“Hello, I’m Ben Mankiewicz. Welcome to TCM”

Story and photos by Nikki McKim

Last month, the Journal had the incredible opportunity to visit the Atlanta-based headquarters of Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Turner Classic Movies launched in 1994, the baby of CNN and TBS founder Ted Turner. The network boasts commercial-free classic films, a promise they’ve kept for nearly 30 years. They bring on a variety of filmmakers, actors and other industry professionals to discuss movies, actors and studios that made old Hollywood fascinating. 

TCM/Warner Media Digital Marketing Manager Diana would be my tour guide for the day, giving me the history and the behind-the-scenes look at what goes on while on set. 

As you entered the studio, you could sense the same undeniable energy you feel in the Falls City Journal office on a Monday while trying to put the paper to bed. It’s the energy you have when you’re on a mission with a small staff full of passion, a mound of work and a looming deadline. Every person there poured their heart and soul into their work, ensuring that what viewers see on TCM is nothing short of perfection.

Many people worldwide, both young and old, share a love for classic cinema and a passionate dedication to TCM, the network’s knowledge, and the film library presented 24 hours a day with careful curation. 

A quick Google search turns up hundreds of personal testimonies of those affected by the recent staff changes and cuts at the network. The network has legions of fans who turn to the channel and even the staff for comfort when they struggle in their own lives. During the pandemic, the hosts and films were a great source of comfort for many who stayed home for months, many alone with no family, but who spent days online talking to other film fans about what the channel was showing. 

When David Zaslav, head of Warner Bros. Discovery, started laying off senior management this summer, people got nervous. Whenever a CEO starts tinkering with a beloved brand it’s time to worry. But when people worry about a brand or institution, it’s easy to forget there are real people and families affected by the layoffs and others working around the clock to produce and protect that institution many hold so near and dear. 

When you get to go “behind the scenes,” a certain amount of fear comes with it. There’s a saying, “Don’t meet your heroes,” and so many have put these people on a pedestal for so long.  

The Director, Make-Up, Wardrobe, and PA were all welcoming and warm as they prepared for a day of shooting with few breaks.

Ben Mankiewicz, the long-time host of TCM, was in town for the week to shoot his introductions and outros for several films. 

Writer-producer Mankiewicz was only the second person to serve as TCM host when he joined the channel in 2003. He’s now the primary primetime host, although he shares duties with Alicia Malone, Dave Karger and Jaqueline Stewart.

Mankiewicz is the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of “Citizen Kane,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Pride of the Yankees” and “The Wizard of Oz,” to name a few films. His great-uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, directed “All About Eve,” and “Guys and Dolls”, and his brother Josh Mankiewicz has been reporting for “Dateline” since the mid-90s. Entertainment and film are in his blood. When he started his hosting duties with TCM, he admitted that for much of his life, “[he] didn’t even love classic movies.” 

“I grew to tolerate them in high school and college when I got so tired of complaining about contemporary movies where everything blows up and the scripts were horrible. I kept asking, ‘Why doesn’t anybody care?’ Mankiewicz told James Sanford of Newhouse News Service in a 2003 interview. “Well, then I realized there’s a million movies out there where the script isn’t terrible.”

He credited Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” for his awakening.

“That was the first movie that got me interested in classic movies, he stated. “My mom made me watch it when I was 16 or 17, and I remember thinking, ‘That Cary Grant guy is cool.’”

Nearly twenty years to the day Mankiewicz started with TCM, I had the privilege of watching his film introductions for that “Cary Grant guy’s films.

Seeing Mankiewicz’s meticulous attention to detail and dedication to each segment was interesting. When the time came for breaks in filming, he would walk off-set and settle behind the camera to rehearse his dialogue. When the time came to go back on camera, he often got his introductions in one take. What makes his introductions personal is the input Mankiewicz has on his scripts that are put together by a team of writers and researchers. It’s a collaborative effort. Much like a newspaper, the entire team strives for accuracy when telling the stories of the films and the people who bring them to life. 

It can be a surreal experience to see something you watch on your TV countless times come to life right before your eyes.

“Hello, I’m Ben Mankiewicz. Welcome to TCM,” a phrase many have found so comforting, were the first lines on the prompter and echoed through the TCM set as Mankiewicz delivered his introduction with the ease of a professional. 

Ben and company did introductions and outros for 15 films before they broke for lunch, including classics like “Soylent Green,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “I Was a Male War Bride,” “Money Business” and “The Philadelphia Story.” 

It’s difficult not to be captivated by his words, just as many were by original patriarch Robert Osborne’s. The men bring passion and knowledge only so few can. Mankiewicz delivered insightful and entertaining commentary for over an hour, bringing the films to life for worldwide viewers. 

What an extraordinary opportunity to see this gifted and small group of talent do the work many classic film fans only dream of being a part of. All while maintaining a genuine sense of camaraderie and teamwork among the staff. Despite their challenges as a smaller team, their love for classic films and commitment to delivering exceptional content shone through in every interaction.

It was the teamwork of getting the set decorations right when they had to break to decorate for the holidays. It was how they worked together to ensure Ben hit every mark and had every hair in place and how they laughed together when Mankiewicz adlibbed some good-faith ribbing at his fellow TCM Noir Alley host, Eddie Mueller. They are a well-oiled machine that works together seamlessly in a way only years of experience can provide. 

The set TCM fans know and love was much smaller in person than many could imagine. When you’re at home watching Mankiewicz or Alicia Malone talk about these films, you forget they’re in a studio which is a talent so few hosts can perfect.

This day was notable in the TCM offices. Everyone celebrated Ben Mankiewicz’s 20th anniversary at the network during the lunch break with a special lunch. The staff gathered to honor his dedication and contributions to the world of classic film. Ben was met in the commissary with balloons, dessert, a photo of himself from his first day that had been signed with congratulatory messages and a specially catered meal. 

After lunch, the TCM staff was so kind and welcoming as the stations Social Media Manager, Caroline, sat and discussed past festivals and some of her work. She’s overseen getting some of the red-carpet talent for past festivals, no small feat. 

Then came a face many film fans would recognize immediately. Genevieve McGillicuddy, whom many have come to admire so much for all the work she’s done at the network and with the festival for the past 15 years. McGillicuddy is the Executive Director of the TCM Film Festival and she graciously took time to sit down and talk before a meeting she had that afternoon. She shared stories of working with the late Robert Osborne, Hollywood, and the Film Festival, where she’s worked with some incredible talent while organizing the event including Peter O’Toole and Tony Curtis. 

Leaving the Turner Classic Movies headquarters, it was easy to feel a renewed admiration and appreciation for this small team’s incredible work. It was a reminder that sometimes, it’s not about the team size but rather the amount of heart and passion they bring to their craft. Witnessing the passion of such a small staff at Turner Classic Movies was incredibly moving. Despite their size, their love for classic films radiated throughout the experience. You could feel their dedication and genuine enthusiasm for preserving the magic of cinema. Seeing a team come together and create something unique with their shared passion is truly inspiring.

The small-town newspaper and the big-city cable network are similar. We don’t do it for the praise or the money; we do what we do because we’re passionate about what we’re doing and sometimes that’s better than anything else.

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