As a new board member of the National Film Registry and Founder and Co-President of reissue film distributor Rialto Pictures, Goldstein is firmly entrenched in the film world. Yet it was an early passion for the medium that led him to where he is today. To celebrate Film Forum's upcoming Heist Films retrospective, we spoke to Goldstein about his unique position and forced him -- not at gunpoint -- to give us his Top 5 Heist Films in the series.
How does one get into programming and curating in the first place?
I ran a little summer repertory house in Cape Cod -- not so well, but it was a good experience. [Laughs] Then I worked in programming at Carnegie Hall and Bleecker Street Cinemas before becoming co-director at the Thalia Theater in New York in the early 1980s. This was before VHS and they certainly didn't show these films regularly on television. At the Thalia, we just ran double bills haphazardly with no thematic thread. When I was hired by [Film Forum Director] Karen Cooper to run the theater's repertory screen in 1986, we became pioneers in a regular program of long-run revivals [Ed. Note: Cooper, along with co-programmer Mike Maggiore, still books the premiere screens]. No theater had that policy before us. Repertory theaters were closing left and right, and VHS was taking over. People thought there would be no need to show older films anymore. At Film Forum, I felt that if we could upgrade the quality of the prints, we could get people back into the theaters.
Was your initial programming a reaction to the VHS explosion?
Yeah. Some of my first few retrospectives were devoted to CinemaScope and 3-D movies. It was things you couldn't see on VHS. I was trying to show that films could still be a theatrical experience and there are things you can't duplicate at home. Even today, you can't duplicate being in the middle of an appreciative audience. You can't replicate the moviegoing experience.
What is your thought process behind selecting a theme? How much is personal taste versus what you think the audience will like?
A lot of it is my personal taste. My theory has always been that if I like it, someone else is going to like it. You have to stay true to your own taste. Not that everything I do is to my own taste -- it might get a little monotonous -- but I don't want to abandon things I grew up loving just because critics are into something else.
Would you ever show a film that you don't like but you think the audience will?
Every so often, I do, but it doesn't do so well. I'm not saying I'm perfect, but I have a good feel for the audience. I'm not highbrow in any way. I like films that audiences like. A perfect example is the [original] 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.' [Director] Joe Sargent is not an auteur, but this film is the greatest New York thriller ever. Some people would leave it out because it's not by someone considered an auteur.
You're laying waste to the idea that anyone who works at Film Forum has to be a film snob.
That's totally a false conception. If anything, I'm more populist. We certainly don't try to project film snobbism. I help write the calendar descriptions and our approach is, you have to come to it with a certain knowledge of film. But that's not necessarily being a snob. If you read our blurbs, they're very wisecracky. I'm not saying we don't attract film snobs. In fact, people construct what they think Film Forum is to me. Cinema, to me, is everything. It's not just [Jean-Luc] Godard or [Robert] Bresson. It's William Castle. It's Ed Wood. It's the Marx Brothers. That's what makes it so great.
So walk me through how you put together a retrospective.
It all starts with general ideas. I get ideas all the time. An idea is cheap, but it has to make sense in terms of a film series. You go to IMDb and people make long lists about a theme -- and that's great for doing it at home. But you have to put together a program that's going to make people want to come to a theater. Obviously print quality matters, but it has to lend itself to a great grouping of films. Period. Thematic series are the hardest things to do. Sometimes it can take me as long as five years to develop a series.
When you watch movies, is the idea of potentially developing a new theme always in your head?
Always. I never stop thinking about it. It's almost like I can't enjoy a movie because I'm thinking about several things at once.
Is obsession too strong a word?
Naw, I'm not obsessed. If anyone calls me a "film buff," I say, "I am not a film buff." A buff is someone who's an amateur. I do this for a living. I don't collect anything.
How many films will you normally start with when compiling an initial retrospective list?
Do you put that together without regard to print or availability or does that play into it?
If you're doing a thematic retrospective, it's not as much of a problem, because you have a much broader field to work from. If you're doing a director retrospective -- someone like Nicholas Ray -- and the archives come back, hypothetically, and say they don't have a print for 'Rebel Without a Cause,' you can't do Nick Ray, because you need the key films. To make a series interesting, you have to include quintessential films, but also rare films to make the series interesting to another segment. I'm actually targeting two audiences: the people who are discovering Nick Ray and have never seen 'Rebel' and the cinephiles who want to see films they've never seen. At this point, that balance is second nature to me.
How much do you monitor the popularity of specific films, and does that affect future programming?
