Leonard Maltin is one of the most approachable people in Los Angeles, and one of the most knowledgable about film. For decades, Leonard has been a film critic and historian — now he’s a festival programmer, too.
MaltinFest runs at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles from May 10-12, with a focus on spotlighting films that never quite got their due. Alexander Payne’s early movie Citizen Ruth will be there, with Payne and star Laura Dern showing up to talk about the film; Maggie Greenwald’s excellent and far too underseen Songcatcher plays as well.
I spoke to Leonard Maltin on the phone to discuss the origins of the festival and his programming choices. Naturally, this spun into a conversation about trying to track down a print of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, the history of Big Eyes, and the appeal of Sing Street.
Let's talk about your festival! How did this come into being?
Jessie! [That’s Jesse Maltin, Leonard’s daughter, business partner, and podcast co-host.] This is her baby, her brainchild. She's been after me for a couple of years, frankly, to host a film series or some sort of film — we didn't use the word "festival," but some sort of film series or showcase where I could show things that I wanted to share with people. Like so many critics, I love throwing a spotlight on the underdog movie, the ones that got away. Ones that people maybe didn't hear about, or didn't have Marvel-type promotional muscle. I wrote a book about this almost 10 years ago, called The 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen. So this is a continuing theme in my work. When we finally fixed on the most practical thing being a weekend festival, that seemed to be the obvious way to go as a theme. We approached the folks at the Egyptian and we are doing it with them, which makes me happy because I love seeing movies at that theatre. I love anything on that big screen. It's just a huge screen.
Tell me about a couple of the selections you've got for the festival. You've got some choices that landed before the online film community became what it is now, like Songcatcher, which might be supported in a different way now. Of course, that film also had a lot of other problems on the business side.
Songcatcher got a special jury prize at Sundance for it's acting ensemble! But it was going to be distributed by one distributor which was swallowed up by another mini-major and the film kind of got orphaned. It never got the proper release it deserved. I've always been a proselytizer for that film, and for Maggie Greenwald's work as a whole. We're showing her personal 35mm print.
What's the breakdown as far as the formats you've secured to project?
The works! This leads to a funny story. We were trying to get a good print of a bad movie, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, and there didn't seem to be a 35mm print extant. I was talking to Mike Pogorzelski over at the Academy Archive. He checked the database and he said, "oh my God, we have a 35mm print!" He himself was shocked. And it was donated by Bela Lugosi Jr., four or five years ago. So we're showing what was apparently Bela Lugosi's print. Isn't that cool? I think it's very cool. Then he looked further and he said, "oh dear, the condition report is not good." The worst condition seemed to be in reel 2. He said "why don't we throw it on a flatbed viewer, you can come in and look for yourself?” I went to the Academy, on Vine Street, and had a look. I hadn't seen anything on a Steenbeck in a while. And yes, that reel is a little shrunken, there are a couple of dialogue jumps and splices, but it's actually in pretty good shape! And if there were ever a film that would seem appropriate to see in slightly battered condition, it would be Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla! It's a B-movie that was probably never seen in pristine condition.
Many of the people who saw it were maybe not in pristine condition!
And we haven't been announced them, but we're showing vintage shorts and cartoons with each feature. All of them are going to be in 35mm. They come from the UCLA film archive, from Warner archives, from Paramount, Universal, all of whom have been very cooperative.
And you have some great guests coming.
We're so pleased that the filmmakers we've contacted have responded as they have. Alexander Payne doesn't live in Los Angeles anymore; he splits his time between Omaha, his home town, and Greece. He's making it his business to be here, which is awfully generous of him. And Laura Dern is coming. The very first film we're showing is one of my favorites, Nicole Holofcener's Please Give. She's coming, and she said to me that it's one of her favorites of her films, too. I think that film is just terrific. She, like Alexander, deals in observational humor and in this case a bit of social satire, and those films tend not to find an easy path in the marketplace. They don't lend themselves to a one-line description, they don't have big marquee stars. But it's a terrific movie.
We have Phil Rosenthal, with Exporting Raymond, which is a very funny film. He's the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, which was such a huge success that Sony, who produced it, sent him to Russia to recreate the show with a Russian staff at a Russian cast. And he was smart enough to bring two videographers along to document the process. That was an inspired idea, because the saga that you follow is hilarious and impossible to have made up. You couldn't create a script funnier than this. And this is all genuine. This is not phony reality TV. It’s a genuine slice of a man's life.
And I'm old friends with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Their stock in trade is making films about real people. Their most recent feature, Big Eyes, with Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, didn't break records at the box office, but it's a really good film. And the backstory of that movie is interesting because they stumbled onto the story of Margaret Keane, the painter of those big-eyed children. They tracked her down, and won her trust and approval. They wanted to use the real work, so they needed her cooperation. And then they renewed that option for 11 years, because the film almost got made several times and then fell apart each time. They never surrendered their rights to a studio during all that time; they wanted to maintain control of the property. So they kept paying her and keeping her informed as to their progress, or lack of progress. Finally, as things seem to happen in Hollywood, when it came together, it came together very quickly. Tim Burton — they wrote Ed Wood for him — had attached himself as a producer, which was a nice gesture on his part to help give them some clout. And he finally decided that he would direct it.
Then there's The Death of Superman Lives — What Happened? The film hasn't been on a big screen since director Jon Schnepp's passing; his life partner and producing partner Holly K Payne is presenting it. I don't think you have to be into comics to see that story of Superman Lives as a great Hollywood story.
And Sing Street, which is running Friday night. Everyone I know who has seen it loves it, but I think I've met everyone who's seen it! A good movie is such a rare bird that it seems almost criminal that, when one comes along, it doesn't get the good breaks or doesn't reach enough people to matter. And just this week, it was announced that they're turning it into a stage musical, as they did with John Carney's earlier film, Once. So there are people who still believe in it. That will be introduced by me and Doug Benson, who is a big fan of that film, and Doug is going to do a live recording of Doug Loves Movies that opening night. And we have Joe Dante and Josh Olson doing an episode of their podcast, The Movies That Made Me, and in this case the “me” will be me!
Will you be introducing each film and/or conducting Q&As?
I'll be there a whole lot. I'll be there, and very visible and available. I mean, that's part of the idea! And I wouldn't want to miss — we all feel that we will not just be watching the movies. We'll be watching the audience watching the movies. Now these are kind of our babies, and we want to see how well they play.
We've also invited a bunch of friends who have written film books lately, to come do a mass book signing on Sunday morning. It being Mother's Day, if you've purchased a badge, you can bring your mom for free. Bring mom to see a movie, and meet other nice people. The other component of this, which Jesse keeps emphasizing, is that it's not just about the movies, it's about community. A good festival, as you know, is one where you meet people — you talk to strangers and say "hey, what'd you think of that?" And that's a big, big part of this. It's about bringing people together to see movie as opposed to sitting home and streaming. And streaming is great. It's an enormous convenience; it's made films to accessible to people who otherwise wouldn't be able to see them. We all know the benefits, but there's no real substitute for seeing a film with a sympatico audience, in a darkened room, on a screen that's larger than life.
MaltinFest runs at the Egyptian Theatre in L.A. from May 10-12. Get your tickets here.