25 Years Ago at the DFT

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Twenty-five years ago this week, the Detroit Film Theatre began its ninth season on August 7, 1981 with François Truffaut’s The Last Metro.  The first half of that season finished on December 20 with the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China. A glance at the fall 1981 schedule reveals interesting insights into how art film programming has changed in the Detroit area.

For one thing, only four DFT films that fall had runs of more than one day—Mon Oncle D’Amerique, City of Women, and the above two films. Current visitors to the DFT have come to expect three-day runs of movies on most weekends, which gives patrons flexibility in when they can attend a showing. The DFT also now shows Thursday night films, as well as films every Sunday afternoon.

Back in 1981, there were also more English language films, including the first installment of a three-season survey of films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This Sunday evening series started with the 1925 silent film The Pleasure Garden, worked its way through such 1930s classics as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), and finished with Hitchcock’s first American film, the Academy Award-winning Rebecca (1940).

The schedule also included recent American films that might not have gotten wide distribution in their first run. Jonathan Demme’s 1980 film Melvin and Howard was screened, along with the uncut version of Martin Scorsese’s 1977 musical New York, New York. Also shown were The Stunt Man (1980), All Night Long (1980), and The Dogs of War (1981).

Mixed through the schedule were many foreign language films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Les Bons Debarras (Canada, 1981), Man of Marble (Poland, 1976), Messidor (Switzerland, 1977), and Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes (Germany, 1980). Older foreign language films also were screened, along with the 1978 Australian movie The Getting of Wisdom.

Art Film in the Early 80s

“It’s the giant killer of Detroit movie theaters,” proclaimed the headline of an article about the upcoming DFT season in the August 2, 1981 Detroit Free Press. Movie writer Jack Mathews noted that The Last Metro, Mon Oncle D’Amerique and City of Women had already enjoyed long runs in other cities, but were premiering in Detroit at the DFT. Mathews wrote, “(DFT Director Elliot) Wilhelm said he was able to outbid commercial theaters in Detroit because of his concentrated screenings and lower advertising costs.”

In the article, Wilhelm stated, “We guarantee a distributor a certain amount of money. It may not be as great as a commercial theater could pull in if the film were a smash, but so few foreign films have been smashes in commercial theaters in recent years that a no-loss proposition like ours is very attractive.”

Wilhelm also noted, “The economic reality now is that frequently there are enough people in Detroit only to support a single evening’s run of one of these films.” But the DFT in 1981 was continually testing the demand for art films, giving The Last Metro the first multiple weekend run in the theater’s history.

Since 1981, the prominence of the DFT has continued growing, influencing programming at the Landmark Main and Maple Art Theatres, the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and the SR Movies Novi Town Center 8 theater. Back in 1981, the Maple took a chance on The Last Metro, but hedged its bet with showings of the current films Eye of the Needle and Blow Out. The Main was still a mainstream movie house. Now the Main and Maple thrive on a mixture of American independent, British, foreign language and documentary films—further proof of the changing tastes in Detroit filmgoing that the DFT helped bring about.

So what will the latest incarnation of the Detroit Film Theatre bring? Stay tuned for the 2006/2007 season, which starts on Friday, September 8, 2006, with the film Drawing Restraint 9.

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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