dawn-dead

The Rant

Recently, a number of classic film-oriented message boards and blogs have gotten bogged down in absurd arguments with some commenters, whose petulant sense of entitlement was somehow enraged when their favorite movie wasn’t scheduled for screening on TCM, or made available for free download, or somesuch. I’m not going to repeat the specifics of their complaints, because they’re too ridiculous to properly summarize, and I won’t link to the discussions either because they’ve already gotten more attention than they deserve. This isn’t meant as a specific rebuke to any one person’s argument–there’s no good that can come from getting into fights with anonymous posters on the Internet. Like boxing a shadow, you can’t win and will only end up looking foolish.

That being said, I do have some strongly held opinions on these underlying issues, so here’s my personal mission statement.

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To start with, let’s be clear about the principal issue here: movies were not made to be seen. They were made to make money. And for most of the history of movies, the business model under which they made money was a brief period of mass distribution (to theaters, or maybe TV) surrounded by long stretches of enforced scarcity.

You are not entitled to see a movie just because you want to. The argument that the filmmakers made it because they wanted it to be seen and enjoyed is a fallacy. It is true that many films were made by individual artists who also brought an ulterior aesthetic or communicative motive, and in many instances that additional non-cynical, non-commercial attitude is what gave those particular films an added oomph. But it wasn’t universal nor was it essential. Many films made under the most cynical and programmatic of intentions are immensely entertaining, and remain beloved after generations.

You could say that food is meant to be eaten, but that doesn’t give you the right to go into any restaurant you choose and expect to eat for free.

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It is also a recurring meme among the internet-enabled anonymous film fans to argue that the intellectual property ownership rights of the original filmmakers are superior to the rights of corporate institutions that just buy or own movies. In other words, video piracy is morally repugnant if you’re denying a royalty to the original filmmakers, but if all you’re doing is depriving a corporation then the bit torrent crowd can be considered modern day Robin Hoods.

This is insane. If someone breaks into your home and steals all your stuff, are they committing one kind of serious crime if they steal furniture you made by hand but a different and lesser crime if they steal furniture you bought?

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Let’s go back to first principles: movies are commodities, assets brought into being because investors believe they can profit from them. The people involved in making them did so because that’s their job, and as professionals they were paid.

Once upon a time… no, wait, I can be more precise than that: it was 1978. I was a Godzilla-obsessed child, avidly consuming every piece of Godzilliana that I could. But being a small child, I was dependent on the adults in my life, and the vicissitudes of fate. For example: my parents willingly took me to a drive-in theater in 1976 to see a double-bill of Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, but I was unable to persuade my grandmother to take me to Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster.

TV was easier–you didn’t need to convince someone else to drive you somewhere at a specific time and buy a ticket, you just had to tune in at the right time. Which is where I am in 1978–in front of Turner’s then flagship cable channel, WTBS, for a night of Godzilla. There is the original 1954 classic–or at least its reconfigured American variant, Godzilla King of the Monsters. It’s followed by Rodan. Then, Destroy All Monsters.

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Except there’s a problem. I’m just a little kid, with a bed time, and three straight Godzilla movies are going to run on into the late night past that curfew. But my parents, being reasonable people who loved me, gave me a choice: I could watch Godzilla and Rodan and then go to bed, or I could go to bed early and they’d wake me up for Destroy All Monsters.

It was a tough call–seeing two movies versus seeing one was a slight advantage, but I’d seen Rodan before and I knew TBS had it frequent rotation. The other two I’d never seen before–so it was the choice between the first ever Godzilla movie, or one with 11 different monsters having at each other in a sprawling world-smashing melee.

Even at age 8 I knew the importance of film history, so I opted for Plan A, and watched Godzilla and Rodan. When I was forced to turn off the TV and go to bed, I comforted myself with the knowledge that TBS played everything lots of times, and so I’d just wait to catch Destroy All Monsters on its next cycle round.

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Flash forward 20 years. That’s not a misprint. 20 years I waited for another chance to see Destroy All Monsters. I kept watching the TV Guide–if it ever cycled back around again, I missed it. It never came to any drive-in near me, and for years it was overlooked on VHS. Eventually in the late 1990s I discovered a subculture of gray market video bootleggers who ended my long dry spell. I’d feel guilty about patronizing bootleggers, but I’ve purchased three properly licensed DVDs, two laserdiscs, and a Blu-Ray since the film became available to me legally so I feel I’ve done my penance.

