Tag Archives: festivals

A Decidedly Unscientific Guide to TCMFF Pass Levels

Passes for the TCM Classic Film Festival go on sale to the general public today, and I have been happy to see that so many of my friends will be returning to Hollywood this year. After two of virtual festivals, the excitement of seeing our festival friends in April is palpable.

Since its inception in 2010, the TCM Classic Film Festival has been the crown jewel of classic film festivals––a five-day, multi-venue event where the community is as important as the movies. Affectionately known as the “TCMFF” by attendees, its audience is unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else. Once, before a showing of Double Wedding, presenter Illiana Douglas asked a trivia question: “Does anybody know how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together?” The answer, immediate and enthusiastic, rang through the theater. “FOURTEEN!” shouted the entire audience together. It is a place for people with this level of enthusiasm to connect with each other and the movies they love.

Putting on a festival of this magnitude is a staggeringly expensive effort. Theater rentals, appearance and licensing fees, security, and transportation all contribute to a huge financial expenditure on the part of TCM. That cost is passed on to attendees in the price of festival passes, which has long been a sticking point for devoted fans who want to come, but have to choose between paying for a pass and paying the rent. Many fans who attend save all year for the experience, and this year prices have increased upward of 18%. The prohibitive price of the festival has been a touchy subject, and it is something I have definite opinions about, but I would like to put that discussion aside for the moment and focus on the passes that many fans are purchasing today.

In the interest of helping people get the most out of the festival as they consider a pass (or attending without a pass, an option I will address later), I thought I would do a rundown of pass levels and what they get you. Some people believe that Spotlight is the only way to get the “full” festival experience, and thus decide not to go if they can’t spend that much money. This is not the case. You can have a wonderful and fulfilling experience without the top level pass, and you should not let the price of the Spotlight pass deter you from the festival.

These are observations that I have gleaned from my eight years attending the TCMFF, and if anyone reading has advice to add, please feel free to comment below!

I will start from the lowest pass level and work my way up.


The Palace Pass, going for $349, is a great budget option for people looking to experience Los Angeles while in town for the festival. It gives you access to festival venues starting Friday, April 22, but it doesn’t give you access to any of the parties, the Chinese Multiplex or Club TCM (which hosts panel discussions and interviews). For people who have come into town specifically for the festival, restricted access might be a dealbreaker, but for casual festivalgoers who would like to go on day trips to explore the city while in town, and avoid being in a dark theater all day, this might be just the pass for you.

I have met many Palace Pass holders in line, and a few of them hadn’t read about the pass before they purchased it––but of those that had, and had made the informed decision to experience the festival this way, they are almost universally very satisfied with it.


The Classic Pass, going for $849 this year, gives you access to all festival venues, Thursday through Sunday. The only thing it doesn’t give you is access to the Opening Night Movie and Opening Night Party––everything else you can access. The difficult thing about the timing of pass sales is that the opening night movie has not been announced yet. This leaves fans gambling on whether or not the opening night movie will be worth the extra cost of a higher level pass. But there are other movies on opening night as well––and with a Classic Pass, you are guaranteed a movie to see on Thursday night.

Personally, I am a huge fan of the Classic Pass and recommend it to anyone looking for my suggestion. To my mind, it’s the best deal of the festival––and even though it’s still expensive by any standard, you get the core of the festival––all the movies except opening night, and everything at Club TCM.


Going for $1,099 this year, this is the perfect pass for those who were thinking of going the Classic route, but know they want to see the opening night movie. To justify the extra expense, there are a few ways to figure out what the opening night movie might be––it is usually an anniversary restoration of a classic musical, so that leaves the likely years of 1942, 1952, 1962, 1972, or 1982 (TCM usually doesn’t go beyond the 1980s for opening night movies). If there’s a movie from any of those years that you know will be getting a restoration, and you desperately want to see it, the Essential Pass might be worth your gamble for that alone. The Essential Pass also gets you a gift bag of TCM collectibles, which in past years has included mugs, journals, and collectible programs.

For festivalgoers trying to decide between the Essential and Spotlight Pass, keep in mind that the Essential Pass doesn’t give you priority entry the way the Spotlight Pass does. You’ll be waiting in the general line alongside the Classic and Palace Pass-level attendees. If priority entry and seating is important to you, you might want to consider going up to the top level.


