Around the turn of the century—around the time that multiplex movie theaters converted to video projection and jettisoned 35mm film projectors as part of an economic scheme that consolidated exhibition in the hands of a few banks, real estate concerns, tech vendors and venture capitalists—some old hands shook their heads and said these economics don’t make sense, one day, one day movies will be like the Grand Opera. It’s gonna be special, it’s gonna be an event, not taking up an impulse just to see whatever’s showing. Still, those prognosticators thought that the enshrinement of a previous century’s filmmaking would be side-by-side with a lasting, feasible, vital theater industry.
Cut to a couple of decades into the century, a few years into the ongoing pandemic, and for forward-thinking, backward-gazing movie houses, and the newest success is older movies. In at least a modest way, “revival houses,” or “calendar houses,” “rep,” or “repertory houses” as they were called in the days of double bills—before the ready availability of many movies from all sorts of genres, first on video and now on streaming—are back.
That trend popped out in recent weeks after social media lit up with stories and selfies from audiences at sold-out and nearly sold-out screenings at the Music Box matinee series of 35mm prints of Billy Wilder movies, co-programmed by the theater’s assistant technical director, marketing coordinator, programmer Rebecca Lyon. “The Music Box has been doing both repertory and first-run since we reopened in the eighties, with the first couple years being almost entirely repertory programming,” Lyon says.
“I’ve been at the theater since 2008 and while attendance has varied for our regular rep programs, we have been seeing a consistently high turnout for them post-pandemic shutdown.,”she says. “I will admit that while we all thought the Billy Wilder matinees would do well, we were all a bit shocked by exactly how well. Even the lowest-attended film in the series—’Ace in the Hole,’ shame on you, Chicago it’s his best film!—had close to 250 people. And the highest-attended ones have been in the 700 range.
“All the way back in June of 2021 when we screened Tsai Ming-liang’s ‘Goodbye Dragon Inn'”—a spare telling of the last days of a rundown movie palace in rain-soaked Taipei—”we got what in my memory was a huge crowd. And it was a beautiful show, and I was standing under the marquee after and just looking around at all these young, cool-looking people and just feeling so excited that they were turning out for what is one of my personal favorite films but is also a difficult film. I just checked the numbers for that show, 175! So we’re clearly exceeding that now, but it did feel like a sea change at the time.”
So why is this happening? “I don’t pretend to know, but I think people are ready to see films in person again, and the places they are choosing to do so are not multiplexes, but places that feel special and unique to them. Like when I first started going back to restaurants, I didn’t rush out to Subway, I went to my favorite little neighborhood spot. As for the age of the audience, again, it’s hard to say for sure but we’re seeing a ton of younger people coming out.”
The pandemic, again, has shaped the social experience. “Unfortunately I don’t think you can talk about this and not bring up the pandemic. My parents are in their late seventies and they definitely aren’t interested in going to shows with 500 people yet. But young people are turning out in droves for stuff that is readily available to watch on Criterion, so there clearly is a desire for that big-screen, communal experience.” Lyon hopes it lasts. “My hope is that this isn’t a fleeting thing and that we’re building an audience who will return again and again.”
Nearby, the Wrigleyville location of Alamo Drafthouse has only been open a couple of weeks, but the company, with forty-four locations around the country, has a twenty-five-plus-year history of booking first-run movies alongside older audience favorites. “We’ve gotten so many questions about the kind of movies we show and, when people learn we do classics in addition to new films, it’s like being a kid all over again,” Alex Shebar, Alamo Drafthouse community marketing manager tells me. “There are so many requests for films they love, ones from their childhoods, first dates, favorite films, whatever means something to them. We asked on Facebook for suggestions for films we could screen and got over 140 suggestions right away. There have already been a ton of sold-out showings of repertory films. We had people calling, almost begging, for a ticket to our ‘Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind’ brunch we did just before Valentine’s Day. People are psyched to see what’s new, but they’re equally excited to see what’s classic, what they already love.”
