Movies and Showmanship

I know people who use the word showmanship to refer to a high technical quality in motion picture presentation—usually referring to old-fashioned technology.

I don’t. When I think of "showmanship," I don’t think of movies. I think of circuses, magic shows, and rock concerts. Showmanship isn’t about technology, but about live human beings putting on a show.

Which isn’t to say that showmanship isn’t an important part of the movie-going experience, and one that’s been lacking in recent decades. Showmanship means a skilled projectionist who really cares. It means curtains that open on the studio logo. It can also mean someone coming down to the front of the theater and welcoming the audience before the film begins. Sometimes it means the director or producer coming to the theater for Q&A.

Movie showmanship took its biggest fall when sound came in and a night at the movies ceased to be a live concert. It enjoyed something of a second, if lesser, golden age with the roadshow movies of the 50s and 60s. But it all but disappeared when the multiplex came in in the 70s.

Showmanship is not about the width of the film. True, those roadshow movies of the 50s and 60s came in large formats like Cinerama and 70mm. But 70mm enjoyed huge popularity in the 80s, while showmanship was dying or already dead. And Imax–the largest format of them all–never had much of a feel for showmanship.

Today, movie theaters are in trouble, but–at least here in the Bay Area–film festivals seem to be thriving. Check the Current Festivals box on the right; as I write this, there are nine current and upcoming festivals listed. What do film festivals offer that regular theaters don’t–other than films not considered commercial enough to get a regular release? Care. Projectionists who are paying attention. People introducing every film. Filmmakers in attendance. Occasionally, even live music.

That’s showmanship.