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The importance of classic films on the big screen

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It’s perhaps not what first comes to mind when friends bring up a cinema trip, but screenings of classic films on the big screen are increasing in appeal, according to industry professionals. Attending a classics screening day at Curzon Cinema, hosted by Park Circus to celebrate their 15th anniversary, the scheduling included a panel discussion making the case for classics viewings in cinemas.

Some sung the praises of old cinema, particularly in relation to today’s content. “Everyone’s favourite films are old films,” one said, most likely speaking for a very specific generation. She also claimed that old films were more honest; they concentrated on the craft, did not rely on special effects, forced the audience to look at the acting, were shorter and more to the point – contrary to modern films, she seemed to imply.

It seems her point is that cinema today just isn’t of as high quality as it used to be, that there are more ‘bad films’ today than fifty years ago. And yes, that’s true, but the ratio hasn’t changed. There are more bad films today because there’s simply more films being released. Proportionally, there were just as many bad films ‘back in the day’ as there are now.

Others were more accepting of cinema in its modern form, emphasising instead the need to show classic films as a way of contextualising new films. It’s definitely the case that film appreciating can grow from understanding its genre context, and marketing older films in a modern light can bring back forgotten gems and create new audiences.

Screening classic films in cinemas can attract new audiences, particularly young people who are interested in the idea of the cinema experience, to watch films on the big screen, with great sound and others around them. To them, the idea of seeing something is just as important as the experience of seeing it.

It’s important to make old films more of an event in order to attract these audiences’ attention, since people are now overwhelmed by choice, but nonetheless there’s clearly a desire amongst the younger generations to engage with classic cinema as a vehicle for cultural heritage and enrichment.

Another big part of attracting audiences to viewing classic films is the redefinition of the very term, ‘classic’. Usually a well-established canon, different platforms are choosing to interpret it in different ways. Part of the role of programmers is to redefine the classics, such as challenging the idea of canons by white, male directors, finding instead other voices to tell and showcase their stories. Classic cinema gives programmers the opportunity to drag out works from the vaults that used to be marginalised in their time, and remind people of their existence today.

Much of the work around screening classics comes from its curative element. Curation in cinema is as important as in any other art form, in cultivating new audiences and thus preserving cinema as it was. There’s a particularly intense need today to remind people of the magic of the big screen experience, to protect cinemas from corporate providers like Netflix and Amazon, which challenge film theatres by their better accessibility, convenience, and lower costs.

Not only is the screening of classic films important to the preservation of cinemas as an establishment, but cinemas are important to the preservation of classic films. Platforms through which audiences used to be exposed to older films, like HMV, Blockbusters, and even terrestrial TV channels, have either gone bankrupt or no longer have significant reach. Existing streaming services do not have the same careful curation of classic films, often don’t tend to hold them, and can have such overwhelming selections that it is difficult to know where to look.

Repertory cinemas may not be financially lucrative, but they are essential to preserving classic films, and to enjoying them the way they were intended.  

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