Sunday, August 10, 2008

Where Were You In '92?

The current state of film preservation seems mostly to be concerned with finding old prints of films considered lost. That's all well and good - with an estimated 80 to 90% of silent films before 1930 deteriorated or gone, there's a lot of work to do.

(It wasn't until the advent of t.v. in the '50s that films really began to be saved more methodically, if only to show late at night. Now they want you to pay for it, by renting or selling you the DVDs. Of "The Lucy Show," no less.)

But there's a new generation of films - from the '80s and '90s - that have slowly and quietly been lost as well.

Dozens of small and medium-sized production companies that were created in the early days of VHS and cable, that struck deals for any and all independent films that suddenly had international audiences and portable assets, found themselves facing hard times as DVDs, the internet, and true "100 stations" finally came to fruition in the '90s.

Companies such as Hemdale, Vestron, Working Title, Miramax, Trimark, October Films, Live, ThinkFilm and Handmade all found their business models challenged and undermined in the last 20 years. All these companies have been sold off, cannibalized, or simply shut down.

In many cases their libraries were sold to the highest bidders, often to pay off creditors. Most of the films should have been sold to VHS or shown on cable stations, and many of them were. Ever see "The Reflecting Skin"? An early Viggo Mortensen psycho-drama that screwed up a whole generation of kids in the early '90s who caught it in its short cable life.

The rights to these films, usually a tangled web of foreign contracts with varying terms, deals, and rates were left alone and forgotten. The "assets" themselves, the films (never in the same place), have also changed hands uncounted and untracked.

These companies were responsible for hundreds of films, many of them from independent, foreign, and culturally important filmmakers in the last half of last century.

You can't find them anymore.

There's a whole generation of Ken Russell films that aren't available. He's still alive, you know, and been making films, but almost his entire late '80s and '90s output is out of print. Doesn't "Crimes of Passion" or "Whore" count for something? We used to rush out to see every Ken Russell film because...well, because it was Ken Russell. "Gothic" and "Salome's Last Dance" both have at best grey-market pan-and-scan releases. In legal limbo and not likely to rise to the surface again.

(And why are "The Devils" or "Listzomania" - two of his early and most hysterical classics - also not available in any format, including 35mm prints from the rights holders? I don't think this has to do entirely with Ken Russell (although no one ever really known what to do with him in the first place).)

Many films during the go-go era of the last 2 decades have gotten lost not through policy, but through neglect. Not just the prints, but the original elements, promo materials, and the rights themselves have gone untracked and forgotten as companies looked forward rather than back. The vaults themselves that held the assets (assuming they were held in vaults in the first place) have been sold, and possibly torn down or converted to condos.

Miramax owns various domestic rights to hundreds of foreign and domestic independent films, many of which had very limited or no theatrical releases. In the legal limbo when the Weinstein Bros. were put asunder from Disney, these films are now unobtainable.

(And it continues - Tarantino's and Rodriguez's ode to '70s film "Grindhouse" in its original form - with the shorter runtimes and fake trailers - is no longer available... in any format. It's for all practical purposes a lost film. Miramax isn't in the business of maintaining libraries for rent of 35mm films they own.)

Have these films been abandoned?

By example, Jeff Lipsky's October Films, an important distributor in the '90s, was bought and turned into USA in 1999. Later it was merged with Gramercy, and later Universal folded it into Good Machine (after buying them out) and renamed the skeleton Focus Features. Of course, each change further confused, diluted, and scattered the previous agreements. The original October library has been cherry-picked over the years, but such items as the post-"Bad Lieutenant" Abel Ferrara films and Pedro Almodovar's "Kika" are MIA.

(Interestingly, Mr. Lipsky appears to be lost at the moment as well.)

The foreign DVDs you may be able to find online are not from prints, but from video elements, sometimes from old VHSs.

The irony is, most of these small companies are bought for their libraries.

In the rush to commodify the new culture, the films have been treated like so much deodorant, bought and sold like cans of baked beans. Their shelf life has been prematurely shortened.

Can you hear me?

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