The financial success of a film does not influence the programming. If it did, the programming wouldn't be half as good. When you try to think in terms of what will do well at the box office, you'll never have an interesting program. It's the interesting programming that makes it financially successful. Whenever people say, "Oh, that wouldn't be popular," that's the wrong approach.
In the beginning, I was much more exhaustive with my retrospectives and was not as curatorial as I am today. If it was a Billy Wilder retrospective, I'd play every film he ever wrote or directed. But that's not curating. You have to make a selection for the audience. You have to think in terms somewhere between a wide audience and cinephiliac audience.
With the widespread increase of various distribution channels such as Netflix, Amazon On Demand, etc., do you feel threatened by the heightened competition?
It might have given us pause at one time. But I've found that we've established a theatrical audience totally separate from people who see films on Netflix, Turner Classic Movies or other things you might see as competition. I'm not saying we didn't lose audience because of those things, but our theaters are small enough where we can continue to do well. We had a huge hit with 'In A Lonely Place,' and they ran it on TCM the same week and it had no impact on us. There's a big difference between going to see it at the theater and on television. A lot of people don't care and people have told me they actually use my calendar for their Netflix queue.
Does that bother you?
I don't really care. I think it's good that they're paying attention.
How much more difficult were prints to find when you first started out versus today?
Things were much more difficult. The studios did not give us access to their archives. We have nearly full access now. We've established ourselves over the years as a legitimate archival house. Putting together retrospectives also points us to problem films [in terms of print quality] and we can say to studios, "This print isn't very good. You should make a new print." It's an ongoing thing.
Has any filmmaker ever objected to a film being shown?
We were the only theater to show [Stanley Kubrick's 1953 debut] 'Fear and Desire' since it was released. We got special permission to show the film and I put it on the calendar and Kubrick freaked out. He heard about it and he called up everyone he could to stop it.
Growing up, I assume you had a pretty strong attachment to the movies?
Yeah. I grew up in Long Island in the 1960s and my cinematheque was channels 2, 4, 5, 7 and 9. There were no VCRs or DVDs, so you'd read about films and wait for it to be on TV. You'd go through TV Guide and see that a movie was on at three in the morning. So on school nights, I'd sneak into the living room to watch a Marx Brothers movie. It was a much more exciting way to discover films than today, when so much seems so instantly accessible. Then I used to haunt the art and repertory houses in New York.
At what point did you think you could turn this into a career?
I must have been a weird kid, because I used to write down double-feature ideas when I was a teenager in my notebook. I hate to admit that. But I'd come up with things based on fun title combinations. The dynamic of double features are always a challenge in terms of what films complement each other. That's a craft which I'm proud of.
What was the last Hollywood blockbuster you paid to see?
That's a great question, because I gave up long ago. It's not a snob thing; I've just been so bored by the last ones I've seen. It would take a tremendous amount of word of mouth for me to go. It has nothing to do with my world ... Here's the thing missing from movies: magic. With everything digitally CGI, there's no such thing as an impressive special effect anymore. A lot of the movies look like video games. I saw 'Alice in Wonderland' and it was dreadful. I don't need to do that anymore. There's plenty of old movies I still haven't seen.
Bruce Goldstein's Top 5 Films from Film Forum's upcoming Heist Retrospective (in random order):
1. 'Rififi' -- "It's perfect. It's the blueprint for other heist films. It was also a blueprint for real crimes apparently and was banned in a few places. 'Rififi' is so detailed in its preparation. People talk about the famous 30-minute heist scene at the end, but the silent preparation by [actor/director] Jules Dassin casing the jewelry store is equally brilliant."
2. 'Asphalt Jungle' -- "It was the other gold standard. I don't think it can claim to be the first heist film, but it was the one that made a worldwide impact and influenced Dassin and [Jean-Pierre] Melville. It also pushed the envelope of screen permissiveness, because the Production Code because the code stated very clearly that you're not supposed to show a crime in detail and how it's performed."
3. 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' -- "It's a classic caper film and this series is really about caper films."
4. 'The Killing' -- Moviefone says: Stanley Kubrick's 1956 film revolves around a money-hungry yet incompetent group of men that attempt to rob a racetrack of two million dollars. While the film initially performed poorly upon its release, it has since been regarded as a fast-paced classic noir.
5. 'The Lavender Hill Mob' -- Moviefone says: One of the few heist comedies in the retrospective, Charles Crichton's 1951 film stars Alec Guinness as a gold bullion transporter who, with the help of Stanley Holloway, attempts to steal one million pounds worth of gold.
The Heist Film Series runs from October 1-21 at Film Forum.