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Mission impossible: Saving a classic movie channel in the age of streaming

Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as other industry heavyweights, are rallying to ensure Turner Classic Movies continues in times of cutbacks

Ingrid Bergman Humphrey Bogart Casablanca
Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, in a scene from 'Casablanca' (1942).Archive Photos (Getty Images)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

The Hollywood elite is out in force. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson have recently emerged as guardians of the brightest period of the film industry, which they have ruled for several years now. The directors have united in recent days not to promote a film of their own, but to campaign for the movies made by dozens of their predecessors to continue to be screened. Turner Classic Movies (TCM), a classic film cable channel, has come under threat in times of studio austerity. In the face of the danger, the three filmmakers have joined forces to ensure that the economic crunch hatchet does not come down on one of the most popular outlets for yesterday’s movies in the United States.

The conflict originated in an office. Warner Bros. Discovery, the entertainment powerhouse that emerged from a merger in 2021, undertook a series of layoffs on June 20. Among the hundred or so dismissals announced that day were those at the head of TCM, which nurtures the catalog of classic films whose rights were acquired by mogul Ted Turner. The cable channel, launched in 1994, lost its general manager, Pola Changnon, and its chief programmer, Charles Tabesh, who had been with the channel for 25 years. The company also eliminated two-thirds of TCM’s payroll.

From left to right, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.
From left to right, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.AP

Although the news went largely unnoticed, it was the first of a series of cuts that will be made to the cable channel company, which was once a leading private television operator, but has recently been compelled to adapt quickly in times of on-demand content with its Max platform. The same has been happening with other studios, which have been struggling for months in an adverse economic environment and loss-making platforms in the aftermath of the pandemic. In May, Disney completed the layoff of 7,000 workers and has halted new productions. Meanwhile, Netflix has axed hundreds of employees since last year and an estimated 17,000 people in the media sector have been laid off so far in 2023, according to Business Insider.

The decision threw TCM onto a path of uncertainty. The channel — a 24-hour outlet that shows films from the studios’ golden age with no commercial breaks — features cult titles, silent films, short films, foreign movies and those considered to be works of art. It was created in the mid-nineties, when the video player was a common feature in living rooms, though video clubs mostly provided new releases and premieres. The channel was just about the only option to watch weekday classics such as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Singin’ in the Rain, Gone with the Wind (which was a victim of the new political correctness of the times), Casablanca and Gaslight, to name a few. Its broad catalog stretched back to the seventies, just before independent productions revolutionized the industry.

In a statement, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that TCM, whose funding is dependent on cable and satellite subscribers, would be headed by an executive who also manages the animation channels, Adult Swim and Cartoon Network, and family programming. “Change is never easy and can sometimes lead to a feeling of uncertainty, but I can assure you that we remain committed to this business and to the TCM brand,” Kathleen Finch, the company’s chief content officer, said in a statement.

The brief statement raised alarm bells. But the move did not go unnoticed by Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, who, in addition to directing films, have devoted their careers to restoring the works and careers of creators who preceded them. Spielberg, the director of Jaws and more recently The Fabelmans, has previously been active in this regard. In 2018, he publicly condemned the decision by AT&T’s new owners to pull the plug on FilmStruck, a streaming service from TCM and The Criterion Collection, that was popular with fans of both art and classic films. Yet they are not the only ones who have spoken out. The well-known actor Ryan Reynolds tweeted that the channel is “a sacred piece of cinematic history.” “Please don’t screw it up,” the Deadpool star wrote.

Orson Welles in 'Citizen Kane.'
Orson Welles in 'Citizen Kane.'

David Zaslav, Warner Discovery’s CEO, called Scorsese to explain the fine-tuning and put his mind at ease. In one call, he assured him that he was an ardent supporter of TCM’s programming himself. In April, Zaslav appeared with Spielberg and Anderson at a film festival hosted by the channel in Los Angeles. The Taxi Driver director called Spielberg who then called the Magnolia creator, according to the account of the mutiny carried by The Hollywood Reporter. The three of them spoke with the executive in a videoconference where, in a constructive tone, the directors expressed their interest in becoming more involved with the channel’s content and programming. Their involvement could stem the loss of viewers that the channel has been experiencing for several years.

As a demonstration of the positive outcome of the meeting between the two parties, the directors issued a joint statement saying that the objective is that TCM’s programming “will not be touched and will be protected.” In their statement, they called the channel a “cultural cornerstone,” and acknowledged the “pressures” and “struggles” that Warner Discovery is experiencing.

The meeting proved to be successful, with concessions coming from the other side. The company backed down and on Wednesday announced the return of Tabesh, the channel’s head programmer. It also adjusted the structure, placing TCM in the hands of the Warner Bros. film division instead of the animation brands. The trio of directors will also be involved in the organization of special programs and cycles, according to company spokespeople. This is one of those happy endings that Hollywood has a soft spot for. It remains to be seen how long it lasts in times of crisis.

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