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UCSD Alum Keeps It Classy at Turner Classic Movies

As vice president in charge of programming at Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Charles Tabesh, UCSD Class of '83, has been programming film festivals for the past 14 years.

By Beth Accomando and UC San Diego

Not many people can claim Martin Scorsese, Carrie Fisher, Alec Baldwin and Cher as fans of their work, but Charles Tabesh can. He is the vice president in charge of programming at Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

Scorsese told TCM's Robert Osborne on the red carpet at the 2007 Oscars, “I couldn't live without Turner Classic Movies,” while Fisher noted in an Entertainment Weekly interview that “it's the only thing I watch, it's like permanent wallpaper in my bedroom.”

Tabesh appreciates the praise but is quick to note that since he is not the one making the films. “I’m just proud I'm part of a channel that is bringing these films to people,” he says.

But film critic Leonard Maltin's praise for TCM singles out Tabesh: “For film buffs everywhere, TCM is an oasis in the cluttered world of television. That's something of a miracle in this age of mass-marketing and youth culture. What's more, it's unadulterated—even purer than Ivory Soap—and that is largely the work of Charlie Tabesh, who works so diligently to put classic movies into new and interesting contexts, day after day.”

TCM, in case you've never tuned in, is manna from heaven for film buffs. The 24/7 programming highlights obscure silent classics like John Barrymore's Don Juan as well as blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings. You can find tributes to singing cowboys as well as to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. You can check into the TCM Drive-In (with double feature delights such as Godzilla and The Blob) or check out the Star of the Month. If you are addicted to film you can always get a fix at TCM.

When Tabesh attended in the 1980s, he never would have guessed that he'd be programming movies for a cable network, although as an only child he admits to watching movies and sports most weekends on TV. At UCSD he first enrolled as a political science major and then switched to economics. “It was just easier truthfully,” he says. “You took tests but you didn't have to write papers.” He also worked as the sports editor at the UCSD Guardian newspaper. But he never took a single film class.

His first job out of college had nothing to do with any of his studies or passions. It was what he describes as “an unbelievably horrendous job” at a company that made phone books. “My department made sure the white pages were accurate. We'd take the galleys and go line by line through the white pages to look for any spelling or formatting mistakes.”

That lasted two months and then he moved to Los Angeles to work for a political fundraiser. LA would prove to be the perfect place to put his love of movies to good use. Next, he landed a job at the revered LA movie channel, The Z Channel, where he temped briefly in 1989. Sadly, the cable channel was in its final months and being bought out by SportsChannel. But since Tabesh also loved sports he stayed on at SportsChannel until it, too, went out of business in 1993. Then Tim Ryerson, a former boss from The Z Channel, called because he was setting up shop at Encore, another movie channel.

“I had an interview scheduled in Denver [where Encore is based] and I wanted to make sure I was prepared. I'd been unemployed for 10 months and I was pretty desperate. I knew the one hole in my resume was my lack of film background … so I studied film books, mainly Maltin's guide, as though I was preparing for a final. Soon after I arrived, Tim put me in a room, gave me a list of 100 movies and told me to create as many festivals as I could, based on actor, director or theme, anything I could think of.”

Tabesh scored high and got the job. He eventually moved over to TCM in 1997 where he has essentially been programming film festivals for the past 14 years. The cable network is based in Atlanta but he works mostly out of New York, traveling back and forth when necessary. And he describes himself like “a kid in a candy store with all these great movies.”

At TCM he oversees a staff of four and together they do the TCM programming. “I manage the budget, decide which films and windows we want. And I also do deals on my own with the independent distributors. There's a separate acquisitions department that supports all of the Turner networks, including TCM. They handle the negotiations with the studios.”

When Tabesh assumed the role of vice president in charge of programming at TCM, the only real competitor was AMC. But AMC took a distinctly nostalgic approach to its programming. That's not what Tabesh wanted to do.

“I think for us context is very important,” Tabesh says, “So we never just play a movie. It's always programmed with some thought about the theme for the night or the star we want to focus on. So if Casablanca plays four to five times a year, each time it plays it has a different intro to explain the context for that particular showing. So it might be because it's part of a World War II festival or a Humphrey Bogart festival.”

