Movies was recognized for ‘a rich offering spanning the depth and breadth of cinema history, a service that audiences all too easily take for granted and deserves the utmost attention. and the attention of corporate owners.”
As a member of the NSFC, I was happy to vote for this award. Few curatorial units preserve cinema history while presenting it to a mass audience; of these, only TCM has the backing of a major media company. That’s why I fear we may lose it—and why broader efforts to preserve film history are at risk.
The economy, shaky box office and a more gloomy view of streaming have forced all media companies to review their costs and strategies. I don’t know TCM’s numbers, but it’s certainly not designed to be a profit center like HBO Max or Warner Bros. Pictures. Instead, TCM has survived for almost 30 years as a modest outlet that features everything from highlights of Hollywood’s golden age to international arthouse sensations, ensuring that generations of cinephiles maintain a connection to the medium’s past.
During the company’s previous corporate era, AT&T executive John Stankey decided that TCM’s future lay in the streaming presence of HBO Max. Under the current WarnerBros. According to Discovery CEO David Zaslav, HBO Max and Discovery+ will become a single streaming service this spring — and TCM somehow fits into it. But even the people working there have nothing to do.
“It’s a bigger corporate schedule than a spring thing, but that’s all any of us knows,” TCM CEO Pola Changnon said this week. “The big question is what is the future of any network brand? What we want to do with the platforms we have at the company is to leverage our curation in any format.”
Like almost every other part of WBD, TCM faced layoffs last year. A WBD representative declined to provide specifics, but said the cuts are commensurate with those within the company. During our conversation, Changnon projected confidence in TCM’s support. Taking a lunch break for the new organizational leadership Zaslav organized this week, he said the executive expressed enthusiasm for TCM early in the merger.
“When he first met with me, right after the store closed in April, he said he had TCM on all the time in his office,” she said. “I meant well, of course, but his assistant said, ‘No, really. Now I know it’s true because everyone’s talking about it.”
He’s used to having to justify TCM, which initially grew out of Ted Turner’s purchase of MGM’s library. Now TCM programming is largely derived from licensed material from other sources. “TCM is a unique brand within the portfolio,” said Changnon. “Sometimes it can be tricky. We can get lost in the shuffle. Everyone else is talking about ad sales and new programming. We feel lucky that in this new world at the top, someone cares about us.”
Of course, empathy will only take you so far. Previous management killed the TCM-Criterio joint venture, FilmStruck. In the new system, HBO Max’s TCM center is managed by HBO Max staff, not TCM. Internal support comes from the continued impression of a “reputation tool” that also serves as a platform for Warner Bros. extensive classic movie library.
In April, the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood hosts the 13th annual TCM Classic Film Festival—a popular event that usually sells out. This year, the studio also celebrates its centenary, which in a sense turns the event into a marketing spend. “Capital-C is excited, eager, and eager to build this experience,” Changnon said.
He added that Zaslav was so moved by TCM’s “In Memoriam,” a tribute to classic movie characters who died in the past year, that he insisted it air on all of their other networks. What if TCM isn’t a network because networks don’t exist?
We say goodbye to the artists we lost this year. While they are no longer with us, their contributions to film and storytelling will continue to make us dream, take us to new places, and inspire generations to come. #TCMRemembrance
The night we met @LordHuron pic.twitter.com/W2RMOKv38O
— TCM (@tcm) December 21, 2022
“Obviously, the value of TCM is in its care,” Changnon said. “It’s a discovery engine.”
For many, TCM’s value was tied to its presence as a linear TV channel: turn it on, discover a Roy Rogers Western or an obscure Swedish silent film, repeat. This organic relationship has built up an entire knowledge base of film history. Stories of TCM superfans abound, including one oft-cited rumor that Martin Scorsese keeps the network in the back of his editing room, sometimes on silent, so the movies are always with him. But it’s an experience that doesn’t fit the new paradigm of the streaming universe.
Sources say that with FilmStruck dead and TCM’s future looking in doubt, Paul Thomas Anderson went so far as to ask CAA agent Bryan Lourd if there was a way to buy the brand and spin it off as an independent entity. For now, TCM will have to stay and prove its worth, but it’s a keen awareness of its circumstances – hey, the boss likes it! – emphasizes how few services provide a portal to film history.
