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Friday, September 24, 2010

Vintage prints getting scarce but Durham's Escapism Film Festival continues this weekend

Posted by on Fri, Sep 24, 2010 at 6:40 PM

The 1985 flop The Legend of Billie Jean has attracted a cult following.
  • The 1985 flop The Legend of Billie Jean has attracted a cult following.
If you grew up in the 1980s, and you’d like to see some of your favorite childhood films in their original 35 mm formats, this weekend might be your last chance.

The Escapism Film Festival, which begins tonight at the Carolina Theatre, features a wide variety of genre films in 35mm prints. Of the 12 films at the festival, five of them are being screened from the last or next-to-last known prints in North America.

“Every year, more and more 35-mm prints are lost,” says the Carolina Theatre’s General Manager Jim Carl, who programmed the festival. “In a lot of cases, the film stock has shrunken and become brittle to the point of being unwatchable. It’s possible that in a few years, many of the films at Escapism this year might join that list as well.”

There’s several well-known films in this year’s lineup, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robocop and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, all of which had plenty of prints available. But other films, Carl says, weren’t as easy to come by.

Only one print was left of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, and there were only few more of Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, which also screens at the festival. There was only one print of Legend, Ridley Scott’s bizarre 1985 fantasy with Tom Cruise (and Tim Curry in his famous performance as the Lord of Darkness).

One print remained of the theatrical version of the pilot to the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the 1984 SF movie The Last Starfighter; there were only a few more prints of 1986’s Enemy Mine with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. Perhaps most shocking is that there were only two or three prints available for The Muppet Movie.

The lineup is all the more impressive considering what films Carl couldn’t get. There were no prints of Superman II left, and none of Dragonslayer or Time after Time. The Rocketeer, which only came out in 1991, is not available on 35mm print. Escape to Witch Mountain was a big hit at the festival last year, but its sequel, Return From Witch Mountain, is gone along with most Disney films from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Carl’s favorite, The Devil and Max Devlin.

It could be argued that some of these films don't constitute high art and therefore aren't worth making a fuss over. In fact, a number of them didn’t do well at the box office or with critics when they were first released. But they have a way of lingering in people’s memory: I recall fondly watching Enemy Mine with my dad when it aired on TV one rainy weekend afternoon.

That nostalgia has carried over into Escapism’s lineup; Carl says one of the biggest hits last year was 1985’s Return to Oz, a critically excoriated sequel to the classic musical that induced nightmares in almost every child who saw it. And yet, in a lineup that included hit films from the same year, The Goonies and Back to the Future, it was the runaway bestseller. “It could have easily supported two or three more screenings,” Carl says.

This year, of all the big films in the lineup, what has gotten the most excitement in advance? Carl says it’s The Legend of Billie Jean, a 1985 flop with Supergirl’s Helen Slater as a teen outlaw most notable for constant airings on basic cable in the 1990s and the Pat Benatar song “Invincible.” It’s never even been released on DVD in the US, and yet fans are psyched to see it on the big screen. “When people read the program, their eyes went straight to that title,” says Carl. “I’ve gotten more feedback about that one than any other film at the festival.”

The all-nostalgia-all-the-time format helped save Escapism, which in previous years had attracted smaller audiences with its combination of old films and newer releases such as Mirrormask and the original version of Let the Right One In. Unfortunately, running cult movies before they had accumulated a cult following didn’t translate into box office.

Changing the format to older, family-friendly films in 2009 resulted in a 64.4 percent increase in ticket sales from the previous year, according to Carl. It also allowed him to cut back on the time it took to find and acquire screening rights for films, which in turn allowed him to promote the festival further in advance.

For this year, he took things a step further by moving the festival up to September from October, keeping it from bumping against other local art events, and added a slightly more risqué element with such R-rated numbers as Escape from New York and Robocop.

“I got very positive responses, but there are things I want to course-correct this year, based on what I heard from many, many people,” Carl says. “A lot of them said they loved having a family-friendly festival, but by 9 p.m., they’re not going to be bringing their kids any more. They didn’t mind two or three R-rated films in the late-night slots when the kids weren’t up.”

Ironically, the least-attended films last year were the classics Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. “Someone said they’re brilliant, but very serious films for the times we’re living in, and for a festival called ‘Escapism,’ audiences might not want something dark and brooding,” Carl says.

This year, he’s balancing out the well-known films with lesser-known titles, ones that might be better-known from VHS screenings or cable viewings than on the big screen. But he’s hoping that the young and nostalgic will jump at the chance to see these films in a theater for what might be the last time. “I have a suspicion that the audience is going to be there for them again,” he says.

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