TCM Classic Film Festival’s Hosts and Producers Offer Their Personal Picks for 2024 Fest, From ‘Pulp Fiction’ to 100-Year-Old ‘Sherlock Jr.’

Returning for its 15th annual edition this weekend, the TCM Classic Film Festival will turn Hollywood Blvd. into the center of the movie universe again for four days, for that very obsessive and loving subset of film fans that has the network’s vintage fare as part of their weekly and daily lives. And just what time span “classics” falls into is exemplified by the big opening and closing night films.

The gala opening night picture is 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” which festival director Genevieve McGillicuddy says “is one of the most contemporary films that we are showing this year, along with ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Little Women,’ the 1994 version. ‘Seven,’ I think, is the most recent film we’re screening; that’s 1995. Just like with the network, we don’t have any official cutoff in terms of the years of films that we’re showing. But, interestingly — it’s the opposite of a cutoff, but this year on the last night we’re actually marking our first 100th anniversary screening of a film, which will be Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock Jr.,’” one of the all-time great silent comedies, with live musical accompaniment.

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“The balance is really important,” says TCM’s SVP of programming and content strategy, Charles Tabesh, “because people are gonna have their own agendas. We really want to make sure that you’ve got a choice of different genres and different eras; a movie that you’ve maybe seen a million times before, but you want to see it on a big screen; and a really obscure movie that you’ve never heard of or almost definitely haven’t seen. Sometimes you’re in a more adventurous mood, and sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy something you already know. So getting that balance right is really important.

“We get people from literally all over the country that want to come for old movies, but there’s still a faction of them that likes to come for new movies as well. And by ‘new,’ I mean 30-year-old movies like ‘Pulp Fiction and ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ But without the talent, the newer movies don’t really work well. One hundred percent of the people coming the older movies, but less than 100% like the new movies, so you really have to have a draw for the new movies to get people in.” Not a problem this year, with nearly the entire original ensemble cast coming for “Pulp Fiction” and Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman appearing with “The Shawshank Redemption.”

“And anybody from the earlier eras that we can get is really exciting for us. We’ve lost a lot of people that we’ve had at the festival over the years — thinking back to the first one with Eli Wallach, Tony Curtis and Esther Williams, just great, great stars, but no longer around.” Notes host Dave Karger, “Two years ago I got to sit for an hour and interview Piper Laurie, and in the following year, she passed away. A similar thing happened with Cicely Tyson on the (TCM) cruise; I interviewed her and then a year later she was gone. The fact that we get to have these meaningful interactions and give these performers their flowers later in their lives, that to me is the most rewarding part of the job and particularly of the festival.”

One work-around for the older films that may not have talent available: celebrity introducers or commentators, from Nancy Meyers appearing with “North by Northwest” to Kin Shriner of “General Hospital,” a Bogart lover, with the original “Sabrina,” to Jeff Daniels introducing the film he says made him want to become an actor, “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Tributes are meant to give flowers to both the world-famous and the less-so. These are “an opportunity to show films and highlight work that’s been done that maybe people don’t know as well as better known things,” says McGillicuddy. “And Billy Dee Williams just has such an incredible filmography and is just a really terrific person to bring in for multiple events, so he’ll be hosting two films (“The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings,” “Lady Sings the Blues”) and doing a full one-hour conversation in Club TCM. The same with Lois Burwell, who is actually the first makeup artist that we’ve recognized at the film festival” and who will do a “club” chat as well as appear with “Lincoln” and “Almost Famous.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 16: (L-R) Vice President, Enterprises & Strategic Partnerships, Turner Classic Movies Festival Director, TCM Classic Film Festival Genevieve McGillicuddy, Shirley Jones, and SVP, Programming and Content Strategy for Turner Classic Movies Charles Tabesh attend a screening of “The Music Man” during the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 16, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Presley Ann/Getty Images for TCM)
(L-R) Vice President, Enterprises & Strategic Partnerships, Turner Classic Movies Festival Director, TCM Classic Film Festival Genevieve McGillicuddy, Shirley Jones, and SVP, Programming and Content Strategy for Turner Classic Movies Charles Tabesh attend a screening of “The Music Man” during the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 16, 2023.

A common theme among people both behind the scenes and on the street at this year’s fest: a sigh of relief that TCM seems to be staying on track after massive public and private panic over cutbacks that were being made by the parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, last year. The beloved McGillicuddy, quickly was brought back after briefly leaving TCM, a major sign that the channel and the annual festival would continue as devotees of what is arguably cable’s most tightly cherished network knew it.

I am so touched and grateful for the support that I received when everything was sort of swirling last summer, and I didn’t know if I would be back to work on this festival, and I don’t take that for granted,” she says. “It was really incredible, the messages and outreach that I got, and I appreciate the fact that I could come back and work in the same capacity on this event, which has really been a remarkable thing to be a part of. I am very fortunate to have incredible colleagues across the board at TCM and all the teams that we bring in to work at the event, so being able to do this 15th edition, um, really means something special to me in that way.”

Variety talked with Karger (who will be doing a signing for his new TCM-branded book, “50 Oscar Nights: Iconic Stars & Filmmakers on Their Career-Defining Wins”), McGillicuddy and Tabesh to discuss what they are recommending as likely highlights for the 2024 program, whether those are broad fan favorites or worthy obscurities.

(While passholders get priority admission, individual tickets are sold on a standby basis at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Egyptian and other venues. For a full schedule, go to the festival website here.)

Dave Karger: “Clearly, that we’re opening with ‘Pulp Fiction’ is very exciting. I mean, selfishly, 1994, that’s the year that I started as an intern at Entertainment Weekly, so the fact that’s now 30 years ago is crazy. It’s going to be very exciting to have almost the entire cast of that film there and some special guests, too, that I don’t really know what I’m allowed to say. (Adds McGillicuddy, “We are showing a 35 millimeter print of ‘Pulp Fiction,’ and we all know that Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of film, so obviously that made a lot of sense.”)