My point here is that, prior to the 21st century and the current media revolution, watching what you wanted to watch was a hit-or-miss affair. You could spend 20 years waiting for a movie. Or longer–I knew to track Destroy All Monsters because it came into my line of sight in a way that made me pay attention to what I was missing, but the legions of enjoyable, important, satisfying movies I’ve seen in the last 20 years of my life that weren’t available to me in my first 20 are beyond counting.

No, not everything is available. Some movies have ceased to exist. Some remain inaccessible because their owners haven’t worked out commercial terms to their satisfaction yet. And admittedly some require me to expend a fair bit of money or effort to see. But to gripe about any of that in the face of what has been given to me is the pinnacle of selfishness.

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22 Responses The Rant
Posted By Jonathan Barnett : April 5, 2014 2:49 pm

“To start with, let’s be clear about the principal issue here: movies were not made to be seen. They were made to make money. ”

An example of this would be the early 90s FANTASTIC FOUR movie that was produced by Roger Corman. It was supposedly made simply to renew or extend the film rights to a company holder. Or something to that effect.

Posted By John Shipley : April 5, 2014 2:51 pm

Amen, brother. Little in a young boy’s life more bittersweet than watching the end of “Bridge on the River Kwai,” or “The Great Escape,” knowing your ability to see it again would soon be back in the fickle hands of the television gods. I keep trying to explain this to my kids …

Posted By Doug : April 5, 2014 3:21 pm

David, I agree with your rant, and might I add that the person who justifies pirating anything…has sold their soul for the price of a DVD. That’s pretty cheap.
I don’t pirate software or movies or ‘shop’ at gray markets as my self respect doesn’t allow me to feel good about myself if I steal.
I like your analogies; one from my youth-a candy machine was placed in our high school cafeteria. The machine was broken, and all the candies would drop at the push of a button.
It was like Black Friday shoppers when the doors open. So many kids grabbing as much as they could…opportunity made them thieves. For the price of candy. They weren’t starving-they were greedy and it was a shameful thing to see.
Back to the main-”Can you burn me a copy?”
Nope.

Posted By LD : April 5, 2014 6:06 pm

Not only will I not copy DVDs, I refuse to loan mine out. Do people think I’m selfish, probably. Do I think they’re cheap, yep.

Posted By johnnytoobad : April 5, 2014 7:29 pm

I’d like to add a somewhat more libertine perspective … I took a blood oath that I would only collect audio CDs, never DVDs … I’ve never broken the oath … Each time I get up to about 100 or so (which I buy second-hand generally), I give them ALL away to a friend or family member — sometimes with annotations as to favorites etc. … They know they can sell them if they wish … But I’ve never sold one in my life — or kept one … I make NO exceptions even for cult items etc. — except for DVDs of classic jazz peformances which I keep a few of with my music collection

I’ve lived extensively in different parts of Mexico — & usually there was no place legit to get DVDs that was viable or convenient … And mail would often be stolen if ordered … So of course I frequented the pirata markets as a movie freak … Often this mean putting up with great sacrifices, in fact — like rushing home ecstatically with much-desired Criterion piratas — only to discover that in many instances a Japanese or French film had only Spanish subtitles hard-wired by the pirates — with the English removed entirely …

The cartels controlling the pirate industry had tip-off men inside the bazaars who would play an intricate “double game” with the corrupt cops that was like something out of LeCarre … Every month or so there had to be a very visible, showy raid where all found inventory would be seized and supposedly destroyed … Yet every time someone would give the pirate stalls a head’s up, but often just MOMENTS before the cops showed up … They would pay some of the urchins hanging around to help frantically throw all the merchandise into giant duffel bags etc. & run off as fast as they could — often leaving pirata discs on the racks that they weren’t able to take down from the displays quite in time when they started to run … Thereby giving the cops a very partial success to try to appease the Hollywood lobbyists by pretending they were doing their best

So, yes, situational ethics — but such is life in my view … When I find that many films I want to watch online from the fifties and sixties and seventies have now been taken down from youtube forcibly — then if I can find a wonderful print on Amazon I-V for a few bucks instead of some horrible free print, then it’s well worth it for me to pay the few bucks …