At a symposium at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Guillermo del Toro admitted that he pirates older movies at home because so many were hard to track down. Gaspar Noé, sitting next to him, agreed. “Nowadays it’s platforms or piracy,” he said. Most people don’t bother to watch it—and as a result, the concept of a “classic movie” fades out of their lives.
Access remains a systemic problem. Outside of New York, few American cities have easy access to world-class repertory programs outside of the home. Criterion and TCM are critical sources for everyone else, but they can’t show the whole thing; studios are more protective of their own libraries. Disney is often cited as the worst offender, amassing more than 100 years of cinema despite publishing little on Disney+ (and almost nothing on Hulu). There are other warning signs. Last summer, Paramount pulled the plug on the 70mm print of “Top Gun” when the studio decided it needed to focus all of its attention on the sequel. The premise is clear: new films make money.
There is a profound error in the assumption that all libraries are better off buried. The Paramount+ library offers plenty of riches, from “Night of the Living Dead” to “Once Upon a Time in the West,” but lacks a TCM-caliber curatorial identity. Libraries without curators are like deserts without roads: you can find your way, but most people don’t know where to start, and it’s too scary to start.
Of course, beyond the realm of the big streamers, there is no shortage of advocacy for restoration. On the non-profit side, Scorsese’s World Cinema Project continues to make heroic efforts to preserve the work of international filmmakers, many of whom would not have been known at all without help. MOMA’s “Save and Protect” series (currently running through early February) annually demonstrates that efforts to preserve and compile aspects of film history contribute to the ongoing understanding of many underappreciated chapters.
These efforts do not affect the calculations of the competitive streaming world. Classic movie libraries can enrich the big streamer’s ambitions, but few knew how to take advantage of what they had. In one of the most discouraging cases, Criterion’s library lived on Hulu for five solid years — but that relationship soured as the streamer reportedly grew frustrated with what it said was anemic ratings.
The truth is, even the biggest libraries can’t sit on a streaming platform and wait for audiences to devour them. These should be presented in parallel with the hits of the moment and benefit from the strategy of arousing the curiosity of the audience. And this requires a business model that takes into account the art of care. Many people are qualified for this role: Last year, I wrote about the troubled market for film festival programmers, especially in the United States, where few can hold a full-time position. Here they hold the key to a recurring challenge in the media world. Don’t expect subscribers to do the dirty work themselves.
As usual, I ask readers to share their feedback and give their own take on the challenges: [email protected]
If you’re attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I hope to see you in the snow next week.
Last week’s column about the possibilities of making cult films elicited interesting responses on Facebook. I’ll share a few below.
You just can’t make a cult classic out of the gate. I’ve been in a few films that have gained decent tribal cult followings, but the landscape of true cult titles is long gone. Even the ones that should garner a significant cult following simply don’t, because the mechanics of building the legacy of “Lebowski” are dust in the wind. Also, most investors I know don’t want a movie that can pay off 20 years after release. … The real test for new cult films is to find a film that was DOA upon arrival but built a fan base, and then see if it draws a crowd when it’s shown in a theater (not in an airport where fans can find anything marketed as a “must-have new cult classic” in rap cinema). … That’s why FilmRise paid more than anyone else for “Greasy Strangler,” because they believed in the film’s long and cult shelf life. But he doesn’t see that far ahead in most acquisitions because of how fluid the landscape is right now. Everything should work out of the gate. Buyers today underestimate the risk.
— Ant Timpson, producer (“The Greasy Strangler”) and filmmaker
I used the term cult in the catalog description of a premiere title at TIFF, and the producer (a friend of mine) asked me to cut it because he felt it was a commercial failure and a sales title. He worried that this would scare off distributors.
—Colin Geddes, former TIFF Midnight Madness programmer
A24 is (at worst) cult, meaning it’s weird enough to stand out, but normal enough not to be maudlin.
—Richard Brody, film critic, The New Yorker
See previous columns here.
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