When Should We See the Movie? Taking Issue Again with Works in Progress and Director's Cuts

by Christopher Campbell
March 24, 2011 5:19 AM
5 Comments
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I guess technically I never actually saw "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer." And though I reviewed the doc from Sundance, I haven't technically seen Morgan Spurlock's "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," which has added new footage since its world premiere. Was it worth it for critics to write about "Bridesmaids" last week from SXSW since, like the version of "Client 9" I saw (as "Untitled Eliot Spitzer Movie") at Tribeca last year, it was billed as a "work in progress"? Should you bother seeing "Sucker Punch" this weekend if you know Zach Snyder's true, intended version (his director's cut) will be made available later? Did you feel screwed after seeing the Justin Bieber doc before its director's cut was announced for immediate theatrical release? Are you happy that the Weinstein Company is quickly giving you the censored version of "The King's Speech" that you thought you'd have to wait for network TV airings to see?

Director's cuts and other alternate versions of films are nothing new. And this particular issue, as it relates to the first-run theatrical industry, already peaked as a problem when "unrated edition" DVDs became a norm a decade ago. Film festivals have also long presented works in progress, only they haven't been sold as such. For instance, Steve James told me recently he'll likely shorten "The Interrupters" a bit, not because of any commitment to distributors but because the version that went out to Sundance (and other fests) isn't the tightest edit job it could have been. Will it be my duty to see the movie again later? As much as I love it, I'm not big on seeing most movies more than once, at least not so quickly (that said, I am seeing my favorite Sundance '11 film, "Project Nim," for the second time tonight). I probably will, even though it's sort of a repeat of two and a half hours of my life, but I wonder if I'll even notice any of the tweaks.

Is it better for festivals and producers to be more upfront about the unfinished status of films? Do you prefer to know the day before a new movie opens that it's not the "real" cut, which will be made available later? As someone who likes to see and know as little as possible of a movie before watching it in full (finished), I'd rather not even attend film fests anymore, and (regardless of its reviews) I start to lose interest in a film like "Sucker Punch" when I hear about potential alternate cuts, never knowing if I am seeing the full, finished thing. I would never go to one of the events, like is being reported on today with "Super 8," where a bunch of footage is presented to journalists and bloggers, whether it be the first 20 minutes of a film or scattered scenes out of context. I guess that means I'll never bother with Comic-Con or Cinema Con (where others will see the "Super 8" footage next week).

Okay, sure, the advance footage isn't the same as seeing between 90 and 180 minutes of a work in progress, which is a lot more time consuming and presents a fuller incarnation of the completed film, in a way that makes you feel like you've basically seen the finished product. And it is sometimes interesting to see critics like Karina Longworth change opinion on a movie like "Inglourious Basterds" after seeing a new cut (gone from Spout's archives, but readable in "The Portable Spoutblog") as well as articles like Matt Zoller Seitz's Salon piece from last year asking "when should a director stop messing with a movie?" I think a more important question, and I'd love to hear answers from those experts and others, is "when should we see the movie?"

Looking back at Karina's second take on "Basterds" reminds me of another important point related to these never-ending productions: we are also continually evolving, and we often rethink films long after we've reviewed them. From her second review:

The review of Inglorious Basterds I wrote in May simply does not apply to the film I saw with the same title this week.

This happens sometimes. We don't talk about it much, but it happens. Sometimes movies change -- and Tarantino and The Weinstein Company have made no secrets of the fact that Basterds has changed since its Cannes screenings. But critics change, too [...]

My initial assessment of the film was wrong. Maybe what I saw this week in New York really is a complete revitalization, so completely different from what I saw in Cannes as to excuse me from blame for not fully engaging with it in the couple of hours I had to form a correct opinion before the film was rendered old news by the maw of the festival cycle. But probably not [...] But I honesty don't know what has changed more since May: the cut of Inglourious Basterds, or me.