Genevieve McGillicuddy: “One film that I would point you toward because I don’t think it’s screened very often is ‘El Cid,’ and I’m told by our technical team that it’s a really gorgeous 35 millimeter print. So with an opportunity to see one of those big screen epics with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren for several hours at the TCL Chinese Theater, you probably can’t go wrong.”

Charlie Tabesh: “Picking a favorite is an easy one for me because it’s one of my favorite movies and I don’t think enough people have seen it, and I can’t wait to introduce it to family members. And that’s ‘A Little Romance,’ especially because Diane Lane’s gonna be there. It’s so charming and wonderful and when I was a kid, I fell in love with the movie, I fell in love with Diane Lane, I fell in love with France — everything.”

Karger: “For me as a music lover, one of the highlights every year of this festival is on the last night when we show a silent movie with live musical accompaniment. So to have the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra for ‘Sherlock Jr.,’ a great Buster Keaton silent film, is just going to be so exciting. So I’m going to be racing over to the Egyptian after I introduce ‘An American in Paris’ with my colleague Alicia Malone at the Chinese, so that I make sure I get to hear every note of the live music that we’re featuring.”

Tabesh: “I’m excited because with ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ we have Steven Spielberg in conversation with UCLA film professor Howard Suber, who we’ve worked with recently onn a series called ‘The Power of Film,’ and he’s just got such amazing and interesting insight into why we love film. So I’m really looking forward to that particular conversation.” Spielberg was at the festival two years ago with “E.T.” and took part in an opening-night panel about preservation last year, and “we would love for him to come every single year if possible.”

“Mel Brooks is another perfect example, with ‘Spaceballs.’ He’s been to the feetival with ‘The 12 Chairs’ and ‘The Producers’ — this will be his fifth time — and believe me, no one’s sick of Mel Brooks.”

McGillicuddy: “We havethe double feature, essentially, of ‘Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger,’ the new documentary, which is then followed by a screening of one of their films, ‘The Small Back Room,’ which is a really interesting movie, and that’s a U.S. premiere of that restoration. Those films are screening essentially back to back on Thursday, so you could make a very nice double feature out of that. … We do try to bring in people who have an interest in classic film, but they don’t directly work in the industry, and one of those would be Ken Jennings, the host of ‘Jeopardy,’ who is going to introduce a couple of films, including ‘The Small Back Room and ‘It Happened One Night.’

Tabesh: “When you’ve got a great film playing in 70 millimeter, you sort of want a filmmaker to sort of introduce it, and Alexander Payne is a huge TCM fan, so going to him just made a lot of sense for ‘The Searchers.’ You do try to match up the right star or filmmaker with the films that you think that they’re gonna love, and then all you can do is go and ask ’em, and sometimes you get a yes.”

Karger: “I’m gonna get to interview Bruce Belland, one of the members of the Four Preps who sang ‘Cinderella’ in the movie ‘Gidget.’ This was boy band who were discovered at a talent show at Hollywood High School back in the ‘50s, and there’s one remaining member of the Four Preps who’s still with, so he’ll be joining us poolside Friday night for ‘Gidget.’ I’m doing all three of the poolside ones, including ‘Clue’ with Lesley Ann Warren Thursday night and ‘Footloose’ with songwriter Dean Pitchford on Saturday.”

McGillicuddy: “I would say one that really pops out as just an interesting, one-of-a-kind thing would be ‘Back From the Ink,’ which is a world premiere program of restored early 1930s Max Fleischer shorts. This restoration has been supported by a combination of the Film Foundation and the Seth MacFarlane Foundation, and Seth is actually going to be there to talk about these short animated pieces that have been restored.”

Karger: “I would say three-quarters of the films that we show at this festival are fairly well-known, but there are some hidden gems in the lineup. And one of them that I’m gonna get to present is ‘The Prisoner of Shark Island,’ which is a lesser-known early John Ford film, with a cast that includes, among other people, John Carradine. So Keith Carradine is going to be with me to talk about that movie, and I’m just very curious to hear his thoughts on this dark, villainous performance by his dad.”

Tabesh: “Our sister channel, TNT, did some sort of survey on what’s the most classic ‘recent’ movie ever? And ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was number one, and it was the surprise. I mean, with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, this is going to be a huge, huge hit.” (Adds Karger: “Of course it has the Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch throughline, that motif throughout it. So even though it’s a modern classic, it has some callbacks to classic stars in there, which I think only adds to it being appropriate here.”)

Karger: “We’re showing the movie ‘That’s Entertainment’ from 1974, but what they’ve done for this screening is, they’ve reassembled the movie, because the actual print of the movie from the ‘70s is not in the best shape. So what they’ve done is they’ve taken all the clips and basically reassembled the movie, and now it’s going to look spectacular on the big screen.”

McGillicuddy: “We’ve got the Robert Osborne Award on Saturday going to Jeanine Basinger with a screening of ‘Westward the Women,’ which is a really fantastic Western. I say that as a person who’s not a huge fan of the genre, but it’s a really interesting take on it…

“We’ve remained pretty consistent in terms of thinking about showcasing not just world-premiere restorations but showcasing opportunities for the audience to experience films the way that they were initially seen, not only in the context of watching it in the theater with an audience, but also using technologies from the period. An interesting example of that this year would be ‘That’s Vitaphone!: The Return of Sound-on-Disc,’ where we’re actually going present 35 millimeter vaudeville shorts from the ‘20s that were shot with Vitaphone sound, and we’ll be playing the sound off the actual Vitaphone records.”

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