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Talking Pictures

Steve Green

Virtually no single element of a convention programme will take a larger slice out of the budget as a film show - one sixth of Novacon 14's was invested in our quite modest selection - and yet I can think of no element which is met with more indifference by the majority of attendees. True, the results of the Novacon 15 questionnaire appears to indicate otherwise - with 63% of its small sample group classing the film programme as "important", against 21% who felt it "unimportant" - but I suspect that is largely a kneejerk reaction enforced by the accepted norm for a convention format than any real indication of just how successful the programmers are. Alas, many seem not to care.

At the heart of the problem, I suspect, is an uncertainty among convention organisers as to precisely why they're spending all this money in the first place, other than to fill a few gaps in their programme and provide a sanctuary for roomless members to catch up on their sleep without incurring the wrath of the hotel management, not to mention the fans the committees expect to pack out the darkened halls.

Taking the latter first, I believe the audiences broadly fall into three categories (although the borders are blurred and many might inhabit more than one): the true film fan, ranging from the cinemaphile to the costume-clad ranks of media fandom; those attracted to see one particular film; the casual passer-by taking a short break from the hustle elsewhere at the con or settling into a good seat in preparation for a singularly popular programme item.

Ignoring the final subset, who would probably turn up even were the film show entirely composed of Pearl & Dean commercials, we instantly see the contradictions thrown up between the standard mix of contemporary box-office successes presented at cons and the actual requirements of the potential audiences. The true film fan is almost certain to have seen the likes of BLADERUNNER and BACK TO THE FUTURE already (especially if the cinema and video releases were simultaneous, as is often the case nowadays). Even if this is not the case, like the casual passer-by, he or she is scarcely proffered the most suitable venue for catching up on their moviegoing at an SF convention (much the same could be said of many city-centre cinemas, but that's another drawback to the medium not strictly relevant here).

Things were much simpler forty years ago. The absence of the vast media backdrop modern science fiction fandom takes for granted, other than the occasional Saturday morning serial or instantly forgettable B-movie, virtually assured classics like METROPOLIS a starring role in any convention programme. But the genre's explosion over the past nine years has left con organisers with both a far greater choice of films and a more onerous duty to their membership. It's all too easy to grab the latest "hit" as soon as it becomes available - BACK TO THE FUTURE very nearly headed Novacon 16's celluloid showcase, though thankfully common sense prevailed and it made way for Alex Cox's excellent REPO MAN - but I would implore committees to widen their horizons, to consider the following criteria when making their selection:

  1. Landmark movies denied a decent distribution, or available only on video. REPO MAN would fall into this category, as did Novacon 14's "lead" feature BRAINSTORM (substituted for BRITANNIA HOSPITAL when Anderson's black comedy was shown on Channel 4 a few months before the con).
  2. Short features. Although the fact that the same insurance/transport fees apply regardless of length, making an extensive programme of short films financially unviable for many cons, there are gems in this sub-genre. Nick Mills eventually gave in to my polite pestering and scheduled the Irish award-winner A CHILD'S VOICE for Novacon 16's Halloween bill, but the bizarre ANGELS is just one provocative movie deserving of a convention spotlight.
  3. Forgotten classics. Too often, film programmes seem to feature movies from the '40s and '50s merely to highlight the depths to which the genre can sink. Okay, so the occasional "turkey" can serve as a humorous complement to the more serious threads of your programme, but how about such worthy contemporaries as THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR T?
  4. Foreign material. And not just Tarkovsky - how about the Czech comedy AND TOMORROW I'LL BE SCALDING MYSELF WITH TEA, Poland's SEX MISSION or Goddard's ALPHAVILLE? They may be more difficult to track down and you will have to depend more than usually on word-of-mouth, but it's worth the effort.

Beyond these considerations, the context into which the films are set can add to their impact. A few ideas spring to mind, some toyed with by Martin Tudor and myself during the run-up to Novacon 14: a retrospective of a particular director's work (Lang, Haskin or Kubrick for instance); remake double bills (try contrasting CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE with Paul Schraeder's reprise 40 years later; "theme" bills (we tried nuclear proliferation, but there are others, like time travel or immortality which could be used to link diverse movies).

I suspect I've barely scratched the surface with the foregoing, but I hope it's sparked a few thoughts amongst those of you in a position to make use of them. That's really all that's required: a little more thought and imagination rather than the current tendency to cop out on the challenge.

Most 16mm film titles are available from the following companies:

Filmbank Distributors Ltd, Acorn House, Victoria Rd, Acton, London W3 6XD (01 993 8144)

Glenbuck Films, Glenbuck Rd, Surbiton, Surrey KT9 6BT (01 339 0022)

Artificial Eye Film Company, 16mm Film Library, 211 Camden High St, London NW1 7BT (01 267 6036)

Filmbank has by far the largest catalogue.


This page updated on 09 July 1999