That dilemma still works, though, leading up to the movie's opening, because apparently what Karina saw and disliked at Cannes was a work in progress later shaped up for the commercial release. If enough critics dislike "Sucker Punch" this week, as it hits thousands of theaters, it will possibly affect people's interest to the point that later revisions of thought based on a better version of the film will go unnoticed. "Sucker Punch" is an interesting case, too, because as many people are noting, it was very highly anticipated last summer when footage was first seen at Comic-Con. But interest has died down since then, and not all of it has to do with whether or not critics like the (current) end result. It would be a whole lot worse, too, if the footage was initially met with disapproval.

Obvious responses to this post are whether you're the type who likes going into a movie cold or the type who follows all production and marketing hype leading up to a film's release. The former is probably more annoyed with multiple versions and the unclear claims of which is the final cut while the latter is possibly the sort that buys and rewatches favorite movies over and over again anyway. But I'm curious if anyone else sees things getting further out of hand as far as what we're expected to make of a movie we see in the theater, if it's really ready for purchase yet. Maybe in these times where we'll buy a product in its first-version stage and later go for the upgrade when it's an improved 2.0 or higher version, it doesn't seem that big a deal to constantly be sold on film upgrades as well.


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5 Comments

  • Alex Gibney | March 25, 2011 12:09 PMReply

    When "Client-9" screened at Tribeca,, it was labeled as a work-in-progress by the festival. So long as it is labeled as such, what's the issue?

  • Christopher Campbell | March 25, 2011 7:17 AMReply

    So an interview with Greenberg was added? Okay, I guess I do need to see the finished version (in full). Thanks for the clarification and defense of the WIP decision.

  • Alex Gibney | March 25, 2011 6:35 AMReply

    Thanks for the note, Christopher. And thanks for the shout-out on the film. There may be other reasons for showing works-in-progress. In the case of "Client-9," I wanted the first screening of the film to come around around the same time as the book by my collaborator, Peter Elkind. Also, I wanted to sell the film to a distributor (it had been independently financed) and Tribeca seemed a good time and place to do that. (It sold to Magnolia.) While the film was close to finished, we did want audience feedback. Last AND least, there was Ashley Dupre to consider: she appeared on the cover of Playboy's May issue.

    An unexpected benefit also accrued from the WIP screening: former AIG Chairman Hank Greenberg finally agreed to be interviewed for the film.

  • Christopher Campbell | March 25, 2011 2:00 AMReply

    Alex,

    I mention that, and there's no issue if you want to show an unfinished product and get objective feedback from the public. I'm unclear what other reason there is for doing so.

    And actually I think for that particular film, it was asked that critics don't write actual "reviews" of the film in that state. And my piece for Cinematical was not a review. But I never saw the film again before including it on my Top 10 list at the end of 2010. Was it appropriate for me to do so? I'm unsure. I hadn't even thought about it then.

    The issue is more for critics. Should they be reviewing Bridesmaids unfinished? And the issue is personal, because I don't usually have time to see a movie more than once. There's so much still for me to see, past and present. Fortunately, I hear not much was too different with "Client 9" once you were done and released it. And I'm certain (actually I know it, from watching bits and pieces over again) the things I love about it, namely the interviews and the re-enacted interview, are still there.

    As someone who has debuted a work in progress, do you think it's necessary for that first audience to see it again, finished? And how do they know when work in progress just simply means unpolished or unmixed or whatever rather than something that's still got a lot of work to be done?

  • Rania | March 24, 2011 6:42 AMReply

    Nothing wrong with a director tightening a film before release, especially when it will help hold audience interest in a difficult subject. In my dispatch from True/False I said THE INTERRUPTERS by Steve James "takes its time telling the story of former gangsters now involved in CeaseFire...." The film did not need to take it's time like HOOP DREAMS did so brilliantly. A shorter film will make the point more succinctly and I commend James for seeing that.

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