It’s been another big year for the Astor. What we call “the movies” is both a business and an art, and the two don’t always see eye to eye. Nevertheless, we do our best to forge a path through the jungle that is theatrical exhibition. This year, we’ve seen a continued loss of film prints and the arrival of more DCPs, although the replacement digital files do not necessarily correlate to the losses. We announced our closure and produced our last Astor calendar. It’s been difficult, wonderful, infuriating and heartening. Like most great movies that stand the test of time, it’s been moving and memorable.
2014 was the year that we welcomed the Pelvic Thrusts into the Astor’s fold, saw The Dark Crystal (1982) return to the big screen and finally got word that the digital restoration of Once Upon a Time in America (1984) is complete. It was also the year that we were told we could no longer screen The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on 35mm film print format. The Lebowski Bash didn’t go ahead because of distributor restrictions and even though we offered to pay the freight on shipping the 70mm prints of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Interstellar (2014) and Spartacus (1960) from the US to Australia, so that we could run final tribute screenings on our last ever calendar, we were not granted permission.
At the Astor and Chapel Distribution (Chapel 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.
When we are forced to surrender film prints to the studios who own the intellectual and physical properties of the film after our rights expire, we always insist that they keep those prints, as an irreplaceable “asset”. Sometimes the studios listen. Props to Madman, Universal and Roadshow for not junking their entire film print libraries when Deluxe moved to a smaller location and changed the business model from film and digital distribution to digital only dispatch. Those prints are – currently – safely housed at Chapel Distribution and available to exhibitors for booking. Chapel is housing the prints for free with the sole intention of saving them from their alternate fate of being junked (destroyed). Fox, also to their credit, chose to house their remaining film prints at the NFSA, though this is not as accessible as the distribution-oriented Chapel Distribution, and Sony, who have stored their prints in a remote Queensland location.
It’s a Wonderful Life
I’ve written before on this blog 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 and ran a new DCP – one that was supplied by Paramount.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Early in the year, after Eli Wallach died, we decided we’d like 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 we 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. It did not go ahead.
There are plenty more stories such as these in the Astor’s not-quite-on-the-calendar programming files. But we’re on the cusp of a new year so let’s not get too down and out about it all. In terms of what you can look forward to, there’s a glorious, glossy final Astor calendar in circulation. It, like so many before, has been put together with love, sweat, late nights and an occasional tear by the talented George Florence. We’ve seen thirty-two years of cryingly good double bills so make sure you come down and celebrate what we have managed to secure in our bookings over the coming months, because it’s going to be one helluva farewell.
Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.