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"Michael Rennie was ill 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' but he told us where we stand/And Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear, Claude Rains was 'The Invisible Man.' "

"Science Fiction/Double Feature" – The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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A box office bomb in its initial release, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is the poster child for the importance of revival culture in film history.

A satirical look at B-movies from horror films to '60s beach party movies, "Rocky Horror" didn't reach the national consciousness until the success of years of midnight screenings after its initial run. On Halloween night, the Carroll Arts Center held a screening of the horror-comedy-musical, one of a number of repertory or revival screenings of older films in the area.

The film hit in 1975, just as film revival culture was at its height.

Revival theaters first took off in the 1960s and '70s, supporting a generation of film enthusiasts weaned on classic films through their presentation in the early days of television, according to the article "Digital Projection in Repertory Theaters" from The Culture of Archives, Museums and Libraries.

As home video took off in the 1980s, the prevalence of revival theaters began to lessen. Carroll Arts Center Director Sandy Oxx said the theatrical culture of filmgoers didn't disappear, it just went underground.

"In so many ways in our culture, retro is cool, and going to the theater is almost retro now," Oxx said. "Even though there's Redboxes, there's Netflixes, there's live streaming, I still think there are people who want to be in a collective area to see a film. Screens have gotten bigger in homes, but there's still that feeling of hearing other people laugh or enjoying a film together."

In the past, the Carroll Arts Center has hosted revival screenings of box office hits as varied as "Casablanca," "Superman" and "Ghostbusters."

Oxx said presenting a film on the big screen transforms a simple movie viewing into a full-fledged event. A perfect example is the upcoming November screening of "The Wizard of Oz" in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

"It would be shown once a year on TV, and you would wait for that day all year," Oxx said. "When you didn't have the ability to rent a movie like that, it was big."

Kathleen Lyon, owner of the Charles and Senator theaters in Baltimore, said though not everyone realizes the appeal of older films, for those who are interested, there is nothing better.

"At both theaters, there's a loyal contingent of people that prefer these older films to the first-run films," Lyon said. "They might only come to the repertory screenings and forgo the newer films entirely. There's definitely an audience there."

Lyon said both the Senator and the Charles have their own style of repertory screenings running side-by-side with modern films, with the Charles focusing more on cult film or obscure pieces of history and the Senator screening crowd-pleasing classics at special engagements. This week, the Charles is screening Alexander Mackendrick's film "The Ladykillers" starring Alec Guinness, and the 1963 Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest "Blood Feast," which is largely considered to have launched the appearance of extreme amounts of blood in film.

The Senator currently has plans for screenings of Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

"For the Senator, what I've been doing has been a very unscientific approach," Lyon said. "I just think of movies that I think people would like, and I glance through critics' lists for the top 50 movies in different genres to try and gauge a film's popularity."

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Like the Carroll Arts Center, the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick began its life as a movie theater back in 1926. Weinberg Center Director John Healey said he takes the theater's history very seriously.

Today, the Weinberg Center is the only theater in Maryland to feature its Wurlitzer organ — used for accompanying silent films — in its original location. During screenings of silent films, an organist would perform live music which synced up with the action onscreen.

In upcoming weeks, the Weinberg will feature a silent film series with live accompaniment. The series features silent classics including the earliest surviving "Dracula" adaptation "Nosferatu," one of the first science fiction epics "Metropolis," and the unofficial start of the Universal Monsters series "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Healey said these films make up the start of the film industry and are often as entertaining as a modern movie.

"It's just an amazing thing that we're seeing parents bringing their children to these films, which some see as a dying art," Healey said. "They're looking at this as something they've never seen before. It's still amazing to see some of the physical tricks. They didn't have stuntmen, so to see the things Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd could do is amazing."

Healey said theatrical exhibitions of older films are important for film culture to survive, given that pre-home video releases were shot and designed exclusively with a big screen in mind. In addition to the tangible benefits of seeing images at their intended size, Healey said there is a communal aspect to theaters that can be lost at home.

"We have become so isolated sitting in our living rooms, that sometimes the experience of seeing it with a live audience has become part of the overall experience," Healey said. "It's fun to be sitting in a theater with 200 to 300 people laughing together or who are totally mesmerized. I think that's all part of the joy of the film experience."

The Film Lovers in Carroll County group occasionally books classic films at the Carroll Arts Center in addition to its foreign film and documentary screenings. FLICC member Richard Soisson said he has fond memories of 25-cent double features and matinees from his childhood.

"I have always loved going to the movies. I just enjoy it more when there's a whole bunch of people there too," Soisson said. "There's something special when you're in the theater and the lights go down and it's dark and you can just submerge yourself into the story."

At the end of the day, Healey said the era in which a film is made or the technology behind its creation is not what's important, but rather it's the artistry of the creators that creates a special engagement with film.

"I'm not a big 3-D fan. I grew up in a two-dimensional world. I don't think film is enhanced by the 3-D experience," Healey said. "That horrible film 'Avatar,' technically it was interesting to see, but I thought the story was just plain stupid. I found myself watching technique or film-craft. Hitchcock taught us film-craft, but he also told a great story throughout it. If I'm watching a movie and I'm thinking about where the camera is positioned or where the lights are, that means I'm not engaged."

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or jacob.denobel@carrollcountytimes.com.

Securing licenses

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Carroll Arts Center Director Sandy Oxx said she's often confronted by people who think that the Arts Center can just rent a DVD from the Redbox and project it for an audience with no further approvals. In actuality, there's an involved process of securing the rights for theatrical performance. Oxx said the studios require theaters to pay a licensing fee for their one-time screenings. Oxx said the fee for the Arts Center usually equals about $300 upfront as well as half of the take from the box office.

"That's why popcorn is so expensive," Oxx said. "As an organization supporting arts, we want filmmakers to make money. If people buy some art and wine while they're here, then even better."

In addition to the challenges of affording older films, Oxx said there is also an involved process of finding the correct entity from which to license it.

"We've had films where we've never been able to find out who licenses it, so we've had to scrap them. Even with the Internet, it's so hard," Oxx said. "They flip licenses all around, and there are people who are like, 'We license Disney films for indoor showings, but they license for outdoor showings, and these people do it for free showings.' That FBI warning that comes up at the beginning on the screen — that's for real."

John Healey, director of the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, said figuring out the tangle of rights owners has become exponentially more difficult in recent years.

"Back in 2006 through 2008, there were essentially four main distribution companies for films that were 20 years old or older. Now each studio has taken over pretty much all of the rights to their films," Healey said. "They are the same people dealing with the multiplex releases, so you get pushed to the back of the pack. It's hard to get rights to certain things, and sometimes you select a movie, but then they decide to re-release it and that presents a problem."

If You Go

What: Wizard of Oz 75th Anniversary Screening

When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29

Where: Carroll Arts Center, 91 W. Main St., Westminster

Cost: Free

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