At that time I asked Charlie Tabesh to talk about TCM's commitment to the silent film genre and he replied: "As far as the silent film programming and why we do it and why it's important to us, there are three things I can think of off the top of my head that really explain it: One, we are not ad-supported. As a programmer, that's great because it gives us all sorts of flexibility and it allows us to not do things that advertisers would want to try to reach a mass audience, or whatever. Strategically, then, doing something niche like silent film, gives us really passionate advocates for the channel because we're the only place you can get it. There are a lot of people all over the country where the only way you're going to see a silent film is on Turner Classic Movies and that's really key because then you have those people going to their cable affiliates saying, 'I really want TCM. Give me TCM.' From a business perspective, that really helps us. It helps us and we're not hurt by the fact that it's very niche because we don't have to worry about advertisers. That's really good.
"The second thing on that is that our general programming strategy and philosophy is we're the history of movies. We're the history of the film and we're the place to go to learn about it. Of course, that means sometimes that includes newer films and people might complain when we play a newer film, but that also includes silent films. You can't be the history of movies and not include silent movies. [Third,] to narrow that further, we're also very much about context. We don't just put movies up on there; everything is themed and there is an idea or a reason behind it. So not only are we about film history, but in the way we look at film history by looking at actors, or directors, or various themes. No matter what theme you do—if you're doing romantic comedies—silent film is a part of that. They're actors and actresses that were both in silent films and sound films and—if we're going to do a tribute to Garbo—we're going to show both her silent and sound films. Silent films are a piece of film history and that's what TCM is all about."
When it was announced in January that TCM had signed on to be the media sponsor for SFSFF's upcoming international premiere of Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927), fully-restored by Kevin Brownlow with the original score by Carl Davis, I was delighted and contacted Charlie Tabesh to congratulate TCM. My thanks to Heather Sautter for facilitating our recent conversation.
* * *
Michael Guillén: Charlie, thanks for taking a few minutes this morning to talk to me about the international premiere of Abel Gance's Napoléon. You are no stranger to interacting with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I first met you and Robert Osborne back in July of 2007 when you were brought out to San Francisco to be honored by SFSFF for Turner Classic Movies (TCM) silent film programming on Sunday nights.
Charlie Tabesh: That was great. It was really a fantastic experience.
Guillén: In January of this year SFSFF announced that TCM had signed on to be the official media sponsor for the Napoléon premiere. Can you talk to how that came about?
Tabesh: We are friendly and have a good relationship with the various people that are putting it on, both people from SFSFF and Patrick Stanbury and Kevin Brownlow, all of who are working on the project. They approached us about being partners and for TCM this Napoléon premiere is such an important event for film lovers and for film history that we really wanted to be affiliated and associated with it. We figured out a way to work with them and I'm really glad.
Guillén: What does TCM's involvement as an official media sponsor actually entail?
Tabesh: Well, that's not really my area. That gets into the marketing department and how they handle the sponsorship. I know we've done some programming on air in support of it. There was some Napoléon-themed programming in January around it to help talk about it and there will be Abel Gance films coming up in March to lead people into it.
Guillén: Will TCM in any way be filming the event? Or doing any interstitial footage of the event?
Tabesh: No, we won't be filming, partly because the legal rights—as you know—are what have kept this film out of circulation for so long. Filming around the event would be problematic and so we aren't planning on doing that.
Guillén: We've spoken before about TCM's silent film programming and discussed TCM's Young Composers initiative. Is that initiative still in effect?
Tabesh: No. We don't do that particular program any longer. It was a great experience and a great program for us but, to be honest, it was very expensive. But TCM is still funding the scoring of silent films.
Guillén: I'm aware that the third edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is coming up soon. Do you screen silent films there?
Tabesh: We've programmed silent films the last two years and we will continue to do so this year. Every year we do silent films. Some are big name well-known films and others are more obscure; but, we do have a silent film program.
Guillén: One of the things we discussed when you were in San Francisco was after Robert Osborne commented that the appreciation of silent cinema appears to be a bit stronger on the West Coast due to an advantageous time zone. Your Sunday night programming hits us at prime time, whereas it's airing at midnight on the East Coast. Has that issue ever been addressed?
