"(The layoffs) were traumatic because many of our employees had been with us for up to 30 and 40 years," Mack said. "A lot retired, but many had to find other work. But I'm much happier running the downsized business, because I never knew what to expect when I had full-time employees."
Mack's basement is filled with artifacts of his business, including dozens of 35 mm film reels of his snipes. The film isn't just for show — there are still a number of drive-ins and a select group of theaters that still have film projectors. So Mack keeps negatives of all his trailers around, and will send them to Astro film lab in River North to make duplicates for film orders.
Despite the expense of film and its scarcity (only Kodak will make film for motion pictures by March, when Fuji will stop making film stock for the movies), Mack says he still prefers it to digital technology.
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"When you've been taught in film, you see that there's a discipline compared to working with digital," says Mack, 60, who started with his family's company in 1974. "You couldn't make mistakes in film without having costly reshoots, but even though it's a lot easier now with digital, you've lost the art that film provides."
Although Filmack did its share of live-action snipes (including some memorable ones for the now-defunct Plitt Theatres in the 1980s, where former WLS and WCFL radio personality Larry Lujack offered a "shiny new dime" for patrons who would keep quiet during the movie), it's the animated trailers that gave the company an international reputation. "Lobby" is the most famous of those animated snipes. But "Variety Show," also known as "10-Minute Intermission Clock" is almost as renowned.
"Variety Show," also produced in the mid-1950s by Filmack, runs for 10 minutes (there's also a five-minute version). It was often run between double features at a drive-in theater — indeed, it is the countdown to the start of the next feature. In addition to a countdown ("Show starts in eight minutes"), the trailer also features dancing and performing concessions. The most memorable part of this snipe is when a hot dog is coaxed into jumping into a bun, a gesture that seems somewhat bawdy to today's jaded audiences.
"You see clips of ("Variety Show") in 'Grease,' and it's in that movie because it's part of the wallpaper of America," says animation historian Jerry Beck. "These things would run for weeks and weeks and were seen over and over. It's part of the communal experience of going to the movies."
The artists who worked on these films are, for the most part, unknown. It's been said that Walt Disney may have worked in a freelance capacity for Filmack in the early 1920s, but that hasn't been determined.
But it is almost certain that another legendary animator did work for Filmack in the 1950s. Dave Fleischer, best known as the director for all the "Betty Boop" cartoons in the 1930s and every "Popeye" cartoon from 1933 to 1942, worked for Filmack in 1953. A 1953 trade magazine published by Filmack credits Fleischer as the producer for an early version of "Let's All Go to the Lobby".
"There were quite a few Hollywood animators moonlighting on snipes at the time, so it wouldn't be surprising to find someone like Dave Fleischer doing work like this," Beck said.
Mack now charges theaters around $260 to buy a copy of "Lobby," and he says he still gets around 100 requests per year for the snipe. Filmack also produces new trailers. It was responsible for AMC's "Silence Is Golden" campaign a few years ago. And it works every year with the Illinois secretary of state's office, distributing trailers that promote the state's organ donor campaign. The company also does its share of custom snipes for independent theaters, Mack said.
But the future of Filmack is uncertain. Mack has two grown sons, but he says they aren't interested in continuing the business. "Once he retires, it will be the end of an era," Eagan said. "There won't be anything to replace Filmack."
But Mack plans to soldier on for as long as possible. "I'll just hang in there and serve my clients as long as I can," he said.
Watch classic Filmack movie trailers online at chicagotribune.com/filmack.