Director, film critic and voracious cinephile François Truffaut once suggested a thought experiment. Imagine, he said, that there was only one copy of a book, and that copy was kept in one library, and you could only read it inside of this library. This is how moviegoers were compelled to check out the objects of their desire before repertory halls, videotape and streaming platforms brought the elusive story of cinema, so long out of reach, into the palm of our hands.
A reminder of the inaccessibility of cinematic heritage – and its reliance on the whims of a corporate mogul – came on August 2 when two related news stories hit entertainment business sites with the force of a mallet. between the eyes: bat girl, the latest entry in the DC Universe pipeline, a film that was essentially boxed (to use the dated analog term), was not to receive a commercial release – either theatrical, streaming or straight-to-video – but rather be peremptorily set aside (idem) by its underwriters at Warner Bros. Discovery. The decision to bury bat girl – without speaking about Scoob! Holiday destination, because no one does – was a business, not personal. Inspired by the scheming Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks The producers (1967), Warner Discovery CEO David Zaslav calculated that the $90 million production would be more profitable as a tax write-off than as a source of revenue. Rather than risk bat girl become a hit on opening night, at the Spring for Hitlerhe decided to hit the delete key.
The bat girl coincided with plans for Warner Bros. Discovery to combine the Discovery+ and HBO Max streaming services. At that time, subscribers noticed another deletion: certain titles from the HBO Max back catalog mysteriously disappeared from the platform. Whether The witches and American pickle has fallen into a black hole, could the choice titles of the HBO and TCM catalog be next? Suddenly, a generation weaned from instant access and unlimited options has learned that the corporate entities that own the movies — sorry, “content” — can dispose of them however they see fit. Literally.
Which might not be a bad thing. Hassle-free and hassle-free access to the canon of world cinema is a very recent phenomenon. For Generations X to Z, the realization that the endless stream of movie titles can be cut at source could be a useful life lesson.
The backstory – also the lived experience of moviegoers of a certain age – is instructive. For most of the first century of cinema, moviegoers went to a movie theater in the material world and watched what the exponent was projecting on the screen. Television brought the screen closer to home, but you still relied on the broadcaster’s programming decisions. Then, starting in the 1980s, video cassettes put a hard copy of the film in the hands of the consumer, who could now press play from home. Finally, in the early 21st century, the relationship’s presumed climax came when high-definition digital streaming opened up a virtual library, back and forth. If you’re under 30, you’ve probably never experienced an entertainment environment in which you weren’t empowered to bring down nearly any movie you wanted from the clouds.
Perhaps only cinephiles raised in an alternate cinematic universe can appreciate the miraculous leap forward. Back when Hollywood offered a fixed menu of seasonal offerings, you had to either take it or leave. Film archives as such did not exist and no civilian could enter the vaults of the major studios. The uneven arrangement began to change in 1935 with the establishment of the Cinematheque at the Museum of Modern Art. “The bulk of all films, whether foreign or domestic, new or old, which have historical or aesthetic significance, are not merely invisible under existing circumstances, but are in serious danger of being permanently lost or destroyed” , said Jack Abbott and Iris. Barry, the founding visionaries of the library. Like Truffaut, they made the right comparison: “The situation is almost as if no novel were accessible to the public, with the exception of the production of the current year. We could not consult the films of the library, but the field of possibilities widened in an exponential way, from the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès.
Given the cavalier manner in which studios handled their inventory, the film industry certainly needed a reliable curator of its heritage. In 1937, in a conflagration still lamented by film scholars, the Twentieth Century-Fox warehouse in Little Ferry, New Jersey caught fire, destroying the irreplaceable negatives of Fox’s silent classics. Don’t worry, a Fox spokesperson said, the kindling was made up of “just old movies.”
Museums and repertoire houses took their custodianship duties more seriously. Starting in the post-war period, a movie buff, especially in big cities or around a college campus, could get a solid grounding in classic Hollywood cinema by carefully watching the local arthouse monthly schedules. The Brattle Theater in Boston was among the pioneers. In 1962, he launched the first of a series of retrospective programs of the films of Humphrey Bogart, a strategy that set a pattern for various nationwide stimulus bills, the films of WC Fields, Mae West and Marx Brothers always proving popular. In 1977, the critic and programmer Arthur Knight scanned a circuit of revival houses and declared in The Hollywood Reporter that “interest in old films has reached an all-time high” with many audiences preferring “old to new”.
While moviegoers still depended on the programmer’s druthers, there were emotional trade-offs — waiting for the coveted movie to show up, hunting down rarities, and finally landing a date with your dream title. The most electrifying buzz from that bygone era came from sneaking yourself into a screening of a film not legally distributed and exhibited downstream by a private collector. The first time I saw Walt Disney southern song (1946), by Alfred Hitchcock The man who knew too much (1956), and, come to think of it, the movie Zapruder – was at an underground screening whose time and place had passed silently.
The advent of VHS in the 1980s and DVD in the 1990s changed the hierarchy. For studios, tapes and records were ancillary sources of revenue, but for movie fans, they meant property rights. While few private collectors had the space, money, and expertise to collect and preserve 35mm prints, anyone with a library had room for a private cache of favorite titles. You may know or be one of those people who have lovingly cataloged their records and put them in alphabetical order. Abigail De Kosnik, director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, has a happy phrase for this practice: “rogue archiving.” In 2000, some 250,000 VHS or DVD titles were available to video hoarders, per year Billboard pointing.
Of course, the revolution brought about by high-resolution streaming has been the deciding factor in putting the film archive at your fingertips. In 2007, Netflix, long a regular customer of the US Postal Service, inaugurated its steaming platform, a move soon followed by all blocks on your Roku homepage. Not only did you not have to go to the Brattle or the Blockbuster, but you never had to leave the house. The movies would still be there to download.
Until they weren’t – which perhaps explains why so many dedicated streamers have experienced Warner Bros. bushwhacking. Discovery like waking up in cold water. Streaming generations may never give “physical media” a full embrace, but a few fans need to think about buying back-up copies of their prized titles as a hedge against the whims of digital overlords.
As for bat girl and yes, Scoob! Holiday destination, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t eventually emerge from the Phantom Zone in some form. Films – whether analog or digital – are difficult to suppress when there is a printed and waiting audience. Eventually, I assume it will be seen on the dark web, or a pirate video, or better yet, at a secret screening known only to cool kids.