Putting the “Con” back in Cinecon

by popegrutch

For a moment, I’d like to step out of the world of century-old history, and talk about modern exhibition of historical films. Last year, I attended the 51st annual Cinecon Film Festival in Hollywood and I saw some great films, but I also saw what looked to me like a film festival in trouble. I wrote some supportive things, but I wasn’t sure I’d go back again this year. I’m glad I did. This year the program may not have been quite as exciting, but the festival itself was more cohesive, better-attended, and better organized.

From the Hollywood Heritage Museum

From the Hollywood Heritage Museum

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to jolt people out of their complacency, and that may be what happened here. About three months before the festival, Bob Birchard, the long-time President of the Cinecon nonprofit, died. I think what happened at that point was that a lot of people who had been Letting George Do It (or Bob) suddenly realized that if they didn’t step up to the plate, the festival wasn’t going to happen. And they did. The Hollywood Heritage Museum offered funds and threw their oft-closed doors open for festival attendees. Cinecon got the schedule of films out early for the first time in years. They reached out for donations, discounts from local restaurants and businesses, and early registrations. They prepared a new logo and a really exciting set of between-films “bumpers.” In general, they improved their branding and went from being a stodgy, old-fashioned film festival, to something more like a Con, in the sense of Gen Con or Comic-Con (not in the slang sense of ripping people off). The result was much higher attendance and visibility, and a much less “in-club” feeling – a more inclusive event that felt more comfortable to be at.

hollywood_signI’ve already reviewed the two Century Films I was able to see at Cinecon, and I don’t want to turn this into a column reviewing movies that don’t fit the theme of this blog. I did get to see a number of exciting films, though, including “Battle of the Century” (1927) and “King of Jazz” (1930), both of which I’ve been reading about as they made the festival circuit over the last year. The “King of Jazz” restoration was partly inspired by Bob Birchard’s request some years earlier, and “Battle of the Century” was restored thanks to past-president Jon Mirsalis. Speaking of, both he and Frederick Hodges were on hand to provide music for the silent films, as well as Scott Lasky, who was new to me but also acquitted himself well. Jon Mirsalis actually brought a high-tech synthesizer for his accompaniment, which allowed him to simulate many different instruments for those films, while Hodges and Lasky went with the traditional solo piano. Other standout films for me included Paul Leni’s “The Last Warning,” “Who Done It?” with Abbott and Costello, and the hilariously bad “Jungle Mystery” serial that ran interspersed through the first four days of movies.

I hope I’ll see some of you at Cinecon 53!