But I wouldn’t be much of a cinephile in my opinion if I were actually SO extremely goody-goody that I would refuse the free stuff wherever I could get it … And I’d have to be pretty far on the right wing to actually feel sympathy for coporations losing pennies on classic film rights while making zillions on new films etc. — as trumping the priority of ease of accessibility etc. being what’s clearly infinitely more important for all of us who care about such things …

Posted By Doug : April 5, 2014 8:27 pm

to johnnietoobad: “And I’d have to be pretty far on the right wing to actually feel sympathy for coporations losing pennies on classic film rights while making zillions”
First off, I’ve never walked a step in your shoes, so I’m not suggesting what you should or shouldn’t do-I can only state that, from my point of view, I refuse to subscribe to situational ethics because that way leads to chaos. If right and wrong are relative, they become meaningless.
As for those corporations losing pennies while making zillions-how good or evil someone else is doesn’t change who I am or what I should or should not do. I’m not accountable for their evil, just my own. Buying a pirated Critieron disc doesn’t make me Robin Hood, stealing from the rich. It makes me less than heroic.
And again, johnnie-I’m only talking about me. I’m not some high and mighty; I’m more of a low and just getting by. I can’t afford cable TV, can’t watch TCM-this weblog is the only community I know that has a wide variety of films and interests that interest me. I apologize if I’ve gone too far afield in this comment.

Posted By Tom S : April 5, 2014 8:35 pm

I’m not sure I can agree that, since the providence of most films is purely capitalistic- which, broadly speaking, is indisputable- than the right to watch or access films is also purely based on capital and ownership. I mean, if one subscribed to that view, it would be morally preferable that Nosferatu had actually been destroyed forever when so ordered, and the silent version of the Gold Rush would no longer exist. Would any cinephile be pleased by either outcome? Is it reasonable that the rightsholders can demand such things by virtue of legal ownership?

Posted By george : April 5, 2014 8:41 pm

I think the inaccessibility of so many titles made it more exciting to be a film buff. I would read the tantalizing descriptions of old movies in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide, William K. Everson’s books, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, and look at the TV listings every day. It was almost like being Indiana Jones, searching for treasures.

This was especially true before VCRs became affordable. When a movie you wanted to see turned up on TV, you had to watch it WHEN IT AIRED, because it might be a year (or longer) before it aired again. People lucky enough to live in or near cities with revival houses would travel many miles to see a prized classic. It might be their last chance to ever see it!

The easy accessibility of so many films is a blessing in many ways; you no longer have to be Peter Bogdanovich, with access to the Museum of Modern Art’s collection (or the Paramount vault, thanks to his friendship with Jerry Lewis). Before the advent of TCM, I never thought I’d see more than a handful of silents and early talkies. Now I’ve seen hundreds.

But it was more interesting when more unseen treasures were out there.

Posted By george : April 5, 2014 9:11 pm

Of course, there are still some films that aren’t easily accessible.

I’m still waiting to see WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (1972), with Joe Don Baker. It’s never been released on VHS or DVD. Or Peter Collinson’s THE PENTHOUSE (1967), with Suzy Kendall. Or a decent print of Collinson’s OPEN SEASON (1974), with Peter Fonda and William Holden, instead of the copy on YouTube that was taped off a TV showing in the ’80s.

In a recent book, David Thomson mentioned that CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974) is a movie that rarely turns up. He wrote that it’s important for there to still be movies that are hard to see. It keeps things interesting.

P.S.: David, when I saw GODZILLA VS. MEGALON at a drive-in in 1976, the co-feature was INFRA-MAN. Since I was a teenager, it was a comedy double feature!

Posted By John Shipley : April 5, 2014 11:05 pm

Reading through these comments is interesting; I didn’t focus so much on David’s dedication to copyright law, or maybe more accurately, not breaking the law. To me the post was about how there is SO MUCH available now, and, if you purchase a film, 24/7, that the trolls — as my 14-year-old son calls them — need to politely relax. It do take exception to the term “situational ethics,” however. Applying the term “ethics” to purely capitalistic concerns seems to me misguided, especially in this day and age. Without getting too political, it seems pretty clear that many laws are created by those they happen to protect, such as, say, tax shelters. Calling these laws “ethical” is at least short-sighted.

