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Festival With a Cause

Warner Bros. celebrates its 75th anniversary by screening 33 of its most memorable hits.


In honor of its 75th anniversary, Warner Bros. will be rounding up 33 of the usual suspects for its national Festival of Classics film retrospective, which begins its one-week L.A. engagement on Friday at Mann's Chinese Theater.

Resembling a greatest hits package ("From the Jazz Singer to JFK and Beyond"), each day will focus on a different decade, with the weekend devoted to the '70s through the '90s. And to bolster the weekend lineup, directors William Friedkin and Oliver Stone will be on hand to introduce "The Exorcist" (Friday night) and "JFK" (Sunday night).

At first glance, everything seems to be covered--all in brand-new prints--representing the studio at its most successful: from "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) to "All the President's Men" (1976), from "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) to "Bullitt" (1968), from "Casablanca" (1942) to "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), from "Dial M for Murder" (1954) to "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989), from "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) to "Mildred Pierce" (1945), from "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) to "Risky Business" (1983), from "The Searchers" (1956) to "Superman" (1978).

Yet you can't help noticing how underrepresented the '30s and '40s are on this schedule, a triumph of the conglomerate over the classical. It's a lot like the popular book chains: fairly wide but not very deep.

In fact, other than the token presence of "The Public Enemy" (1931) and "42nd Street" (1933), you'd hardly know that Warners forged its identity with gangster films and backstage musicals. Considering the studio only recently reacquired its pre-1948 library from Turner, you'd think it would be eager to dig a little deeper.

"We were going for the best films from each era; this wasn't about doing the older classics," distribution president Barry Reardon explains. "I handpicked the theaters, and really only planned on playing four films a day, but when I got down to the '70s, '80s and '90s, I realized I had so many good ones. It was tough."

Indeed. When asked if there's a mainstream audience for classics that can be viewed on home video, Reardon replies that "it's all in how you market them."

That explains why the Festival of Classics is being marketed as a unique historical event, reaching about 30 cities through July, backed by a heavy promotional campaign (including a home video tie-in and four documentaries on TNT). And Reardon has provided a certain flexibility for those theaters not able to play the full schedule, also offering "The Shining" and "Chariots of Fire" as potential alternates.

Still, the imagination runs wild with its own personal list of alternates: "Angels With Dirty Faces," "Humoresque," "The Life of Emile Zola," "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," "To Have and Have Not," "Mr. Skeffington," "Mr. Roberts," "Around the World in 80 Days," "A Star Is Born," "Barry Lyndon," "Cool Hand Luke," "Rio Bravo," "The Right Stuff" and "Wait Until Dark."

"If we get a good turnout, a byproduct of this might be other festivals, like Cagney's 100th birthday next year," Reardon adds. "And I think we'll have a pretty good turnout for most of the films."

John Krier, president of the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, thinks the festival fills a need and will be a good barometer for determining if an event like this works.

"There's a whole new generation for films like 'The Exorcist' that has never seen them on the big screen, and it'll be interesting to see how they stand up," Krier says.

You can be sure other studios will be watching very carefully, particularly Columbia, which celebrates its own 75th anniversary next year, and Fox, which celebrates its 65th anniversary the following year.

But as one rival studio executive wonders, "How are they going to know what works if they don't play the classics on weekends? Who can take off and see something like 'Mildred Pierce' in the afternoon?"

A far riskier test will come on Christmas Day, when Warners reissues the most overexposed classic of all time, "The Wizard of Oz," on 2,000 screens, with three marketing hooks: a 60th anniversary celebration, a new digital stereo soundtrack and the restored "If I Only Had a Brain" dance outtake. (Though the film was made by MGM, it now belongs to Turner's archives.)

There's little doubt, though, that "The Exorcist" will be the hit of the festival, what with its unceasing popularity and the chance to see a striking new print taken directly from the original negative. But this 25th anniversary screening of the horror blockbuster that once captured the country's zeitgeist will not contain any of its newly discovered outtakes.

"There are seven or eight scenes that I cut out of the picture for reasons of pace and believability, and also having the desire to not have the audience get impatient," Friedkin says. "But there was no other director's cut. The finished film is the director's cut."

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