The highest level pass is the Spotlight Pass, which for $2,549 gives you access to everything the festival has to offer. You will attend the opening night movie and go to the party afterward, also attended by VIPs and TCM hosts. People holding the Spotlight Pass get priority entry into all screenings, and opportunities to socialize with the festival’s special guests. In prior years, Spotlight holders also got breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel, though I’m not sure if that will be happening again this year.

The Spotlight Pass is a good choice for people who want to experience the TCMFF in “first class.” Some Spotlight passholders I’ve talked to see the festival as a kind of vacation––the same way people might look at a luxury all-inclusive package. But I know many diehard fans who buy a Spotlight Pass every year, and see it as a unique opportunity to meet their favorite stars and talk to TCM hosts. The Spotlight Pass is really what you make it.

There is also an option that doesn’t require a pass, the STANDBY alternative. Let’s take the photo above as an example: if you know that you want to see My Darling Clementine on Friday at 9:30, you would go early and get in a standby line. Passholders go to a separate section––Spotlight and VIPs in one line, Classic, Essential, and members of the press in another––and they are let in first. If the theater doesn’t fill up with passholders, the theater opens to standby attendees, and you purchase your individual ticket for $20.

I know a few people who are doing standby this year, due to the significant increase in pass prices. It is rare that a screening completely fills up, but for very popular films and those in small theaters, you might face a bit of a letdown. But truthfully, sometimes Classic and Essential passholders face the same letdown when demand exceeds expectation, and in that case, the film in question is often shown again. Just like a regular passholder, you can try again when the film is re-screened.

Since 2013, I have attended as a member of the media, which essentially provides the same benefits as a Classic Pass. I did purchase an actual Classic Pass in 2012 when Backlots was in its infancy, and I was very pleased with it. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything––I had little interest in the parties and had other movies on opening night that I wanted to see. But my preferences are not everyone’s, so I hope this guide has been helpful as you consider a pass, or going without one, today.

Hope to see you at the TCMFF!


TCM Classic Film Festival Returns in 2022

Classic film fans on social media were abuzz this morning as news emerged that the TCM Classic Film Festival will return in person in 2022.

After two years of virtual programming, this announcement was met with palpable joy among long-time festival attendees. Since this morning, I have seen friends making plans about where they’ll meet for meals, and some have already booked their rooms at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the headquarters of the “TCMFF.”

It will not be a complete return to normal, as COVID-19 protocols will be in place to protect festivalgoers. According to the website, this means that among other precautions, the festival will require “mandatory masking, social distancing, capacity limits, negative test results verification, and/or proof of vaccination.” There will be more detailed updates to come, and the festival will be following Los Angeles County guidelines and best practices.

There are still a lot of updates to come, and I will do my best to bring them to you as I learn them. Backlots has attended the festival since 2013, and I am so happy that this year, we finally have a return to the glorious in-person experience of the TCMFF. There is nothing else like it in the world.

More to come!

Live from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Day 3–Felix the Cat, “The Spanish Dancer,” “The Canadian,” “South,” “Pandora’s Box,” “The Overcoat.”

As is a running theme throughout the festival, today’s lineup focused on recent restorations of newly discovered or newly constructed prints. For me, the most interesting restoration story from today had to do with The Spanish Dancer, and how the film was put together like a puzzle, using pieces found all over the world individually. The pieces were spliced together, and the complete film began to emerge as a whole unit, as it had never been seen since its release in 1923. It is remarkable how resourceful archivists can be in their determination to restore and preserve–it gives me security that these films are safe in their hands, and that we will be able to keep them to show future generations.

Here are the movies we saw today:

First film: FELIX THE CAT

The day began at 10:00 with a series of Felix the Cat cartoons. As they were shown on the big screen in original 35 mm with live music, the showing of the cartoons was introduced by Leonard Maltin as a historic event–they are very rarely seen this way. Indeed, it felt like a historic event. We saw 7 cartoon shorts featuring Felix, and they came alive with the help of some great avant-garde live music. The titles of the shorts:

•    Felix Loses Out
•    Felix the Cat Trips Thru Toyland (which had some pretty intensely disturbing scenes. It surprised me that they would allow things like hangings in a kids’ cartoon.)
•    Felix the Cat Flirts with Fate (my personal favorite, in which Felix goes to Mars. In one scene, Felix begins to do the Charleston in a Mars restaurant, and a waiter says to him “Listen buddy, you can’t do the Charleston on Mars!”)
•    Felix the Cat in Blunderland
•    Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather
•    Felix the Cat in Eskimotive
•    Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles.