Tabesh: You're exactly right and that's still true. It's a challenge. Anything we do is a bit of a challenge because we have one feed. It's true that the silent films are smackdab in prime time for the West Coast. The one thing that has maybe changed since we last talked is the prevalence of DVRs so that our audience on the East Coast can now tape the silent films if midnight is too late for them. Again, that applies to all things that we do. We have an 8:00 franchise on Saturday nights that is perfect for the East Coast but it's maybe a little bit early for the West Coast. TCM has to try to balance that and make each coast as happy as we can.
Guillén: In recent years I've been intrigued to witness this resurgence of interest in silent cinema, of which TCM has clearly played a part. Do you have any thoughts on why there has been this rekindled interest in silent cinema?
Tabesh: I hope that's true that TCM has had something to do with that. The only thing I can think of is consistency. We've stayed with silent cinema and it's always been part of our mission so maybe just over time people have had the opportunity to catch some silent programming on air and discovered they're really good films. Initially, when you're not used to it, when it's not something you're familiar with, you might put up a little bit of a block and say, "I don't want to sit there and watch a silent movie. What do you mean no dialogue?" But once you give it a try, you're hooked, depending on the film and what your own tastes are. It's great that a movie like The Artist (2011) has helped to revive an interest in silent film.
Guillén: Can you speak to the amount and/or the quality of silent films TCM has in their library?
Tabesh: Within the Turner library itself we have the MGM and the Warner Brothers silents. Not all of them are in great shape so we've gone through a process of determining which materials are good and what we can save, preserve and score from that list. We also work with various studios whose films we license and we work with a lot of independent companies like Milestone Films, Kino and Jeff Mosino from Flicker Alley who has helped fund a lot of great restoration work. A lot of what we do is directly from the library that Ted Turner bought a few years ago, and a lot of what we do is working with these other companies that are as passionate about silent film who are putting them out on DVD. TCM is their television partner in a lot of cases. It just depends on the project. Sometimes Jeff will approach us and he's so passionate about a particular project and is persuasive enough that TCM goes, "Sold. Let's do it." A good example would be J'Accuse! (1919), the Abel Gance film that TCM will be screening [on Sunday, March 18, 9:00PM PT]. TCM funded that restoration some years ago. We can't do all of the restoration of silent films, but we can do quite a bit.
Guillén: I recall when the newly-restored print of J'Accuse! was screened at SFSFF in 2009. I wasn't aware that TCM was involved in that restoration; but, it's great to hear. I was actually going to ask if TCM has screened any Abel Gance films on the network?
Tabesh: We've screened J'Accuse! and La Roue (1923) and a version of Napoléon, but not the version that will be screening in the Bay Area.
Guillén: Will there be any chance of Brownlow's current restoration of Napoléon ever being screened on TCM?
Tabesh: It's so complicated. I hope we can someday; but, for right now, it's a long shot that it would be done anytime soon.
Guillén: All the more reason to catch the Paramount screening! Another wonderful feature of TCM's programming is your invitation to guest hosts to educate audiences about film. Will you have Brownlow or Carl Davis on TCM to speak about silent cinema?
Tabesh: It's funny you ask that. I was just thinking yesterday—not specifically about that idea—but, thinking about doing something with film historians and having them come on TCM. I don't know. Both Brownlow and Davis are in London, you know. We had Kevin Brownlow out last year at the TCM Classic Film Festival and I was really hoping that Carl Davis—when he was out in San Francisco—would stick around and come to our festival too; but, unfortunately, he's not going to be able to do that. I'm hoping we can invite him out next year or some time down the line. If we can get them here and set up a time for them to co-host movies on TCM, I would love to make that work, with them or other historians.
Guillén: Charlies, thanks again for taking the time today. I want to congratulate TCM on its continuing support of silent cinema. It was fantastic to hear that you signed on to be the media sponsor for the Napoléon screening and—if I don't see you at The Paramount—I will certainly see you in Hollywood at the Classic Film Festival.
Tabesh: Oh good! I'm really glad.