The Plaza Classic Film Festival started in 2008 as a special project of the El Paso Community Foundation to bring movies back to the historic Plaza Theatre. The Community Foundation purchased 35mm and state of the art digital projection equipment for the atmospheric theater, which opened in 1930, closed in the early ’80s and was restored for $38 million in 2006 in a joint partnership between the City of El Paso and the Community Foundation.
The first Festival was called The Movies Return to the Plaza Theatre and was the brainchild of EPCF President/CEO Eric Pearson and local contractor, developer, Film Salon host, “On Film” radio host and walking classic film encyclopedia Charles Horak. It was a smash hit. More than 25,000 people turned out to watch more than 60 movies at the Plaza Theatre and adjacent Philanthropy Theatre.
It returned in 2009 with a new name, the Plaza Classic Film Festival, and a growing popularity in the region and throughout the country. PCFF has drawn major name celebrity guests — including Al Pacino, El Paso native Debbie Reynolds, Rita Moreno, Eva Marie Saint, Tippi Hedren, Shirley Jones, Robert Wagner, Cindy Williams, Louise Fletcher, Michael York and Margaret O’Brien — and audiences that average around 40,000 a year. Nearly 300,000 people have attended the first eight Festivals.
PCFF has expanded its footprint with the addition of free movies and concerts outdoors in the Arts Festival Plaza (due to construction, they’ll move this year to Mills Street) and the Mills Plaza Parking Garage, as well as annual collaborative exhibits with the El Paso Museum of Art that have included costumes designed by Edith Head, costumes and jewelry from “The Ten Commandments,” production art and movie posters from around the world from Charles Horak’s private collection. In 2015, the Plaza Classic teamed with the El Paso Museum of History for the first time on a “Gone With the Wind”-themed exhibit built around items from the David O. Selznick collection at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center.
The Festival also has become a showcase for the work of local and area filmmakers through its Local Flavor series, which screens features, shorts, documentaries and other films by area filmmakers or with strong local connections.
The Festival has an economic impact of $1.5 million annually. About 15 percent of its audience comes from outside of the 45-mile El Paso/Juarez/Las Cruces radius, a third of them from the Austin area.
This is the Festival’s eighth year. In 2013, PCFF artistic director Charles Horak stepped down and former El Paso Times entertainment writer Doug Pullen was hired as the new program director. He has been working with an advisory committee that consists of El Paso Community Foundation executives Eric Pearson, Kathrin Berg and Gary Williams, actor-screenwriter Camilla Carr (widow of screenwriter Edward Anhalt), UTEP’s Jaime Mendez (director of the student services center), NMSU graduate and classic film buff Jack Fields, filmmaker Carlos Corral, who coordinates our Local Flavor entries and events, EPCC mass communications professor Lisa Elliott, and Julia Hussman, widow of actor Pat Hingle.