El Paso's Plaza Classic Film Festival

It sounds like the plot of a hokey movie: a town rallies to a common cause, succeeds against the odds, then reaps the rewards.  But that’s exactly what happened thirty years ago in El Paso, Texas.  The city's legendary Plaza Theatre was on the verge of being leveled to make room for a fancy new parking lot — yes, a parking lot.  (I told you it sounded like a movie.)  But the El Paso Community Foundation raised enough money to save the historic site, which culminated in a major restoration and reopening ten years ago.

Then in 2008, after purchasing digital and 35mm projectors for the theater, they programmed a few classic movies to play at a mini-film festival.  It was supposed to be a one-off, but it’s grown into one of America’s biggest film festivals.  Every year, the Plaza Classic Film Festival shows 90 or so movies over the course of eleven days — with one of the most diverse lineups of any festival.  This year’s crop includes epics, musicals, restored silent pictures, foreign titles, stoner comedies, modern blockbusters, kiddie movies and cult favorites.  Starting August 4th, you can head to the Plaza to watch everything from 1931’s Frankenstein to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Return of the Jedi.

“We consider anniversaries, potential themes (we have several each year), new restorations, and, of course, artistic quality. Not that everything we show is a bonafide classic,” says Doug Pullen, the festival’s Program Director.  “We also consider local angles. This year, for example, we’re going to honor the 60th anniversary of Giant with a screening and guest appearance by Mexican actress Elsa Cardenas, who played Juana, and a related exhibition at the El Paso Museum of History. The bulk of the movie was shot nearby in Marfa, Texas, and there are several El Paso connections.”

Doug Pullen is a journalist by trade.  He worked as a music and movie critic for many years before heading home to El Paso to write for the El Paso Times, which led to his current job programming the Plaza Classic Film Festival.  Each year he starts with a large list of prospects, around 600 movies deep.  So how does he pick his pictures?  “I consult with a program advisory committee, which is made up of various people with varying tastes,” he says.  “I also rely on audience feedback, suggestions from friends and, of course, my own ideas and research.”

This year’s fest has so many terrific movies on the schedule that it’s hard for Doug to pick a favorite.  “I’m excited about any movie I’m actually able to sit down and watch from beginning to end,” he laughs.  “I run around so much I not only lose weight, but my knees are killing me by the festival’s end.  That said, I’m anxious to see Giant on our 43-foot screen again (it was shown during the first PCFF in 2008), and Apocalypse Now is one I’ve wanted to show since I signed on.  Young Frankenstein with a big crowd should be a lot of fun. I also want to see how some of our foreign classics are received, such as Pather Panchali and Belle de Jour.  And our outdoor movies are fun.  We show The Rocky Horror Picture Show every year and it’s just crazy. The buzz is electric. And I wanna feel the energy of all those moms, daughters and friends when we show Mamma Mia on the inflatable screen outside.”

Now in its ninth year, the festival doesn’t just celebrate the Plaza Theatre, it’s actively giving back to the community that saved it.  “It’s produced by the El Paso Community Foundation,” explains Doug, “so it’s a nonprofit, noncommercial festival, and, more important, it is the biggest and most important of our outreach efforts.  The Foundation was instrumental in saving and restoring the Plaza, but it also awards more than $6 million a year in grants to a wide variety of nonprofits working to battle hunger, promote education, and improve healthcare.  The festival has played a part in revitalizing our downtown — the Plaza Theatre has been a real economic driver — and it’s time the rest of the world knows more about the world’s largest classic film festival.”


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