Francois Truffaut, a French director, film critic, and avid film fan, once proposed a thought experiment. He posed the hypothetical situation in which a book had only one copy and could only be read in one specific library. Before repertory theaters, videotapes, and streaming platforms, movie buffs had to resort to such methods to view their desired works.
Warner Bros. Discovery’s announcement that it would merge its Discovery+ and HBO Max streaming services occurred at the same time as the Batgirl signal. Then, subscribers noticed that some older titles from HBO Max’s library had mysteriously disappeared. With the disappearance of The Witches and American Pickle, will more of HBO’s and TCM’s best shows and movies go the way of the dodo? A generation brought up on instant information and unlimited choices was shocked to learn that the corporations that own movies (oops, I mean “content”) can do whatever they want with it. Literally.
The history, which includes the actual life experiences of moviegoers of a certain age, is illuminating. For the better part of the first century of cinema, audiences traveled to physical locations, such as theaters, to view the films that were projected on screen. While television brought the big screen into people’s living rooms, they were still at the mercy of the network’s programming schedule. Then, starting in the 1980s, videotape cassettes gave viewers a physical copy of the film they could watch on their own time. High-definition digital streaming brought about a virtual library in the early twenty-first century, marking what can be considered the relationship’s apex. If you’re under 30, you probably have no memory of an entertainment landscape where you couldn’t just wish almost any movie you wanted into existence.
Maybe only moviegoers who were brought up in an alternate cinematic reality will recognize the miraculous advancement. In the past, when seasonal offerings from Hollywood were limited to what was on the menu, you had to choose one or the other. There were no film archives in the sense that we know them today, and no ordinary person could access the storage facilities of the major studios. When the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library opened in 1935, things started to even out a bit. Jack Abbott and Iris Barry, the library’s visionaries, said, “The bulk of all films, whether foreign or domestic, new or old, which are of importance historically or aesthetically are not merely invisible under existing circumstances, but in serious danger of being lost or destroyed.” They, like Truffaut, made the apt analogy that “the situation is very much as though no novels were available to the public except the current year’s output.” Even though the films by the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès, among others, were not available for checkout, the possibilities for viewing them grew enormously.
Given the careless handling of film assets by studios, the entertainment business unquestionably required the services of a trustworthy archivist. Twentieth Century-Little Fox’s Ferry, New Jersey storage facility burned down in 1937, destroying priceless negatives of Fox’s silent classics. This event is still mourned by film historians today. A spokesperson for Fox reassured the public that “only old movies” would be used as kindling.
The custodial staff at museums and theaters took their jobs more seriously. If you live in a large city or near a university, you can get a great education in classic Hollywood films from the postwar era onward by carefully monitoring the monthly calendars of the local arthouse theater. The Brattle Theatre of Boston was an early example. In 1962, it began airing Humphrey Bogart film retrospectives, a trend that spread to other years and led to successful revival bills featuring the works of W. C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers, among others. Many people, according to critic and programmer Arthur Knight, who in 1977 toured a circuit of revival houses, wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, “the interest in old movies has reached an unprecedented high.”
Even though moviegoers were still at the mercy of the programmer’s whims, there were emotional compensations, such as anticipating the arrival of a highly anticipated film, exploring obscure options, and finally scoring a date with your ideal title. In those days, the most exciting news was hearing about a screening of a film that was not in official distribution and was being shown secretly by a private collector. It was at a secret screening that I first saw Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and, come to think of it, the Zapruder film.
VHS’s introduction in the ’80s and DVD’s in the ’90s shook things up. Movie fans saw the cassettes and disks as property rights, but the studios saw them as a source of supplementary income. Unlike 35mm prints, which only a select few private collectors have the space, money, and knowledge to collect and preserve, books can be kept in private collections by anyone with a bookshelf. You might know somebody, or be someone yourself, who painstakingly organized their CD collection by alphabetical order. For this phenomenon, Abigail De Kosnik, director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, has coined the catchy term “rogue archiving.” According to a count by Billboard, video hoarders could choose from over 250,000 different tapes and DVDs by the year 2000.
Of course, the revolution brought about by high-definition streaming was the deciding factor in making the movie archives accessible to you. Netflix has been a loyal USPS customer for many years, but the company only started streaming in 2007, and since then, every block on your Roku homepage has followed suit. You didn’t have to leave your house; in fact, you didn’t even have to visit the Brattle or Blockbuster. The movie downloads would always be available.
Until they aren’t, perhaps, which is why so many devoted streamers took Warner Bros. Discovery’s bushwhacking like a cold splash of water in the face. Even if the streaming generation never fully embraces “physical media,” at least some fans must be considering buying backup copies of their treasured titles as insurance against the whims of the digital overlords.
Scoob and Batgirl, of course! I wouldn’t be shocked if Holiday Haunt somehow made its way out of the Phantom Zone. When there is a print still in circulation and an eager audience, it is very difficult to prevent a film from being viewed. I have no doubt that it will be made available to the public via the deep web, a bootleg video, or, best of all, at a special screening attended by the in-crowd only.
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