Jim Carl was lucky enough to grow up in Sweetwater, a West Texas town where for some reason the Hollywood studios dumped their losers and tested their new releases. Carl, who now runs the Retro film series at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, went to a lot of films growing up, and became a hobbyist who filled scrapbooks with film ads he clipped from newspapers.
After moving to New York and taking film classes at NYU and SUNY-Purchase, Carl lucked into a job with Universal Pictures, working as a location auditor – the business end of film production – for “Law and Order,” “Kojak” and other TV shows and films.
Always fascinated by audience research and analysis, he found out about a graduate program at UNC that dovetailed with his interest, so Carl moved to the Triangle. But Carl never attended school in Chapel Hill, because he saw an ad for a job at the Carolina Theatre, where, in 1995, he became director of film programming.
“I knew nothing about the film industry in 1995,” he says, “I had never worked with distributors and booking films.”
Carl was a quick study. After booking the N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and creating the Jewish Film Festival, he realized there was an untapped audience in the area for classic genre films. After making money by programming flicks like “Friday the 13th,” Carl created the RetroClassics series (other Retro series followed: RetroFantasma, RetroTreasures, RetroAmore, RetroEpics and RetroMusicals). “Basically anything that’s 20 years or older qualifies as retro,” he says.
Q: Describe your series.
A: A weekly film series of double features of any genre from the silent age up to 1996. I have a 20-year rule (the film has to be at least 20 years old). My motto is I will program any genre and any film if I think it will make money. And interesting is good, but fun is better.
Q: What’s your audience?
A: I cater to an audience that loves nostalgia. They like to see the films on the big screen they saw as children. Seventies and ’80s films are very popular, especially with Generation X and Y. But whenever I program films like Hitchcock, they’ve learned to trust the brand. They love the trailers that precede the films, the trivia – they love the whole experience.
Q: What are your favorite films you’ve programmed?
A: “Fitzcarraldo” (1982, German, about a man trying to build an opera house in the Amazon). Werner Herzog owns the rights, and you have to work with him to screen it. I had to track him down in Germany, and he asked me, “How are you planning to show the film in the U.S.? Are you going to an archive?” And he said, “Obviously, you have to screen my personal print. All the prints in the US are not fit for public exhibition.”
Q: What’s the one you wish you hadn’t?
A: Any kind of bug movie: “Them,” “Tarantula,” “The Fly.” I think people get creeped out by bugs. The bug movies are my lowest grossers. And the biggest bomb I ever programmed was the Charlie Chaplin retrospective. I marketed the hell out of it; people were just not interested.
Q: What are your desert island films?
A: The original “Star Wars” trilogy. I owe my childhood, and my childhood allowance to those films. “Jaws” – absolutely love it. I would love to have grown up on an island like Amity. “Ordinary People” – it’s my favorite drama of all time. Mary Tyler Moore’s character reminds me a little of my own mother.
The Carolina Theatre will show a double feature of “Beaches” and “Steel Magnolias” starting at 7 p.m. Friday, May 13, as part of their RetroAmore series. For more information about the Retro film series, go to carolinatheatre.org/films.