How the classic TCM movie channel adapts to the streaming world
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz once walked the red carpet at an American Film Institute event in Hollywood and found himself next to director Steven Spielberg.
Mankiewicz looked down, trying to avoid eye contact with the fanboy. But Spielberg then said to the host, “Oh my God, I love all of your movies.”
It’s now a part of life for Mankiewicz, who joined TCM 17 years ago and has met stars and filmmakers with similar feelings ever since. “Most people want to say thank you,” he said.
These are the perks of being on a cable channel with one of television’s most dedicated audiences. The Atlanta-based TCM has long been the sanctuary of classic filmmaking on television, showing mostly ad-free pre-1980 films with a deep respect for the history of cinema dating back to the silent movie era.
TCM has managed to stick to its mission by transferring the ownership of its parent company, WarnerMedia, which is slated to be split and merged next year with Discovery Inc. While current owner AT&T has made its influence felt in the units of WarnerMedia, TCM has remained largely intact. and its ad-free format was maintained, a relief for fans.
“TCM among filmmakers is considered holy land,” said director Paul Thomas Anderson. “Politically neutral, essential and irreproachable in its dedication to the history of cinema. There is nothing like it and it needs to be protected.
Anderson admits having TCM on a television in the kitchen of his house 24 hours a day. “I’m always afraid of missing something,” he says. “It’s a bottomless well of inspiration.”
But surviving as a traditional TV channel in today’s media landscape won’t be easy for TCM. Viewers who want classic movies of all genres can access them on demand through a variety of streaming services, or even find them on YouTube.
TCM is also facing the same pressure that is crushing all cable channels – every month thousands of American homes are abandoning their pay-TV services. For TCM, this resulted in a loss of subscribers. The channel was available in 68.2 million homes at the end of 2020, up from 73.3 million in 2019, according to Nielsen.
TCM’s ad-free status is one of the main reasons viewers approve of it. The downside is that it cannot increase advertising rates to compensate for the drop in revenue caused by the cord cut. Data from S&P Global Market Intelligence shows the network generated $ 286 million in subscriber revenue in 2020, up from $ 313.6 million the year before.
“I fear for the future of TCM,” said director Martin Scorsese. “The same goes for everyone I know who loves movies.”
Scorsese will keep TCM on one of the screens in his editing suite while he works.
“It gives me something to turn to, to bounce back to, to rest, to invigorate my thinking – just glancing at a picture or a combination of pictures at a certain point,” he said. . “It’s more like a presence in the room, a reminder of the history of cinema as a living and continuing entity.”
“The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola, another staunch fan, said he always finds titles on TCM after a lifetime of watching movies.
“I recently saw a movie that I never heard of with John Garfield – ‘He ran all the way,'” Coppola said. “And I realized that I never appreciated how great an actor he was until I saw his work in that last movie. It wouldn’t have come to my attention without TCM.
TCM launched on April 14, 1994, with a screening of “Gone with the Wind” and a ceremony in Times Square in New York City. It became the preeminent brand of classic vintage films over the next 27 years.
“We created a world that people wanted to enter all the time and we didn’t attack them with ads,” said Brad Siegel, a former Turner executive who ran TCM when it launched.
For some viewers, the channel serves as a curator through Hollywood’s rich past. For others, it’s a heartwarming escape from current reality.
Despite the challenges, TCM has an advantage over other entertainment channels. By depending on film libraries – many of the 16,000 titles it can rely on belong to its parent company – TCM is less vulnerable to rising programming costs. WarnerMedia does not disclose TCM financial data but, according to Siegel, the channel has made solid profits since launch.
TCM is also aimed at an older audience who are more likely to keep their cable subscription than younger viewers who have quickly adapted to streaming platforms. The channel also connects with fans through live events, cruises, books, an annual film festival and even a wine club.
Pola Changnon, chief executive of TCM, said internal research shows the channel is preventing some subscribers from cutting the cord.
“We hear a lot of people say, ‘Do I need all these other channels that I’m not watching?’ She said. “But at the end of the day, they really want and desire TCM, so they’re going to stick with cable as long as we’re there.”
