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Q&A with The Silent Film Society of Atlanta.
In 1990, The Silent Film Society of Atlanta began life as a "spin-off" from the Atlanta Film Society. Its goal: "To educate [viewers] to the innate beauty of silent films. The thing we try to do with the society is show that silent films can peacefully co-exist with talkies. And they're worth people's time and energy. They're not lacking because they're lacking words."
Flash forward to 1998: The Atlanta Film Society is long gone, victim to the rise of home video, megaplexes and cable TV. But despite so much competition, the Silent Film Society has continued to grow and thrive. Recently president and director Bill Eggert talked to Silent Movies about the joys and headaches of running a film society.
According to an article in The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, you were motivated by Garbo's death to begin showing silents. How did that come about?
Actually it wasn't so much Garbo's death that motivated me, but that it triggered my memory of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's seminal documentary on silent cinema, Hollywood, and the section on Gilbert and Garbo and the myth about his 'high' voice, disproven with the clip from QUEEN CHRISTINA. The Gilbert myth, along with the Arbuckle, Clara Bow and Wallace Reid myths perpetuated by Kenneth Anger's trash in HOLLYWOOD BABYLON made me realize that there were so many fascinating stories to tell about the silent era, and so much misinformation about many of the stars, that I decided to set the record straight, at least in the Atlanta community, by screening films celebrating the artistry of these silent icons while prefacing the films with brief lectures about the stars and the filmmakers. Obviously this explanation proved too unwieldy for my interviewer, hence the "...spurred by Garbo's death..." remark.
What steps were involved in forming the SFS? Are you supported by a staff, or an advisory board of any sort?
The SFSA was started by myself as a 'spin-off' of the Atlanta Film Society (no longer in existence). I merely used the blueprint we developed for the AFS and applied it to the SFSA. Besides myself, I am supported by a dedicated staff of 3: treasurer, newsletter editor/ projectionist, and mailings assistant. I have never seen a real need for an advisory board, which would be overkill for this organization.
What is your budget? How do you raise funds?
Budget? We don't really have a hard and fast budget. I have kept the SFSA in the black by maintaining a low overhead and keeping operating expenses at a minimum. Our main expenses are the film rental (biggest monthly expense), venue space rental (equipped with projection room), and newsletter printing and postage. That's it. The SFSA is strictly a non-profit volunteer organization; we support ourselves through various membership dues levels. In the early years, we barely broke even as we established ourselves with a following. The last few years we have turned the corner and are operating in a very healthy capacity.
Do you book the films yourself? What are your sources?
I book the films myself - the real challenge comes in deciding which films to screen. My sources are distributors and private collectors.
How often do you show films?
The SFSA has monthly screenings, with the exception of July and August (the organization and myself need a break during the year)...I have not missed a screening during our 8 seasons. Our season runs from Sept-Jun.
What types of films do the best? What stars?
NOW comes the fun! Trying to decide what will bring in the crowds. The Atlanta community is very selective in their silents films, and are not very adventuresome. Some of the biggest stars of the silent era have no appeal to contemporary audiences here: Pickford, Hart, and even Fairbanks (occasionally) do not even draw flies. The cult icons DO draw (Valentino, Brooks, Bow, von Stroheim, Garbo and Gilbert, even Gish). Big name films draw very well (Metropolis, Sunrise, Ben-Hur, Intolerance, Greed, Phantom of the Opera). The Big 3 comedians (Lloyd, Keaton and especially Chaplin) draw VERY well. I guess this is just common sense, but still I'm surprised at our turnout sometimes.
What is the make-up of your audience?
Surprisingly (to some), I'd say 80-90% of our audience is between 20-40 years old! Most are college age, and I'd say gender is split 50-50, with a possible edge to women.
In 1992, attendance was approximately 50-60 attendees; has your audience grown?
Definitely! I'd say we average between 80-100 every month these days. Last month (for Metropolis) we had about 120!
How do you "market" the SFSA? (i.e. ads, radio spots, newspaper ads, etc.)
I market the SFSA by printing flyers and 'Arts Happenings' notices in the print media. Paid advertising is expensive, and I like to keep our expenses to a minimum. I feel the SFSA needs to at least break even every month to be successful on an ongoing basis, and we cannot do that by wasting money on things like paid publicity.
What are the frustrations about running a film society? The rewards?