I’d also add, while I’m joining the argument, that movies aren’t made to make money. They’re FINANCED to make money. There is a difference. My brother, for instance, just had a screenplay produced; he didn’t write it to make money; he wrote it because he loves movies. The producer(s) financed it hoping to make some money.

Posted By Duncan : April 6, 2014 3:22 am

So, was Destroy All Monsters worth the wait?

Posted By tdraicer : April 6, 2014 4:41 am

>If right and wrong are relative, they become meaningless.

Many a book on philosophy would disagree.

I don’t think anyone has a right to free movies, and so going online and demanding such a thing strikes me as childish. At the same time, my heart does not bleed for a corporation if some movie buff buys a bootleg because it is the only way he can get hold of Dracula vs. the Doublemint Twins or whatever. Though in general, based on print quality alone, I would think that always a last resort.

Posted By Doug : April 6, 2014 2:03 pm

tdraicer-Many a book on philosophy I would disagree with.

Posted By PLissken : April 6, 2014 3:30 pm

As much as I hate the millennial entitlement crowd I have to disagree with the basic premise here.
This is a different era and all the major corporations have embraced the idea that quick easy access means dollars. So whats holding them back from making available all their titles immediately and on demand? They are holding ouit for the right venue that will give them the most profitability. Instead of slowly nurturing an audience they hold back their product when it would cost them pennies to stream.
The CEO’s are stuck in the past just as the author of this piece is. If they just released their libraries for a minimal cost they would have a loyal audience just like TCM has.
I also have to disagree with the idea of “To start with, let’s be clear about the principal issue here: movies were not made to be seen. They were made to make money. ” Well what about all the filmmakers that made their films NOT for the sake of money. Godzilla films fit just fine with your theory but what about Hellmans films or Cassavettes. I doubt their principal motivation was to make money ( I know the cynical will rip that apart but if you’ve done any reading on some of these filmmakers, money was the least of it.

Posted By David Kalat : April 6, 2014 7:50 pm

This has been an outstanding conversation and I don’t want to interfere with it at all–so I’ll reserve most of my follow-up thoughts and replies for a future post, but I did have a couple of clarifications I wanted to add at this time:

First, the distinction between “making a film” and “financing a film” is an absolutely valid one, but I don’t think it changes my argument: there are various talented screenwriters, artistically-minded directors, and other creators who aren’t motivated solely by money, but they are still dependent on the financiers to get their visions realized and distributed. Without the financiers, their ideas either don’t get made, don’t get made properly, or get made and don’t get seen. Even Cassavetes needed investors.

And I don’t understand how you can appreciate the work created by those artists, and be thankful for the chance to enjoy it, while being resentful towards the people whose money made it happen.

Which leads me to something suggested by a few commenters above–

Do studios prioritize the more profitable new stuff? Of course–but think about it like this: the corporate studios own a bunch of movies of different vintages and genres, and we value some of their holdings more highly than others.

It seems backwards to me to say that the stuff we value *most highly* ought to be cheaper, or perhaps free, and that the fact the studios don’t make it available for free demonstrates that they are undervaluing it.

The suggestion is made above that the corporate studios are so focused on milking profits from current releases they neglect classic films. One of the points I’d tried to make in the main post was that the history of film availability has been until recently one of extreme scarcity–if the current state of things can be called “neglect” I wonder what extreme term would have to be used to describe the media environment I grew up in.

There is room for improvement, sure, but there is far more classic content available now, in high quality forms and in a variety of affordable media, than at any point in the last 100 years. And that’s because modern digital media distribution has commoditized those classics, and made it possible to make money off of them. That’s a good thing.

Posted By george : April 6, 2014 8:01 pm

Some titles are being held back because of music rights and other legal issues. I assume the pop and disco songs in LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR are keeping it off DVD (at least officially) and the country songs in W.W. AND THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS may have prevented its home video release.

I disagree that movies are made ONLY to make money. Most directors want to be well paid (which won’t happen unless their movies are financially successful), but most have other motivations. Why else are Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood still working? They could have retired 30 years ago.

