On Those Controversial News Items
Rarely has an industry been rocked as much the movie industry was on December 3, 2020, when Warner Bros. announced its intention to release its entire slate of films for 2021 on the fledgling steaming service HBO Max. In a move intended to inspire ease, it added that it would also release them simultaneously in theaters, although with COVID-19 still raging, it is anybody’s guess what this actually means. My guess is that releases will look eerily similar to those that occur during Oscar-season – meaning select cities, a small number of screens, and an expansion only if “demand” warrants it.
The reaction was what you’d expect it to be: The studio proclaimed its hands were tied and that the move was necessary to ensure its survival; Hollywood actors and directors decried its potential to hasten the death of cinemas, make it impossible to accurately assess a film’s profitability, and reduce big budget motion pictures to the status of made-for-TV productions, which, if we’re honest, is really what most films made for streaming services are. Meanwhile, collectors of physical discs lamented that even more films would be exclusively available online.
I suppose Warner Bros. could have lessened the blow by adding the words if the situation warrants it to their initial announcement. That would have put some of its detractors at ease by promising a return to the ways movies have always been released. Without such a caveat, the fear of a new normal was allowed to fester, though it should be said that some of the very voices criticizing WB’s plan have had no qualms about making films for Netflix and Amazon that will almost certainly never be screened inside a traditional movie theater and about whose profitability studios have been less that forthcoming.
On the other hand, what choice did Warner Bros. have? It is impossible to say how many movie theaters will even be around in a year’s time. Just this week, AMC announced it needs $850 million to survive, and even in Taiwan, where movie theaters have remained opened throughout the pandemic, poor attendance, coupled with the dearth of Hollywood blockbusters, has forced the temporary closure of numerous movie theaters. Perhaps desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures.
A week after that announcement came the long-awaited declaration that the Criterion Collection was releasing a box set of seven of visionary Hong Kong director Wang Kar-wai’s films, including As Tears Go By, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and 2046. Fans were ecstatic – at least they were until they read the description of the Special Features. It included these frenzy-producing descriptions: Alternate version of “Days of Being Wild” featuring edits of the film’s prologue and final scenes, extended version of “The Hand,” and confirmation that scenes were removed from at least one other film and that several others had had their end credits and coloring tinkered with. Suffice to say, comments left on Criterion Forum were the opposite of positive.
What does it mean that so many directors have devoted so much time to revisionism – George Lucas with the Star Wars films; Spielberg with E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Coppola with The Godfather III (or The Godfather Coda as it now seems to be called), The Outsiders, and Apocalypse Now; Ridley Scott with Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven; Richard Donner with Superman II; Zack Snyder with Superman v. Batman and Justice League; and Peter Jackson with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies (really, weren’t the theatrical versions long enough?). And I haven’t even gotten around to Troy, Alexander, Donnie Darko, Daredevil, Electra, The Abyss, and Zodiac. The list doesn’t even come close to stopping there. Even a film as disappointing as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald somehow arrived on DVD and Blu-ray with seven more minutes of agony than it had in the theater. And now Wong Kar-wai.
Ultimately, it is a director’s prerogative to go back and rework a film. All consumers can hope for is that the original remains available and receives the same treatment as the director’s cut. And it is this that fans of Wong Kar-wai are most disappointed with, for most of the original versions of his films are out of print. History is being wiped away in an elusive and addictive pursuit of perfection, and we are all a little worse off as a result.
Finally, there was Disney’s big announcement, and it only confirmed what many pessimists – myself included - had already suspected: that Disney was putting almost all its eggs into two baskets: Marvel and Star Wars, with “roughly” ten new Marvel shows, including Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, and Loki, 10 new Star Wars productions with such tantalizing titles as Rangers of the New Republic, Ashoka, Andor, and Obi-Wan featuring the return of Hayden Christensen as Darth Vader, as well as new streaming series based on Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and – I kid you not – The Might Ducks among others. There was even the announcement of a new Star Wars movie called Rogue Squadron and a resumption of films featuring Thor, Dr. Strange, and Ant Man. If you were a fan, you were likely salivating and writing the kind of glorious send-up that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.
If you’re like me, though, the announcements were met with more resignation than enthusiasm. This is what Disney is now – a company living on past glories, most of which are not even their own creations. And what of these tales that they seem so eager to present us? Will they enhance or expand what has come before? Hardly. Most are prequels about characters we have little or no investment in or ones that we have already seen the demise of. Where’s the fun in seeing the adventures of Andor, Wanda, and Vision when we know how they died? Where’s the joy in watching two beloved Star Wars characters pursue each other when we know that whatever climactic battle they eventually have will not yield a satisfactory finale? Where’s the fun in watching an alternate version of a character having adventures that had no bearing on what transpired in the movies he’s already been featured in? And where’s the joy in being told that to understand movies that we’ve already seen, we have to watch hours upon hours of new material? Enough already. Count me out.