The French director, film critic and voracious cinephile Francois Truffaut once suggested a thought experiment. Imagine, he said, that there was only one copy of a book, and that copy was held in a single library, and you could only read it while inside that library. This was how film lovers were obliged to check out the objects of their desire before repertory theaters, videotape and streaming platforms brought the elusive history of cinema, so long beyond reach, into the palm of our hands.
A reminder of how inaccessible the motion picture legacy might be — and how dependent it is on the whims of a corporate mogul — arrived on Aug. 2 when two related news items hit the entertainment trade sites with the force of mallet between the eyes: Batgirl, the latest entry in the DC Universe pipeline, a film that was basically in the can (to use the dated analog term), was not to receive a commercial release — either theatrical, streamed, or straight-to-video — but instead be peremptorily shelved (ditto) by its underwriters at Warner Bros. Discovery. The decision to entomb Batgirl — not to mention Scoob! Holiday Haunt, because no one does — was business, not personal. Taking a cue from the scheming Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967), Warner Discovery CEO David Zaslav calculated that the $90 million production would be more profitable as a tax write-off than a revenue source. Rather than risk Batgirl becoming a hit on opening night, à la Springtime for Hitler, he decided to punch the delete key.
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The Batgirl signal coincided with plans from Warner Bros. Discovery to combine streaming services Discovery+ and HBO Max. At that point, subscribers noticed another erasure: certain back catalog titles from HBO Max were vanishing mysteriously from the platform. If The Witches and American Pickle went down a black hole, could the choice titles in the HBO and TCM catalog be next? Suddenly, a generation weaned on instant access and limitless options learned that the corporate entities who own the films — sorry, “content” — can dispose of them as they see fit. Literally.
Which may not be a bad thing. The no-fuss, no-bother access to the canon of world cinema is a very recent phenomenon. For the X through Z generations, the realization that the endless stream of film titles can be cut off at the source might be a useful life lesson.
The backstory — also the lived experience of moviegoers of a certain age — is instructive. For most of the first century of cinema, moviegoers went out to a motion picture theater in the material world and watched what the exhibitor projected on screen.Television brought the screen closer to home, but you still relied on the scheduling decisions of the broadcaster. Then, beginning in the 1980s, videotape cassettes put a hard copy of the film in the hands of the consumer, who could now press play from home. Finally, in the early part of the twenty-first century, the presumptive culmination of the relationship occurred when high-definition digital streaming opened up a virtual library, in both senses. If you’re under 30, you probably never knew an entertainment environment in which you were not empowered to summon down from the clouds almost any motion picture you desired.
Perhaps only moviegoers raised in an alternative cinematic universe can appreciate the miraculous leap forward. In the days when Hollywood offered a set menu of seasonal offerings, you either had to take it or leave. Motion picture archives as such did not exist and no civilian could enter the vaults of the major studios. The unequal arrangement began to change in 1935 with the establishment of the Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art. “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 are in serious danger of being permanently lost or destroyed,” declared Jack Abbott and Iris Barry, the library’s founding visionaries. Like Truffaut, they made the apt comparison: “The situation is very much as though no novels were available to the public excepting the current year’s output.” You couldn’t check out the films from the library, but the range of possibilities expanded exponentially, as far back as the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès.
Given the cavalier manner in which the studios took care of their inventory, the motion picture industry certainly needed a reliable curator of its heritage. In 1937, in a conflagration still lamented by film scholars, the Twentieth Century-Fox storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey went up in flames, destroying irreplaceable negatives of Fox’s silent classics. Not to worry, said a Fox spokesman, the kindling was comprised of “only old movies.”
Museums and repertory houses took their custodial duties more seriously. From the postwar era onward, a film aficionado, especially in big cities or around a college campus, could acquire a solid education in classic Hollywood cinema by carefully monitoring the monthly calendars of the local arthouse. Boston’s Brattle Theater was among the pioneers. In 1962, it kicked off the first of a series of retrospective programs of Humphrey Bogart films, a strategy that set a pattern for sundry revival bills nationwide, with W. C. Fields, Mae West, and Marx Brothers films proving consistently popular. In 1977, the critic and programmer Arthur Knight scanned a circuit of revival houses and declared in The Hollywood Reporter that “the interest in old movies has reached an unprecedented high” with many audiences preferring “the oldies to the newies.”
Though moviegoers were still dependent on the programmer’s druthers, there were emotional compensations — waiting for the coveted film to turn up, hunting down the rarities, and finally landing a date with your dream title. The most electrifying buzz in that bygone era came from worming your way into a screening of a film not in legal distribution and exhibited on the downlow by a private collector. The first time I 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 — was at an underground screening whose time and location were passed around in hush-hush tones.
The advent of VHS in the 1980s and DVD in the 1990s upended the hierarchy. For the studios, the cassettes and disks were ancillary revenue streams, but for motion picture fans, they meant property rights. Whereas few private collectors had the space, money, and expertise to collect and preserve 35mm prints, anyone with a bookcase had room for a private cache of favored titles. You may know, or be, one of those people who lovingly catalogued their discs and shelved them alphabetically. Abigail De Kosnik, director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, has a felicitous phrase for the practice: “rogue archiving.” By 2000, some 250,000 VHS or DVD titles were available for the video hoarders, per a Billboard tally.
Of course, the revolution wrought by high resolution streaming was the decisive factor in placing the motion picture archives at your fingertips. In 2007, Netflix, long a steady customer of the U.S. Postal Service, inaugurated its steaming platform, a move soon followed by all the blocks on your Roku homepage. Not only did you need not go to the Brattle or Blockbuster, you need not ever leave home. The films would always there to download.
Until they are not — which may be why so many dedicated streamers experienced the bushwhacking from Warner Bros. Discovery as a cold-water wake-up call. The streaming generations may never give “physical media” a full-on embrace, but a few fans must be thinking of buying back-up copies of their treasured titles as a hedge against the caprices of the digital overlords.
As for Batgirl and, yes, Scoob! Holiday Haunt, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t eventually emerge from the phantom zone in some form. Films — whether analog or digital — are hard to suppress when there is an extant print and waiting audience. Eventually, I suspect, it will be viewable on the dark web, or a bootleg video, or, best of all, at a secret screening known only to the cool kids.