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  • Carrie Specht

Plaza Classic Film Festival


The Plaza Classic Film Festival, now in its 10th year, was started by the El Paso Community Foundation in 2008 as a special project to bring movies back to the historic Plaza Theatre. The Community Foundation purchased 35mm and state-of-the-art digital projection equipment for the atmospheric theater, which opened in 1930, closed in the early ’80s, and was restored for $38 million in 2006 in a joint partnership between the City of El Paso and the Community Foundation.

In 2006 the first Festival was called, The Movies Return to the Plaza Theatre and was the brainchild of EPCF President/CEO Eric Pearson and movie enthusiast Charles Horak. Produced on faith, the event became a smash hit. More than 25,000 people turned out to watch the 60 plus movies that screened at the Plaza Theatre and the adjacent Philanthropy Theatre.

Returning in 2009 with a new name, the Plaza Classic Film Festival, the celebration of classic films enjoyed a growing popularity in the region and throughout the country. Now the world's largest classic film festival (yes, it's bigger than the TCMFF!), the Plaza Classic averages attendance of 40,000 people a year! And it has brought in a glittering array of celebrity guests including Al Pacino, El Paso native Debbie Reynolds (who knew?), Rita Moreno, Eva Marie Saint, Tippi Hedren, Shirley Jones, Robert Wagner, Cindy Williams, Peter Bogdanovich, Louise Fletcher, Michael York, Nancy Olson, Candy Clark, Elsa Cardenas and Margaret O’Brien. How can a classic film fanatic possibly resist?

Since its inception the Plaza Classic has expanded its footprint and programming roster to include outdoor movies and concerts on Oregon Street next to San Jacinto Plaza, exhibitions and programs at the El Paso Museum of Art and the El Paso Museum of History, a film camp at the El Paso Public Library and Drive-in/Walk-up movies nine stories up atop the Mills Plaza Parking Garage. So, it's not surprising that more than 350,000 people have attended the first nine Plaza Classics, which has an economic impact of $1.5 million annually. About fifteen percent of its audience comes from outside of the El Paso/Juarez/Las Cruces radius, with a third from the Austin area. The Plaza Classic Film Festival also has become a major showcase for regional filmmakers through its Local Flavor series, sponsored by the Texas Film Commission. It screens features, shorts, documentaries and other projects, with its audience tripling in recent years.

The festival is programmed by Doug Pullen of the El Paso Community Foundation who works with an advisory committee made up of community volunteers and movie fans. Its members are: El Paso Community College mass communications professor Elvira Carrizal-Dukes; actor-screenwriter Camilla Carr (widow of screenwriter Edward Anhalt); filmmaker Carlos Corral, who coordinates the Local Flavor series; El Paso film collector and historian Jay Duncan; El Paso Community College mass communications professor Lisa Elliott; New Mexico State University graduate and classic movie buff Jack Fields; Julia Hussmann (widow of actor Pat Hingle); and Jaime Mendez, director of the UTEP student services center.

Each Festival Pass is $200.00 and includes admission to ALL Plaza Classic Film Festival films, a chance to jump the line, make advance reservations for Philanthropy Theatre events, attend special events when possible, and enjoy discounts at the nearby Starbucks (25% off) and the Camino Real Hotel's La Huerta and Dome restaurants and Dome Bar (15% off). Give yourself (or others) the gift of classic movies! The 10th anniversary of the Plaza Classic Film Festival will be August 3-13, 2017. Not that prices are low, noticeably lower than a first-run movie theater. This is so anyone from any income level can attend. Matinees in the Plaza Theatre are just $6. Evening shows in the Plaza are $8, with $10 for special guest appearances. A limited number of seats are available for $20 for the opening night VIP/Sponsor showing on the first Thursday of the Festival. Philanthropy Theatre movies are $4. The Mills Plaza Drive-In/Walk-Up movies are $5 at the door and the Friday-Saturday outdoor movies are FREE. In early July, tickets may be purchased in advance at the Plaza Theatre box office, Ticketmaster outlets and Ticketmaster.com.

And there's more! Cinema appreciation should begin early and one of the goals of the Plaza Classic Film Festival is to cultivate a new generation of classic film viewers. Toward that goal the Plaza Classic Film Festival offers an opportunity to bring together teens looking to see and discuss some great films. The Plaza Classic Film Club seeks up to 25 high school students ages 14 to 18 to be a part of its Film Club. Club members will receive full access to all of the Plaza Classic Film Festival’s screenings as well as some special presentations and tours of the historic Plaza Theatre. These passes are available for $100 for those 14 - 18 years of age only.

The Opening Night VIP Screening is by invitation-only, or by purchasing a Festival Pass. A small quantity of premium tickets may be made available once all Sponsors and Festival Pass holders are accommodated. All outdoor concerts and films are free. No tickets or passes are required. Don Bluth and Gary Goldman will appear with The Secret of NIMH at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 13 in the Plaza Theatre. They will also appear for a Filmmaker's Brunch Q&A at 11 a.m. Sunday, August 14 in the Foundation Room.

Special guest programmer, Laura Emerick, digital content editor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and formerly the arts editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, all-time favorite films Vertigo (1958), The Leopard (1963), Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) are scheduled for this year's festival. Golden-era films are among her passions, and that's why the Plaza Classic Film Festival has become one of her favorite annual destinations. At the Sun-Times, she served for 20 years as the editor for film critic Roger Ebert, who used to insist that "if a movie is in black and white, there's a better than 50 percent chance it will be worth seeing."

director of program production at Turner Classic Movies and for the upcoming streaming service, FilmStruck,Scott McGee, is in his third year of sharing his extensive movie knowledge with Plaza Classic Film Festival fans. As part of the team behind the TCM Classic Film Festival and the TCM Classic Cruise, he has programmed and introduced films and interviewed special guests at both events. He serves as host of the TCM Podcast, and has spoken at the George Eastman House, the Plaza Classic Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, as well as various universities and civic clubs. He is currently researching a forthcoming book on stunt work in movies. Needless to say, the Plaza Film Festival is happy to have Scott among its special guests once again.

Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss is also scheduled to appear at the 10th anniversary edition of the El Paso Community Foundation's Plaza Classic Film Festival. Dreyfuss, whose iconic career spans movies, TV and the stage, will appear for an on-stage interview before a screening of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster Jaws at 7 p.m. Saturday, August 12 in El Paso’s historic Plaza Theatre. He also is set for an on-stage interview before a screening of the inspirational 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) at 1 p.m. Sunday, August 13 in the Plaza Theatre. On August 12, Dreyfuss will appear for an autograph signing from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in the Foundation Room, 333 N. Oregon Street, across from San Jacinto Plaza, so be Sharpe and bring your memorabilia.

Another big star scheduled to appear is Kathleen Turner! The Academy Award and Tony Award nominee and two-time Golden Globe Award winner will sit down for an on-stage interview before a showing of the Francis Ford Coppola-directed Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) at 7 p.m. Friday, August 4 in the Plaza Theatre. She'll return to the Plaza stage the next day to appear with another box-office hit, **Romancing the Stone **(1984), at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, August 5. Not to be outdone, Miss Turner will also appear for an autograph signing from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, August 5 in the Foundation Room, 333 N. Oregon Street, across from San Jacinto Plaza. This really is a treat!

With such great films and spectacular talent, it would be a shame to miss out on such a fabulous event. So, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity and attend one of the best kept secrets of the South West before the Plaza Classic Film Festival becomes a hard ticket to get. I intend on going this year, so I hope to see you there among the other classic film fans!

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