TCM’s not-so-secret weapon is its group of influential film enthusiasts. Actors have volunteered their time to do commercials for the channel over the years. Directors such as Scorsese and Ava DuVernay have participated in special programs and events sponsored by TCM.
WarnerMedia’s parent AT&T got a taste of TCM’s intense follow-up after buying the media giant in 2018.
In 2016, TCM partnered with Criterion Collection – a home video company that distributes classic foreign and auteur films – to form FilmStruck, a subscription-based streaming service for moviegoers with classics ranging from “The Best years of our lives “to” Seven Samurai. The fledgling business was shut down after two years, along with a number of other smaller streaming services that did not fit AT & T’s strategy for WarnerMedia.
The shutdown sounded alarm bells across Hollywood that access to classic movies, especially arthouse quirks and foreign language titles, would diminish as media companies turn to streaming. as the main system of delivery to consumers.
Famous filmmakers and actors put their names on a letter asking WarnerMedia to reconsider its decision. The effort failed, although Criterion has since launched its own streaming service.
The only advantage of FilmStruck’s death is that it has publicly displayed the passion that big names in the film industry have for TCM.
“We recognize that it’s just a kind of underground army that we can bring to our defense when we need it,” Changnon said.
As TCM celebrates Hollywood’s past, the channel tries to connect with a younger generation of classic movie enthusiasts.
In 2019, the channel added Jacqueline Stewart, film professor at the University of Chicago, to its host lineup. Stewart, who is TCM’s first black host, demonstrated his worth when WarnerMedia’s new streaming service, HBO Max, engulfed controversy last year, removing “Gone with the Wind” from the site by response to writer John Ridley’s editorial in The Times which said the 1939 film glorified the prewar south.
When the film returned to HBO Max, it was accompanied by an authoritative introduction by Stewart, who acknowledged the film’s historical significance while citing its flaws and the discriminatory treatment of its black actors, including Oscar-winning actress Hattie. McDaniel.
TCM has never released a film modified for time or content constraints. Explanations of dated or inappropriate portrayals have always been cited in his host introductions. But the focus on social justice and gender equality, especially among young viewers, has brought these issues to the fore.
That’s why Stewart, Mankiewicz, and fellow animators Dave Karger, Alicia Malone, and Eddie Muller were part of TCM’s “Reframed” series in March, which addressed problematic race and gender issues in 18 long-standing titles. have been staples of the chain, including “The Jazz Singer”, “My Fair Lady”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Woman of the Year”.
“We think it’s important, as a member of a brand in 2021, to recognize what’s going on around us,” Changnon said, adding that young fans feel more comfortable watching with the historical context provided.
For Stewart, some of the “cropped” topics reflect conversations black viewers have had for years watching movies presented to them without any context.
“I was part of a household that had seen these movies in theaters and really loved them,” Stewart said. “At the same time, we could point out the problems that existed in those films when there were disparaging portrayals of people of color.”
Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming and content strategy at TCM, noted that reactions to “Reframed” were mixed among older fans.
“There are definitely some who don’t want to engage in this conversation and others are,” he said. “At the same time, Doris Day was our ‘star of the month’, and none of that appeared in those movies.”
Stewart, who is also artistic and programming director at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, said the response has been positive from members of the academy, especially those of color.
“They enjoy the channel and the way it recognizes issues like blackface in classic movies or casting white actors to play non-white characters, in more depth,” she said.
While TCM has no plans to offer a direct-to-consumer streaming product, Changnon said the brand is strengthening its presence on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max to reach younger consumers who bypass cable.
TCM has its own hub on HBO Max, offering its users a range of classic movies on demand and the channel’s original programming that airs during its Classic Film Festival in May. “The HBO Max subscriber got to see how TCM really came to life in this space,” Changnon said.
But fans like Scorsese are always happy to turn on TCM and take in whatever is shown knowing it was curated by a movie buff, not an algorithm.
“We’re definitely going to lose something if we don’t have a TCM to go to,” Scorsese said. “I guess that’s the equivalent of the disappearance of bookstores, where you can actually go in and browse, and maybe find something you didn’t even plan on looking for.”