STUDIOS EXECS, DISTRIBUTORS & DESTROYING 35MM
Park Circus is the latest company doing away with 35mm archival film prints as a digital utopia of motion pictures continues to threaten.
At Chapel Distribution (Chapel was co-founded and directed by George Florence with Mark Spratt), we refer to photochemical film prints and think of what we do as showing movies to an audience. The studios now call film prints “analogue backups” and even though the industry term has always been “exhibition”, they now refer to a screening of a film as the “exploitation of an asset”. This small detail gives an insight into the mindset that permeates from the top of the global capital corporations that now control most of the entertainment industry.
I’ve written before that every time a 35mm film print is screened, it’s like an angel gets its wings. Well, we reluctantly handed over the print of It’s a Wonderful Life – it was once in the Chapel Distribution catalogue and was later recalled by Park Circus after the rights changed hands – and we were assured that the print would remain available to us. It was, after all, one we showed annually on Christmas eve; an Astor* tradition. The print (still in great condition) was made from the restoration elements commissioned by the US Library of Congress for their preservation archive and it was one of the best classic prints (image and sound) we have ever screened. Chapel Distribution paid around $4500 to have the print made when they bought the rights. The rights expired and reverted to Paramount but, Park Circus, who now represent the majority of repertory content outside of the US, insisted that the print be handed to Park Circus, after assurances from Paramount that the print would not be junked. In the meantime the print went missing. Paramount locally disclaimed any knowledge of what happened to it. We were told finally that it went back to the UK. Was it junked there or are audiences enjoying it? We don’t know. Consequently, we shifted the screening from the 24th to the 27th 2014 and ran a new DCP – one that was supplied by Paramount.
Early in 2014, after Eli Wallach died, The Astor* decided to run a special tribute screening of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The film print has screened many times at the Astor and is a favourite among Melbourne cinema-goers. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the prints that was recalled a couple of years ago when the rights holder changed and it was sent to “central storage facilities” after Deluxe decided they could no longer store film prints. Apparently the “tech ops people” decided that many of those prints were in poor condition and supposedly those were junked (there was nothing wrong with the GBU film print, and the majority of the film prints in question were in as-new condition, having been commissioned by Chapel as new prints). Which prints they were we do not know. We’ll probably never know. We have asked, but our voice only seems to make its way into an echo chamber. Just prior to our request for the print, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly had undergone a brand new 4K digital restoration and, according to Park Circus (the new rights holder), “this is the version the studio wishes audiences to see”. That’s as close to an answer as we have managed to get, even after flat out asking if the print had been junked.
Followers of Dudeism may remember how The Astor* used to host Melbourne’s Lebowski Bash. The fantastic people who organise the event did in fact plan to return to Melbourne in 2014 with their tribute band, In ‘n’ Out burger bar, and white russians in tow. Unfortunately, the distributor decided to up the cost of film hire. For people who don’t know, the distributors take either a flat fee or a percentage of the box office when cinemas screen their films. There are standard industry rates but there’s also some room for negotiation when it comes to event screenings. Having had the event at the Astor before and having set a film hire fee in previous years, one might think that the very same fee could be applied the following year so that the people of Melbourne could enjoy an event that was created in good spirit, aiming to bring joy and entertainment to town. But that would be the thinking of a film-lover and not a studio executive. It seems that in 2014 Universal wanted a higher fee for film hire. It was too expensive for the people who organise Lebowski Bash because the event is born of love, passion and elbow grease and not huge profit margins. Without a lower fee the event would not go ahead and it did not go ahead.
We here at Neon Marquee believe Tara Judah's insight above is a perfect example of where the current state of cinema rests. Bean counters with barely any knowledge of film (other than a profit spreadsheet that seems to green light trash like a third Alvin & The Chipmunks movie) are calling the shots and are the type that would see an archive shut down and destroyed rather than preserve for future generations. Time will tell.
Written by Tara Judah
This article originally appeared on a previous version of The Astor Theatre's blog.
*= specific to the theatres' previous management at time of writing.