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Interview: Bank of America Cinema Programmers Mike King and Mike Phillips

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 17, 2008 4:00PM

2008_6bankofamericacinema.jpg Every Saturday night you'll find the second-floor auditorium of the Bank of America on West Irving Park Road in Portage Park packed with movie lovers. They come there to see a wide-ranging program of classics, rarities and good old-fashioned popcorn movies. The weekly screenings have now been going strong for over thirty years. A hardcore base of regulars keep coming back year after year despite the encroachment of cable TV, home video and the multiplex.

Recently we had the chance to chat via email with the Cinema's programmers, Mike King and Mike Phillips. We discussed the history of the series, their strategies for shaping the roster of films, and the effects of the recent fire at Universal Studios on independent theaters.

Chicagoist: First let me ask you about that big fire at Universal Studios. As I understand it there weren't any master negatives lost but it did destroy many rental prints. Is it going to affect your schedule?

Mike Phillips: The Universal fire won't affect anything this season, but it does change some things we wanted to do next season. For example, there is no longer a 35mm print of Shanghai Express, and Swank (our source for 16mm prints) doesn't have a print. One of the repertory people from Universal told me that hundreds of prints of older movies were destroyed. I heard from some of the people at DOC who talked to him at length that unless you want a Hitchcock film or Touch of Evil, you're screwed. I can't imagine that there's going to be any rush to replace those prints, aside from the most popular ones, so this is really going to hurt revival houses everywhere.

C: Tell us a little bit about the history of the program. How did you guys meet each other and how did it get started? What changes has it gone through over the years?

MK: The program itself started in 1972 when Chuck Schaden (host of "Those Were The Days" radio program Saturdays on WDCB) started weekly screenings of classic Hollywood movies in the bank’s basement cafeteria. By 1977, he somehow convinced the bank to build a cinema for his film program, and expanded it to include live community theater. Eventually the backstage area was turned into conference rooms, but the weekly classic film screenings have soldiered on, which has blessed us with a huge crowd of regulars – folks who have been coming week in, week out for decades. As for how we got involved -- for me, it was just being in the right place at the right time. In 2003 I was hired as a staff video producer at LaSalle, and it just so happened that the Cinema’s programmer was looking to leave. I said I’d like to give it a shot, and the next thing I knew I was running the show.

MP: I started projecting in the summer of 2004; I became unemployed at the exact moment Ian (the old projectionist) was going off to school, so again, right place, right time. I started helping with the programming in 2006 when the other Mike was busy with work, and eventually seized enough territory that we split the programming.

C: Sketch out the programming process for us. What is your "mission statement"? Do you start with a theme and then see what's available, or do you start with what titles you have access to? Tell us what's involved when you're dealing with rentals from distributors.

MK: Basically, we’re showing old movies on Saturday nights to non-academic crowds. It’s supposed to be a fun night out, so unlike other film societies that have “education” as one of their missions, we want people to have a good time first and foremost. We try to include a variety of genres and years from the earliest talkies up to the mid 1960s. We choose a mixture of things people already love and things people would love if they knew about them. In general, we look for things that aren’t on DVD, which is getting harder every week. Sometimes we do themes — our Mustache Cinema theme from 2006 was a lot of fun —but it can be a drag because you might end up showing something just because it fits the theme, instead of because it’s good or interesting. So it was thrilling to see Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart in mustaches, but some of the films themselves were not so hot. So mostly it’s just things we want to see, things the regulars ask for, films from directors we like or want to know more about, etc. Whatever catches our interest.

MP: We get most of our prints through Criterion Pictures (Fox titles) and Swank (most other studios). We whip up a huge list of things we’re interested in, we send it to the distributor and they generally respond saying that half the things we want aren’t available. From the remains, we piece together a schedule.

C: Which formats are most common for your screenings? Do you foresee a time when you'll switch to digital projection, or is that a heretical suggestion?

MP: We generally show two-thirds on 16mm and a third on 35mm, but our upcoming season is almost all 35mm, which is amazing because we’re almost never that successful. It helps that we’ve made some connections with some of the studios, so we have a more direct line to what’s available. We’ll never go digital — it would be really expensive to switch over and lots of people won’t come to a digital screening. Plus, it’s blasphemy!

C: Were you worried that the program might be dropped when LaSalle was bought out by Bank of America? What other threats have you had to weather?

MK: We were a little worried because with a big corporate merger you never know what’s going to happen. But things couldn’t have turned out better: Bank of America has been completely supportive of the program. This isn’t the first time the Cinema has undergone a management change; when the program started it was under the auspices of Northwest Federal Savings and Loan, then Talman, then LaSalle, now Bank of America and it’s still going strong.

C: Why Saturday nights? Why not Fridays, or Sundays?

MK: It’s a combination of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and a feeling that it’s somehow “right” for it to be on a Saturday. Saturday is an event night, so coming to see a movie at Bank of America feels like something special. There are pop songs about “Saturday night at the movies.” It just feels like that’s the logical night to have a once-a-week film series.

C: As a whole, does the series turn a profit? Are you just breaking even or is it actually losing money?

MP: Nobody’s getting rich out here. It might break even, but because it’s something the Bank does for community service, it doesn’t matter how much money it makes or doesn’t make.

C: Recently you've been collaborating with outside groups like the Chicago Cinema Forum, letting them use the space. How did that come about? Do you think that'll happen more often from now on?

MK: We’ve been hosting events for various groups for several years, like the Chicago Academy for the Arts spring show, which we’ve been hosting since 2004. We’ve also hosted events for White Light Cinema, Chicago Film Archives and the Onion City Experimental Film Festival. We do it on a case-by-case basis: if we think it’s a good fit for the space, if it’s an organization we’d like to support, etc. We’re hoping to keep doing that in the future.

C: What other plans do you have for the future?

MP: The biggest change is that Mike King recently left for a job in Madison. We’re working together on the July-December season, but that’s King’s swan song. My first change was to build some bridges across Chicago’s film community (17-mile-long bridges) and bring aboard Kyle Westphal and Becca Hall, the former programming chair and current publicity chair of DOC Films at the University of Chicago, as my backup projectionists. My second change will be for the January-December 2009 schedule, when I’ll unveil a theme I’ve always wanted to do but Mike King disparaged: Hollywood A to Z. It’s perfect for a 26-week season, you see: the first week’s movie starts with A, the second week with B, and so on. It practically programs itself.

MK: So brace yourselves, Chicago, for Xanadu, Yentl, and Zardoz.

image courtesy of Mike Phillips