And all but the most crass producers want some critical respect and awards (especially awards), regardless of what they may say in public. Back in the ’30s, Irving Thalberg started a policy of MGM making a couple of movies each year for the sake of prestige, with no thought of box office. Fortunately, MGM was in a financial position to do that.

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 6, 2014 10:46 pm

So this is why I still haven’t seen CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING?

Damn.

Posted By LD : April 6, 2014 11:20 pm

For years I waited for THE UNINVITED to be released on DVD. I had a copy taped on my VCR in the 80′s and I made do with that until Criterion released it last October. By that time when I went to our local B&N I couldn’t decide between the Blu-Ray or DVD so I purchased both. Since then Criterion seems to be releasing movies in both formats. For me this isn’t a moral issue as much as it is one of practicality. Coming from the business world I know a profit must be made or there is no incentive to provide service. It’s not a charity. We want movies, they provide them and make a profit. It is what it is. Sometimes we have to be creative but I don’t honestly think anyone is trying to rip any one off. We just want to see these films which we love.

Posted By Doug : April 6, 2014 11:27 pm

“Found Money”. That concept has made this era great, as David said:”…there is far more classic content available now, in high quality forms and in a variety of affordable media, than at any point in the last 100 years.”
Studios are profiting from distributing catalogs of films; it is “found money” the costs of which had been written off the books generations earlier. A little advertising, work with TCM and other venues to get the word out, and with minimal reproduction costs there is old money, gold to be made.
The studios can prime the pump quite simply by, for example, remaking a Danny Kaye classic (which doesn’t even have to be good). All of a sudden, interest in Danny Kaye picks up, and the studios ‘just happen’ to have Kaye’s classics coming out alongside the clunker new movie.
I have found and bought many films I loved as a kid. Some don’t hold up, but most still have the magic.
I’ve made the point here before that Howard Hughes, one of the richest men ever, used the local TV station he owned, KLAS in Vegas as his personal VCR-he would call up the station and have them run his favorite movies. I think he would have given piles of his money to have the technology we enjoy today.

Posted By george : April 6, 2014 11:40 pm

“Howard Hughes, one of the richest men ever, used the local TV station he owned, KLAS in Vegas as his personal VCR-he would call up the station and have them run his favorite movies.”

Did he ask for anything other than ICE STATION ZEBRA? ;)

The decline of DVD sales (and the demise of video-store chains) over the last several years might explain why some titles are hard to find. The studios that own these films may not see much of a market for them now.

There will presumably always be a market for the usual suspects (CASABLANCA, WIZARD OF OZ, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a few others). But pre-Code melodramas and early talkie musicals? Maybe not.

At least there are services like Warner Archive that make rare titles available to serious film buffs who are willing to pay to own copies. But it may not be economically feasible for Warner and the others to put copies in every Wal-Mart or Target.

Posted By swac44 : April 10, 2014 12:02 pm

Increasingly, stores like Wal-Mart & Target aren’t even bothering to stock the big-name reissues from major labels. Like when Warner Bros. put out its spiffy new edition of Cabaret, I had to order the deluxe blu-ray book online, because no local retailers bothered to stock it. Mind you, I’m fine with not spending money in Wal-Mart, but it’s frustrating to think that the market for these titles is dwindling, at least for those of us who like to own our own copies of beloved titles.

As for the opening line of David’s post, I’ve seen this stuff in action, complaints get aired about certain films’ unavailability on one movie lovers’ message board, and then posters on a completely different message board complain about the complainers on the first message board! Frankly, life is too short for this sort of nonsense.

Posted By robbushblog : April 11, 2014 8:26 pm

I regard movie piracy as stealing. When you take something that is not being given to you by the owner, you are stealing. With that being said, I “stole” once. It was a black market VHS of Song of the South. I don’t feel bad about it in this case. Disney will never release it. I don’t feel it is my right to own it, but I sure as hell wanted it, so I bought the Israeli copy from a flea market. Disney will not make it available for others to enjoy, for whatever reason. Aside from that, I have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on Disney movies and merchandise in my lifetime, and will not “steal” anything else from them. They make everything else available. There is no reason why anyone should steal it when they make it available, and most often for a reasonable price. This applies to virtually every other movie ever made, or that will be made.

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