Film people are a different breed. It’s a necessity. Some of you have heard the legends about some guy who has discovered the only print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927). The story goes that he’s just waiting to cash in on the bonanza when the film’s copyright expires. Well, there isn’t a bonanza. The potential market for a video release of London After Midnight is so small that the money probably wouldn’t even cover the costs of transferring a nitrate print to video.
Film collectors don’t collect films because we want something rare and valuable (there are a few, but not many, who do that). We collect films because we love them. We collect films because they look beautiful on the big screen. We collect films because we know that many will be neglected and thrown away unless we keep them. Most of us would like to do more public shows, but the way the laws are written makes it difficult. (See my other post on “The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law” for a more detailed rant on this).
The rules for public performance of music are much more civilized than they are for film. I can even bend the artist’s intent and still get by with it. If I decided that I wanted to become Hitler Elvis, and that I wanted to sing Elvis songs in German while doing a “Sieg Heil,” I could probably do it. I’d have to pay the BMI/ASCAP fees and keep a record of which songs I played, but I could do it. I use this example not because I’m advocating it, but because artistically it’s about as far from what Elvis did as I can imagine.
But for film it’s different. Say I wanted to run a retrospective of Walt Disney movies, and I wanted to do it respectfully using quality prints. Say I wanted to pay the proper royalties and contacted the people at the Disney corporation. They’d file charges against me! Sure, I can be disrespectful to Elvis for a price! But even paying proper respect to Mickey Mouse gets the Feds at your door.
It’s much easier for a collector to sit on his collection and not let anyone see the films he has. No hassles, no effort. It avoids all kinds of issues. I’ve been called evil and greedy by people who want me to release a copyrighted film on video (I won’t). I’ve been called evil and greedy by movie studios who are upset that I saved something they threw out. Don’t believe me? Here’s a real story…
A number of years ago I was in an old film exchange in Vincennes, IN. They were going to close it and throw out all the films that no one wanted. Down in the guts of the building was a 35mm print of a film listed as Going All the Way. I recognized the title. It was based on a best-selling novel by Dan Wakefield, and much of it was shot near my house. The owner of the building wanted $50 for the print, so I figured I could watch it once and trade it. At least I’d see it on a big screen. Remember, I have 35mm projectors at my house.
How, you may ask, did a print end up here? It happens all the time. The studio makes a decision: “Are we going to make enough money off a future show to justify paying for return shipping on this print?” If not, they just leave it for the owner of the theater or film exchange. This is a long-held tradition in the film industry. Dawson City, Alaska became the last-stop dumping ground for hundreds of silent films, and they were miraculously preserved due to the low temperatures. The practice of dumping continues to this day, which is how I found this print.
A few years later I happened to meet the author of the book Going All the Way, Dan Wakefield, at a poetry reading. Knowing that there’s an audience for personal appearances, I asked him if he might be willing to appear at a screening of the film if I could arrange it. He was very nice and told me that he’d be happy to do that. Unfortunately, I had no idea who owned the film, and he apparently didn’t, either, so that made it doubly difficult.
Like many independent films, Going All the Way only barely got made. Even though the book was a best-seller, and Dan Wakefield is a major author, it was a tough sell. Since there’s a fair amount of sex in it, the major studios shied away. Studios like to make films with explosions and not ones from character-based books.
Going All the Way got sweet revenge on the studios by being one of those rare independent films with a long shelf life. Ben Affleck appeared in it (before he became famous), which suddenly makes an obscure indie into a marketable feature. The copyright records indicated a complex web of finances and loans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down who owned it for a theatrical screening. The rights history is online, but there are video rights and theatrical rights, and all sorts of other ancillary things. After a while it looks like buckshot on a rural stop sign.
A buddy of mine tipped me off that the theatrical rights might be owned by a particular studio. I won’t implicate them, partly because they’re generally pretty nice, but they’re known the world around. I called my contact there, and he told me that it was owned by a studio sub-division, and he gave me the contact information.
The lady yelled at me and screamed that I was an evil film pirate, and that they would sue me. I thanked her and told her that I’d suddenly lost the film and I wouldn’t be showing it. Normally, I’d offer to let the studio borrow the print or use it for remastering, but not with an attitude like that! She confirmed that they didn’t have a negative or print material on it. (It’s not surprising… I think I counted twelve ownership changes since the film was released. Studios just bought rights in bulk and didn’t check to see if film shipped on every title.)
I point out that this explains why there isn’t a legitimate DVD or Blu-Ray of Going All the Way. With the film masters missing, no one has material good enough to reissue the film. It’s not exactly lost, but it’s the next thing to it. We’ve got the low-definition master tape made for cable release and VHS. That’s it. Amazon has some bootleg DVDs made from the VHS tapes. I’m sure they look terrible.
Let me interject here that projecting 35mm is a lot of work. You have to change reels every 20 minutes. It’s heavy, and everything needs to be rewound afterward. I don’t do it unless I really need to. So this film had been sitting in my basement, unseen, for all this time. I will also interject that it was on Agfa stock, important because Agfa is an undated stock that a lot of independent films used, because it was pretty cheap.
Fast forward another year or two. A film festival wants to run Going All the Way. They want to get Mr. Wakefield to attend the screening. They’ve heard I have a print. They contact me and ask what I know about it. I tell them that the owner studio is hostile, but if they can get a legal clearance, I’d be happy to let them use the print.
But first, I’d need to watch it to make sure the print is in good shape. In all these years I hadn’t seen it. I figured it was time.
I put in the first reel. It was ratty and brittle, but runnable. A couple of splices made with masking tape. Ick. The credits came up with the title, and a 1950s car. Looked OK. As I let it run, I realized that Ben Affleck wasn’t in the movie, nor was anyone else I knew from the cast. This wasn’t the right film!
What I had gotten was a soft-core drive-in film called Goin’ All the Way (no g—that’s the key). I hadn’t known it because it was on undated film stock. I never had the film that I thought I’d had. The festival ran the correct movie from VHS (gag). All that work to track down the owners and the rights, threats of lawsuits, and nothing!
And still, it’s possible that Going All the Way will never be recovered on film. It was made in 1997! If this film were a person, he wouldn’t be old enough to drink yet!
This is how films become lost. It’s also how collectors, people who want to play the rules, will say, “I don’t have that. I don’t know anything about it.”
No wonder that 50% of all films made before 1950 are said to be lost today.