Graphic: Trent Johnson
Graphic: Trent Johnson

Old Films At A Theater Near You

Movies arrive and depart. They receive ceremonial hype via trailers and press tours where the actors appear on “best dressed lists” and give quippy quotes about the movie before giving annoyed quotes about the movie, because the questions on these types of things seldom vary. After this gratuitous promotion, the film hits the big screen and, depending on several factors, people watch it while tossing popcorn in their mouths. Rinse and repeat, week by week, month in and month out.

Despite this repetition, not all movies in theaters these days are new. On the contrary, some are quite old, as theaters around the country are playing up the nostalgia factor to give the big screen some added allure. Society’s fascination with the culture from yesteryear is at a fever pitch, as past decades dictate cultural behavior almost as much as the seasons themselves. A few years ago, the 80s were hot, and now it’s the 90s. Like fashion, music and other forms of media, theaters use the past to grip audiences’ interest in all things retro, and while our attention spans are undeniably stunted, interest in “old” movies definitely exists.

Not every theater is tasked with dusting off old reels in search of a piece of history that could drum up interest (it’s all digital these days, but you know what I’m saying). Some don’t even try, but in the DMV, there are a plethora of options including both Landmark Theatres (E Street and West End), AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, Angelika Film Center Mosaic, Suns Cinema and others who throw out retro viewings. While there are staples that continually rack up cash, a plethora of selections are based off restorations available and expert hunches for specific areas.

“I’ve had a booking calendar for E Street since the theater opened, and I’ve tried to notice what gets a good response,” says Ruth Hayler, the film buyer for Landmark’s E Street and West End locations.

“I rely a lot on local feedback from the theater and we just monitor for good responses. For DC, anything with a political slant, like All the President’s Men, we figure will be strong in the area.”

Both theaters have programs built around repertory viewing, such as E Street’s Cine Insomnia and West End’s Capital Classics. For the AFI up in Silver Spring, cinema history is a colossal component of the theater’s programming as a whole as the mission of the institute is to preserve and honor films and film-going heritage.

“Within our programs, we cover a vast array of eras, topics, genres and styles,” says Todd Hitchcock, AFI Silver Theatre’s director of programming. “Our programs exist for audiences to enjoy and appreciate. At the forefront of our planning are the very basic questions: How will this work with audiences, who might these audiences be and how can we engage them effectively?”

Luckily, restorations and anniversaries make easy pitches because these opportunities breathe life into movies that have already had their time on marquees as “new releases.” Despite this, there is guess work involved with picking old movies, because theaters don’t know until they try.

“As we get into each decade, it’s a new audience and new people coming to the shows,” says Mark Valen, a national film buyer for Landmark. “For people in their twenties, well, there are certain old classics from the 70s that might still reach that audience, but the 80s and 90s are really popular now. There’s no real secret formula, other than, ‘If they like this, they might like this.’ It’s trial and error.”

“[The interest] has been around since the 70s,” Valen says. “That’s what Landmark Theatres was founded on. Back then, there weren’t VHS tapes or DVDs, and the only way they could see their favorite films was to go to these theaters.”

In today’s world though, it’s quite literally the opposite; not only do people own their own movies, but they also own their favorite television shows, YouTube videos, books, magazines and any other form of media, often in the palm of their hands.

To get around this, theaters simply adapt. This includes interactive movies welcoming audience participation like Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room, or costume parties accompanying a special anniversary. Sometimes it’s not even the movie itself that draws the people in; rather, it’s a sense of familiarity or even the recreation of a memory.

“Nostalgia is indeed probably a big factor – not just nostalgia for specific movies, however, but also for the movie-going experience itself,” Hitchcock says. “There’s something magical about watching a hard-to-see silent film with live accompaniment in a beautiful, restored 1938 theater with a group of fellow film lovers while enjoying a glass of wine. It’s an experience that would be impossible to stream online or recreate at home.”

Valen and Hayler both mention that most old movies already carry a certain reputation or gravitas. There’s no guessing or gauging interest on some of these because the proof is there. With additional sensory experiences thrown in, older movies contain factors newcomers lack.

“Part of the attraction of the revivals or older movies is the familiarity,” Valen says. “People are guaranteed to have a good time. Seeing these with audiences brings so much emotion to it, and that’s something we want to keep nurturing in young audiences to keep them interested in this revival of cinema.”

Nostalgia is a powerful drug, whether it’s watching Kurt Russell fight aliens, seeing The Big Lebowski for the seven hundredth time or, perhaps, making fun of the audacity of a movie like Ghost. People like old things, whether it’s their grandfather’s faded clothes, or their mother’s scuffed jewelry. The mementos of the past provide windows into different times, and to a host of young moviegoers, these warm and fuzzy vignettes are valuable, necessary and here to stay.

“It’s kind of like time tripping,” Hayler says. “You can get immersed in the movie and experience what was then. It’s about widening your experience and watching something from a different day. It broadens your outlook.”

For more on AFI & Landmark’s repertory films, visit their websites.

AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center: 8633 Colesville Rd. Silver Spring, MD; www.afi.com/silver/

Landmark Theatre E Street Cinema: 555 11th St. NW, DC; www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c/e-street-cinema

Landmark Theatre West End Cinema: 2301 M St. NW, DC; www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c/west-end-cinema

Check out On Tap’s retro viewing picks for March below:

The Big Lebowski on March 9 at AFI Silver Theatre
Rocky Horror Picture Show on March 9-10 at Landmark E Street Cinema
Clueless on March 10 at Suns Cinema
A Streetcar Named Desire on March 14 at Landmark West End Cinema
Predator on March 19 at Angelika Film Center Mosaic
Wargames on March 28 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – One Loudoun