“We’ve seen remarkable, sold-out shows for the majority of our repertory presentations,” says Rebecca Fons, director of programming of the Siskel Film Center since January 2021 says. “Our ’50/50′ series, celebrating our fiftieth year and presenting a film every Monday night from each year we’ve been open, starting in 1972, was a small gamble and a huge hit! We hosted encore screenings on the fly for some sold-out titles, and then did a ’50/50 Rewind’ week, right around Christmas. Even with the holidays and the subzero temps we still had capacity screenings for all but maybe two of those films. Plus, it didn’t hurt that our ‘Rewind’ lineup was announced the day before the Sight & Sound list: most of the films in the lineup were represented on the list!”
Still, she says, “I think the answer to ‘why’ is varied.” Among the reasons? “People are hungry for quality: quality films and quality presentation, with an added boost of interest when a film is presented on 35mm, and by nature of being ‘rep’ or ‘classic,’ many wonderful titles are available on celluloid. In a time of endless scrolling and clicking, the texture and richness of film on screen offers a new appreciation.”
The peripatetic Chicago Film Society is the most devoted to the repertory film experience, showing only on 16mm and 35mm in multiple locations across the city, including the Music Box, Northeastern Illinois University and Siskel. Co-programmer Kyle Westphal says the group sees a sturdy audience for repertory, particularly after the pandemic. “We screened Kenneth Anger’s ‘Scorpio Rising’ with Russ Meyer’s ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ at the Music Box to over 500 people. We had around 300 for Antonioni’s ‘Zabriskie Point,’ which is really exceptional for a film with such an unjustly mixed reputation. We had over 200 for ‘Forbidden Paradise,’ a restored Lubitsch silent that probably hasn’t been shown in Chicago since 1924. We’re proud of all those screenings and really gratified to see so many people who want to share the experience of communal cinema.”
Westphal sees the experience as uniquely social. “If you think about the multiplex experience, it feels very interchangeable and anonymous. The same films are playing at theaters all over the city, and thanks to market consolidation, there’s not much variation… And your odds of randomly running into anyone you know—or perhaps anyone at all—at the average midweek matinee are very slim.
“But a repertory screening is an event. You have to make plans to see it and remember to keep your schedule clear. And at CFS, we do our best to make good on that promise. We don’t just show a film—we have a short, we have an introduction, we encourage people to mingle in the lobby before and after. And, of course, we show everything on film and make an effort to bring the audience into our process—to emphasize all the work that went into finding the print, securing the rights. Sometimes there’s a story to tell about a restoration, or how we tracked down a collector’s print of a title that isn’t otherwise available. It’s an experience that people don’t get at home or at the multiplex. We’re projecting people into our community.”
Classic Cinemas is the largest Illinois-based theater chain, with 137 screens in sixteen locations, all of which are of similar vintage as the Music Box. Chris Johnson, CEO, president and owner told me last year, “Our latest theater in La Grange was built in 1925 and fits perfectly with our other Classic Cinemas built in the 1920s and 1930s. A well-maintained hundred-year-old building with all the latest technology only amplifies the moviegoing experience.”
Michael Schindler is events coordinator and film programmer. “While repertory programming is not a huge part of our overall business,” Schindler says, “I’m very passionate about it. In addition to programming all of our monthly series, I also attend at least two or three repertory screenings around the city and suburbs every week. It’s really my favorite pastime.” Six of the Classic locations host a Select Pix series every month. They also “collaborate with Erik Childress and the Chicago Film Critics Association for a monthly classic series at Elk Grove.” They also have a series on those screens of late-night classics.
Still, programming surprises abound. “Last year, we did a 1997 retrospective, and one of the movies which was on the bubble when we were creating the series was ‘The Fifth Element.’ That turned out to be our biggest hit. There are staples, like ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Goonies,’ which you know will always be successful, but it’s exciting when lesser-played movies have a big turnout. Last month, we showed ‘The Fugitive.’ I went to see it at the Lake, and we had a surprisingly large crowd. When the Chicago skyline appeared on screen, people started cheering.”