During his first year Tabesh scheduled a festival of classic documentaries that brought a lot of attention to the network and earned him more autonomy. With that success, he later instituted a series called Race and Hollywood.

“The first one was about five years ago,” he recounts. “It was black images on film and looked at how Hollywood has portrayed African-Americans. It's not a celebration of blacks in film; it's more an academic look at the various characterizations and stereotypes. So we played movies like Birth of a Nation and some of the more offensive films, but put it into a real academic context and explained the cultural significance of the film and the impact it had. We started with the silent era and went all the way up to Spike Lee.”

Tabesh is especially proud of that series. This year's focus is on Arabs in Hollywood. Tabesh's poli-sci background gives him a strong social consciousness, which comes through in these programming choices. Yet he insists he never takes sides. So back in 2004, TCM brought in two Democrat and two Republican senators to host their favorite movies. The network also had a writer from the National Review on to host what he considered to be the best conservative movies of all time as well as a writer from The Nation to host the best liberal movies. Such programming might not fly at a conventional commercial network.

He appreciates that TCM is not an ad-supported network and that allows them to do more with the films. “It gives us a lot more flexibility. We definitely try to mix it up in terms of the more obscure films for the hardcore film buffs,” Tabesh says. “Plus, within Turner, we're the little guys. TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network and CNN – those are the bigger businesses by far. I think there's a lot of love and appreciation for TCM within the [Turner] company and I think we're very lucky that they kind of let us do what we think is best and trust us to do it right.”

And critics agree. The Baltimore Sun raved: “Thank goodness for Turner Classic Movies, a station that loves its movies as much as any fan and lets them play out in their entirety, complete to the final copyright notice.” TCM's documentary Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton—The Man in the Shadows allowed one famous filmmaker to pay tribute to a lesser-known producer who made stylish low-budget horror films in the '40s. About the documentary, Variety exclaimed, “Nowhere else on television is such a genuine love for filmmaking consistently on display as in the Turner Classic Movies documentaries, especially when they have the audacity to stretch beyond household-name stars and directors.”

But putting together a TCM lineup isn't always easy. “Trying to clear films with whatever studio owns them is just an ongoing process,” Tabesh explains. There's no one-stop-shop, so he has to deal with multiple studios as well as tracking down films that have been ensnared in legal battles.

Recently Tabesh has developed a new aspect of his job: programming an actual film festival. Although the idea had been discussed since he started working at TCM, Tabesh says the festival only became a reality two years ago.

“When we have our film festival [in Hollywood] we meet a lot of the people in person and the passion is really strong and that makes us all feel good,” says Tabesh. “You do get a sense of being part of a community that is pretty great.”

The downside of programming a film festival is that you have a fixed number of hours in which to cram all your selections. Those restrictions make Tabesh all the more grateful for the endless hours of programming he has to fill at the cable station. In September, for example, TCM hosts a festival celebrating 50 years of Merchant Ivory films, offers Kirk Douglas as the Star of the Month and will have Cher come on as a guest programmer to introduce her favorite films: Follow the Fleet, Hobson's Choice, The Big Street and Lady Burlesque. Cher joins a diverse list of guest programmers that includes fighter Evander Holyfield, game show host Alex Trebek, Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins, actress Raquel Welch and author Ray Bradbury.

Tabesh emphasizes that the definition of a TCM film is pretty broad. Films aren't restricted by any era or country or genre. Again, it all comes back to context.

“If Katharine Hepburn is our star of the month,” explains Tabesh, “we'll go back to her first films from the early '30s but we'll want to show every movie that she's made that we can show, and that includes a movie like Love Affair from 1992 that was very poorly received. It's certainly not in the realm of what people would think of as a typical TCM classic but in that context it makes sense to show it.”

That kind of dedication is what makes Tabesh good at his job and what makes TCM so beloved by fans. Tabesh takes pride in bringing a diverse array of films to movie buffs, exposing a new generation to the classics, and helping preserve obscure films from complete oblivion.

“I do take pride, we all take pride in that and we should. We feel like it's important. It is kind of a mission. We have to do this because they can be forgotten.”

This article was written by Beth Accomando for UC San Diego's Alumni Association. She is the KPBS film critic and author of the blog Cinema Junkie. She also freelances for NPR.

Matt Ferry December 19, 2012 at 08:39 AM
Great article! Love TCM!!!!

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