The frustrations: The administrative end can be time-consuming, and take away from time for extra research on the films. The administrative end can be frustrating when you do your part, and the venue screws up your play date and/or the publicity machine (print media) screws up and puts the wrong date, time, etc and makes the organization look bad.
The rewards: Meeting some very nice people in the audience, who sometimes become regulars; having the platform to set the record straight on misinformation on the silent era; sharing the innate beauty and artistry of silent cinema with contemporary audiences; seeing your audience fall under the spell of films made 70-80 years ago; becoming acquainted with the entire network of silent cinephiles thruout the world: from Kevin Brownlow and Paolo Cherchi Usai (both of whom I met at Pordenone Italy last year), Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, to 'e-pals' whom I've never met but feel as though I've known my whole life: 'web wizards' such as yourself, Annette D'Agostino (Harold Lloyd), Floyd Bennett (Harry Langdon), Phil Leibfried (Anna May Wong), Bruce Long (Taylorology), Dave Pearson (Arbuckle) and Gilda Tabarez (Conrad Veidt, etc.). On the whole, I cannot think of a more supportive, talented, gracious and knowledgeable group of individuals that I've ever known. They are all scholars in their own right. Finally, my support staff of the SFSA has made my life much more bearable and made my efforts much more effective by their responsible and professional attitude for their volunteer positions. I could not do it without their help.
What is your most cherished memory of a screening at the SFSA?
During the Society's first year(1990) we had Lina Basquette at our second meeting, and she charmed our audience with her anecdotes. Then we watched the 1929 Lina on-screen in Capra's The Younger Generation with the 1990 Lina in our audience. A definite thrill for us!
If you could show any films you wanted (availability and money no object), what would show A. for yourself and B. for maximum crowd potential?
Could not limit either list to TOP TEN, so I made it TOP 20.
A. List of silent films I would show for myself (& reasons): While I have other favorites, if I could see all of the films on this list I would indeed die a happy man. Listed in order of preference:
1) London After Midnight: Holy Grail of Lost Films, tantalizing stills
2) Greed: Complete, uncut version of Von Stroheim's greatest
3) Red Hair: Clara Bow in color, 2-strip Technicolor opening reel (lost)
4) Cleopatra: Theda as 'Cleo,' 'nuff said. (also lost)
5) The City Butterfly: Anna May Wong in German film by Richard Eichberg
6) Freight Prepaid: Roscoe Arbuckle's last silent feature, not released in US
7) Four Devils: Murnau's 3rd to last film, officially 'lost'
8) Valley of the Giants: Film Wallace Reid was working on, in train wreck
9) J' Accuse: Abel Gance's anti-war statement
10) Hollywood: James Cruze's satire about Hollywood; gutsy cameo by Arbuckle
11) The Honeymoon: Part II of Von Stroheim's The Wedding March
12) Bardelys the Magnificent: John Gilbert & Eleanor Boardman in lost Vidor film, brief clip is all that survives in Vidor's Show People
13) Four Sons:John Ford classic about brothers on BOTH sides of WWI
14) Welcome Danger: Original silent version Harold Lloyd (later converted into talkie)
15) Human Wreckage: Mrs. Wallace Reid's anti-drug film, dedicated to late husband
16) Nell Gwynne: Dorothy Gish stars in British film dir. by Herbert Wilcox
17) The Greatest Thing in Life: Griffith WWI film starring Bobby Harron
18) Heart Trouble: Harry Langdon's last silent feature, dir. by Langdon
19) Queen of Sheba: Betty Blythe in title role, need I say more?
20) Anne of Green Gables: William Desmond Taylor directing Mary Miles Minter
B. Here in no articular order are the best draw silents (max. crowd potential) for the SFSA (except Napoleon & Our Dancing Daughters, which we have not screened, but I'm sure both woud draw very well).
1) Metropolis (drew VERY well all 3 times we've shown it over 8 yrs)
2) Phantom of the Opera (" " " 2 " " """"" ")
3) Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (" """ 2 " " " " """"" """)
4) Nosferatu (" " "" "" ( " " 2 " "" " " ")
5) The Gold Rush (" " " " " 2 " " " " ")
6) The General (" " " " "" "" 2 " " " " " )
8) Pandora's Box
9) Flesh and the Devil
12) Son of the Sheik
15) The Mark of Zorro
16) Orphans of the Storm
17) Show People
18) The Freshman
20) Our Dancing Daughters
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