Tuesday, May 28, 2024

‘Sorcerer’, Distribution Rights, and Our Over Reliance on Streaming Media

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Ah streaming, the digital salvation of the cinephile. Those hard to find movies, those old Hollywood studio gems, those underground cult classics, all available online and easily accessible. Well that’s a lie and half.

Don’t get me wrong, streaming is great. I love streaming. I don’t love it so much as to not own any DVD’s, mind you, but I love it. One of the main conflicts between me and my wife is my continual desire to own physical copies clashing with her contentment to own digital streamable content. The compromise is that if it’s not streamable, then we can own the physical copy. In the interest of full disclosure, this has as much to do with limited storage space in our apartment as it does with my need to hold a movie in my hand.

But I think we underestimate just how much isn’t available for streaming. With every technological shift in how we watch movies at home there is a natural tendency to gradually transfer your collection to the newest model. Streaming is different in that before the transfer was between different physical media with better resolution. With streaming we’re letting go of the physical representation and being left with the film itself.

Except with each shift, there are movies that get left behind. It goes without saying that many filmmakers, especially those forced to live on the margins, are vulnerable to these shifts. But this doesn’t just affect filmmakers on the margins either.

No less than William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, and To Live And Die In L.A., knows this experience first hand. The reason so many films get lost in the shuffle is a fascinating, but ultimately boring and confusing world of distribution rights. A wonderland where things that are legal are utterly asinine and illogical and the commonsensical is considered a threat to profits.

On June 24, 1977 William Friedkin’s Sorcerer was released into theaters and was then pummeled into obscurity by another movie called Star Wars: A New Hope. Sorcerer lingered in obscurity for over thirty years. It remained hard to find not because of the sudden apparition of what would eventually become a cultural leviathan but because of a small company nobody had ever heard of called Cinema International Corporation.

Before we get lost in the weeds lets get a few things straight. Sorcerer is an adaptation of the French novel Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud. It was adapted once already by the the legendary French director Henri-Georges Clouzot in The Wages of Fear.

Universal and Paramount Studios both agreed to finance the movie’s twenty two million dollar budget. Production of Sorcerer spanned seven continents, starred Roy Scheider, and had a score composed by none other than Tangerine Dream. But twenty two million dollars is a lot of money in those days. Steven Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws had a budget of seven million dollars. George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope, which obliterated Friedkin’s movie into the abyss, had a budget of only eleven million dollars. So Sorcerer’s twenty two million dollar budget was risky by any standards.

Now lets us return to the thrillingly named Cinema International Corporation. Paramount and Universal created CIC back in 1970, as a cost saving maneuver designed to counter the dwindling theater attendance and antitrust laws. Then in 1973, MGM, for the same reasons, jettisoned their own distribution department and partnered with CIC, just for the international rights. All this is by way to showcase one thing, at no point at any stage, did any of these studios care what happened to their libraries. Merely how they could best profit and save money on distributing movies they were releasing now.

Some of you may be wondering why this matters? Why would CIC have anything to do with Friedkin’s Sorcerer, an American film?  Well CIC went bankrupt and then something funny happened. When Friedkin asked why Sorcerer wasn’t getting a DVD release he was told by both studios that they didn’t have the rights to it. The rights belonged to CIC.

Except CIC didn’t exist anymore. Logically, the rights had to have reverted back to either Paramount or Universal. Both studios flatly denied having the rights to Sorcerer. To Friedkin’s astonishment neither studio seemed to care, refusing to even talk to the other studio. If they did, they may find out the other owned the rights or discover some stipend was owed.  So Friedkin sued both Paramount and Universal for the domestic rights. Wouldn’t you know it, after threatening the full force of the California State Judiciary Friedkin found out the domestic rights to his movie belonged to Universal.

But it took a threat of a lawsuit to get anyone to do anything. Friedkin payed for it out of his own pocket. William Friedkin is a white man. A director who, at the time, a critical and financially proven success. Sorcerer was a mega budget, multi studio backed, major film, that flopped and labored in limbo until finally seeing the light of day on DVD in 2013;  four years ago. But hey you can stream it now, so awesome.

The reason so many films face similar fates is simple, greed. Not a greed that libertarian’s talk about as the oil that runs the free market. No, this is a stupid, petty, moronic greed. A cousin of the type of short sighted greed that has cost the studio system billions of dollars by hewing so religiously to a white, male, hetero-centric business model. Smaller studios sometimes are allowed to play with the big studios if they take on the cost of distribution rights. Or like Universal and Paramount, studios will band together to cover the cost, but when these companies go under, what happens to the rights?

If a small independent studio goes under, taking distribution rights with it, the bigger studios will watch from the shores, drinking champagne. After all if they were to ask if said company held the rights then the smaller company could name a price. Essentially what I’m saying is the modern studio is more concerned, stupidly so, with profits than with preserving any kind of a legacy.

Todd Haynes, an openly gay director, had a movie come out not too long ago, Wonderstruck. Distributed by everyone’s favorite corporate overlord Amazon. Wonderstruck didn’t do well, critically, or financially. Since Amazon is an utterly transparent company, the budget remains a secret. However, we can assume it cost more than it’s domestic box office total of slightly over one million dollars.

It was announced a few weeks ago that Amazon would be releasing Wonderstruck into the home video market in digital media form only. No physical media such as DVD or Blu-Ray were announced. Enough of an outcry arose that Amazon put out a statement that it would after all release Wonderstruck on DVD and Blu-Ray; this time.

There’s an odd sort of security people are attaching to streaming that is unnerving. Netflix drops movies every month, and picks up less and less. Back in 2013 some eighteen hundred movies were dropped from Netflix in one month alone. As streaming services become more and more focused on original content older movies start to slip away.

It’s arguable that the original content is safe either. Remember Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation? Or how about Dee Rees’ Academy Award nominated Mudbound? Or Bong Joon-ho’s Okja? All great movies, all only available on Netflix.

So here’s a disturbing question: what happens to the original content if Netflix should go under? What happens to the movies we buy digitally when the rights run out? Do we own them? What happens if Amazon is subsumed into another corporate entity that decides it doesn’t want the hassle of dealing with streaming services?

When you buy a DVD, it’s yours. The company can go out of business but you have it. There’s no such security with streaming. What’s worse is we seem to be okay with this; even though we recognize the world around us grows more unstable every day.

Streaming is great. I love streaming but it’s not the only way to watch movies, nor should it be the preferred way. There’s a whole other article I could write about the movies lost in the shuffle such as Lamont Johnson’s That Certain Summer. A made for television movie, written by Richard Levinson and William Link, where Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen play gay lovers whose relationship is discovered by Holbrook’s son. Your welcome.

I’m not arguing for abandoning streaming content. I’m simply asking for a sort of common sense approach to curating your movie library. Less digital, more pragmatic. And with any luck, more diverse. 

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