But Schindler doesn’t think “people are choosing repertory titles over new releases. People who go to see older stuff are film fans in general. They are going to see the new stuff too. I’m seeing ‘Do the Right Thing’ at the Lake in Oak Park tonight, and I’ll be back there tomorrow night to see ‘Ant-Man.'”
Another highlight: “Every year in Woodstock, we show ‘Groundhog Day’ on Groundhog Day, at the theater where the movie was filmed. This year, we had over a thousand people attend the movie, and we even changed the marquee to match how it looked in the movie.” And, as much as the movies themselves, Schindler says, “the thing I look forward to most about those shows is seeing new friends.”
Things are looking up at FACETS, too, says film program director Charles Coleman. Just two months into the year, “we are seeing signs of audiences more than ready to return to the cinema.” Their 2023 “Galentines’ Day” pictures drew three times the audience as in 2022, and “Aftersun,” which ran in January, outperformed FACETS’ highest box office title of 2022. They’re also showing well-reviewed movies like “Tár” and “EO” within the window that would have been second-run or neighborhood territory in the past, that would have lit up theaters that are no longer with us, and are no longer a feature of the walkable city. (Specialty movies in the past could play for months, even a year or more, at single screens like the Cinema on Chicago at Michigan Avenue or the Carnegie on Rush.)
“The phenomenon of repertory cinema can be ascribed to a social gathering whereby patrons can validate their common interests,” Coleman says. “The Music Box has been very successful with their Billy Wilder retrospective. Most people have probably heard about these films, but had not seen them, and a community of patrons attend the program like an event, which they can enjoy and have the same shared experience.” The seasons are good to FACETS, such as the Valentine’s program, “Holiday Detour” for Christmas, horror films for Halloween, and anime all year long. “These are familiar ideas for the audience, but which also grant us the means to curate choices, so that the audience not only can be reassured by traditional selections, but also discover new films within a familiar context.”
FACETS’ marketing manager Emma Greenleaf, whose programming contributions include the anime series, says, “Since the pandemic began, audiences have had to be more discerning with what cultural outings they take part in. Whether someone has seen a classic title countless times or it’s been on their watchlist for years, a local screening of the film is more likely to get them out the door than taking a chance on a new release with mixed reviews. But the driving force behind it is a deep desire for in-person communal cinema experiences.”
A great example, she says, was February’s “Galentine’s Dynamic Duos” series, featuring “Bound” and “The Last Days Of Disco,” “with lots of young queer people who have never had a chance to see their favorite film on the big screen coming out in droves with their friends ready to quote lines at the screen. It was the second year in a row we’ve done a series in honor of the unofficial holiday focused on women’s relationships, and this year’s incredible response displayed a sense of joy and community through film as people become more comfortable with public outings.”
The Siskel’s Fons agrees that joy lies in the familiar. “I also feel there is a comfort in the known-known. A new film might leave you wanting but a film you know and love‚ either that you’ve seen a million times or one you have nostalgia for—is going to nourish you in a special way. I understand the feeling of not wanting to be let down by something, so I’m often choosing comfort or something I know I enjoy.
“My husband and I went to the 35mm presentation of ‘Zodiac’ at the Music Box. We’ve seen that movie—a masterpiece!— legitimately twenty-plus times. But sometimes you don’t need surprises or reveals, you just want a really good movie. Or, if you haven’t seen a film, but you know it is good can be the draw. I think we could present ‘Jeanne Dielman’ over and over again, we showed it three times in 2022, once for ’50/50,’ followed by a ’50/50′ encore, followed by the film’s inclusion in our ’50/50 Rewind’ program, all sold-out shows. Seeing an acclaimed film for the first time, on 35mm, with a full audience? That is like having a time machine.”