This may be my favorite movie of the day. It was introduced in such a way that didn’t give me much hope for it, but it turned out to be a smart, focused plot following a clever, witty, script. I found myself really enjoying it! Starring Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno, it tells the story of a gypsy girl in love with a count, and when the count is condemned to death for breaking one of the King’s decrees, the gypsy girl goes to great lengths to try to save him. It’s a complex plot, but that’s the basic idea, and I would highly recommend that you see this film when it is released, so I don’t want to give away any major plot points. Another interesting tidbit about this film is that the young prince, whom the gypsy girl saves from falling off a horse at one point in the movie, is played by none other than a 6-year-old girl named Dawn O’Day who would later become known as the 1940’s movie actress Anne Shirley.

Third film: THE CANADIAN

This was a sweet story about love and marriage, and how a woman can make a complete turnaround in her personality when provided with satisfactory circumstances. A sort of cold fish snob by the name of Nora Marsh comes to live with her brother in a roughneck part of Alberta, Canada, and immediately makes a bad impression with her haughty manners and tendency to look down on others. She has no domestic abilities whatsoever, and constantly irritates her brother’s wife. Finally though, she somewhat suddenly proposes marriage to the houseman, and they move in together. It was not a match made in heaven, and they were unhappy for quite some time, due to various hardships they encounter. However, by the end all is mended in a quaint, sweet way that I described to my friend Marya as “very Canadian.” There just doesn’t seem to be a bad bone in this whole movie.

Fourth film: SOUTH

This was a very unusual and special screening of the documentary footage taken by cameraman Frank Hurley on the infamous Shackleton expedition through the frozen Antartctic. Breathtaking film of the landscape of Antarctica as well as profiles of the animals Shackleton encountered, make this film a really intriguing and different documentary. It looks markedly different than any other true-to-life film that I have seen from that era–instead, it resembles more something like March of the Penguins. To top off the unusualness of the film, Shackleton’s original script from when the film was screened upon its first release, was read by an actor accompanying the score.

Fifth film: PANDORA’S BOX

By this point in the evening, I was beginning to feel some exhaustion, but was eager to see this film. The movie was supposed to start at 7:00, but after the staff cleared the theater to do soundchecks after South, they didn’t re-open for Pandora’s Box at 7:00 as expected. We were told that it would be another 15 minutes or so, but it was a full 45 minutes after 7:00 that they finally re-opened the theater. The movie itself didn’t start until 8:15, and for someone who has been sitting in a theater taking notes and viewing 4 movies over the course of 8 hours, that was too late. I nearly fell asleep in the middle of Pandora’s Box due to the hour and my exhaustion, but managed to keep myself awake long enough to talk about the film in this post. It was a very interesting story of how this film came to be–there exists no original negative, all the footage they have comes from the original restoration that was done years ago, and the funding for this restoration comes from none other than Hugh Hefner, of all people. The film is an exquisite example of German expressionist filmmaking, that reached a height in Berlin in the 1920’s and was the genesis of countless other philosophic movements within filmmaking over the past 90 years. The film tells the story of a woman, Lulu, who simply allures men and enjoys them. When she accidentally/is forced to commit a murder, she is sentenced to 5 years in prison but manages to escape. The ensuing details all lead to Lulu’s further spiraling into problems and ultimately…well, I won’t give away the ending. This showing was only the second time this restoration had been seen by a North American audience, and it was the world premiere of a new score for the film, which was absolutely stunning.

I can’t say that I was wild about the restoration. It made the image too modern, too perfect. A movie from this era should be grainy, it should have a specific look to it that was lost in this restoration. It looked like it came from a DVD, or should have been a scene in The Artist. I’m glad they restored it, but it would have been more appealing to me if they had taken care not to wipe away all the grain.

Unfortunately, due to the extremely late start of Pandora’s Box, I was not able to stay for the sixth film: THE OVERCOAT, owing to my own exhaustion as well as concerns for getting home safely and in time to write this post. I was disappointed, as I had planned on reviewing every film for this blog, but I felt I needed to take care of my health first. Sometime in the future, I will get a copy of The Overcoat and review it here, to make up for missing it at the Silent FIlm Festival.

Stay tuned tomorrow!