The Plaza Classic Film Festival, which goes into its 12th year August 1-11, 2019, was started by the El Paso Community Foundation in 2008 as a special project to bring movies back to the historic Plaza Theatre. The Community Foundation purchased 35mm and state-of-the-art digital projection equipment (which was upgraded in 2018) 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 movie enthusiast 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. Now the world’s largest classic film festival, the Plaza Classic averages attendance of 40,000 people a year, and has brought in a glittering array of celebrity guests, including Al Pacino, El Paso native Debbie Reynolds, Rita Moreno, Richard Dreyfuss, Eva Marie Saint, Kathleen Turner, Sam Elliott, Bruce Dern, Ali MacGraw, Tippi Hedren, Shirley Jones, Robert Wagner, Cindy Williams, animators Don Bluth (an El Paso native) and Gary Goldman, Peter Bogdanovich, Louise Fletcher, Michael York, Nancy Olson, Candy Clark, Elsa Cardenas and Margaret O’Brien.
More than 440,000 people have attended the first ten Plaza Classics. The festival has an economic impact of $1.5 million annually. About 15 percent of its audience comes from outside of the El Paso/Juarez/Las Cruces radius, a third of them from the Austin area.
Plaza Classic has expanded its footprint and programming roster to include outdoor movies and concerts on Oregon Street next to San Jacinto Plaza, exhibitions and programs at the El Paso Museum of Art, the El Paso Museum of History, the El Paso Public Library, what we call Drive-in/Walk-up movies nine stories up atop the Mills Plaza Parking Garage and, new in 2018, an art exhibition at the Roderick Artpsace Lofts.
The Plaza Classic Film Festival also has become a major showcase for regional filmmakers through its Local Flavor series, sponsored by the Texas Film Commission. It screens features, shorts, documentaries and other projects, and its audience has tripled in recent years. For the first time, the 2018 Local Flavor series included its first awards, the $1,000 Local Flavor Award (which went to Bebe by Ryan Zaragoza), and the $500 Audience Flavorite Award (Jonathan Gonzales’ Act of Contrition), underwritten by the Public Relations Assocation of the Southwest.
The festival is programmed by Doug Pullen of the El Paso Community Foundation staff, who works with an advisory committee made up of community volunteers and movie fans. Its members are: actor-screenwriter Camilla Carr (widow of screenwriter Edward Anhalt); El Paso film collector, film historian and Sunset Film Society Director Jay Duncan; El Paso Community College mass communications professor Lisa Elliott; New Mexico State University graduate and classic movie buff Jack Fields; Julia Hussmann (widow of actor Pat Hingle); Jaime Mendez, film lecturer and director of the UTEP student services center; Rebecca Mendez, El Paso Chamber of Commerce administrative coordinator; CPA Terri Rutter; and El Paso Leadership Academy Founder and CEO Omar Yanar.