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If there’s one thing that has come to the fore in recent months, it’s the ongoing dilemma between directors and the corporations that hired them as to who gets the final say as to the edit of the end product, most noticeably as a result of the recent release of Zack Snyder’s director cut of his Justice League film. While far from the first time that such disaccord has occurred, it certainly marks one of the most high profile examples due to the persistent and public demands by fans to have the film released, and also reflects on how fan, artist, and corporate relations are maintained in the digital age.
Not that studio control is only a modern occurrence, in the classical Hollywood studio system, the film was very much a product to be manufactured, and directors were hired to complete their role during the film’s shooting before it would be passed onto a specialist editor to create the final cut for the studio heads. One means of getting around this used by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles was to ‘edit in camera’, by mostly shooting a limited number of only the desired shots to be used in the film, preventing the editor from having much choice of what to use.
Alternative cuts can sometimes have a long and complicated release process, such as with the film Blade Runner, and its 7 different cuts, with its most recent ‘final cut’ being released in 2007, 25 years after the release of the original, or more recently, Francis Ford Coppola’s decision to recut The Godfather Part III last year for the film’s 30th anniversary. In some instances, these can be seen as the superior or definitive versions of the films, for example, few would argue in favour of the almost nonsensical happy ending Ridley Scott was forced to add to the theatrical cuts of Blade Runner, where Deckard and Rachel fly off together against a luscious verdant backdrop, a strikingly far cry from the dystopian city setting shown in the rest of the film. More recently, it is hard to see many people returning to the theatrical cut of Justice League, given the far more positive reception the Snyder cut has received, as well as the knowledge that it is the intended vision of the director.
Yet, it is also important to remember that Hollywood studios are running a business and ultimately, for better or for worse, need to produce a commercially viable end product. For all the virtues of the director’s cut of Justice League, it is almost inconceivable that Warner Bros. could have released the 4-hour version in cinemas. Hence, there is perhaps the need for a happy balance; while Snyder’s vision would have required substantial cuts in order to have been released, it likely could have been achieved without reshooting many of his scenes to change the film considerably in terms of tone and content from the original script. A more positive example can be seen with the release of Ari Aster’s Midsommar, where after editing down his initial cut at the studio’s request Aster was allowed to release his director’s cut on home media shortly after alongside the theatrical cut, no drama or public outcry involved.
As we seemingly enter into a new era of how we interact with and consume media as a result of streaming and social media, it is interesting to consider how the idea of studio relations with directors and fans may change in the future. If Warner Bros. hoped that the Snyder Cut would silence the many fan outcries on social media, they must be sorely disappointed right now, as it has only served to invigorate cries for Snyder’s planned Justice League trilogy to be produced. Indeed, it seems like navigating fan reactions on social media will become a common consideration for studios in the future, with places like Twitter making it easier than ever before for fans to rally together.
The type of fan movements coming together can range from the genuinely useful (the backlash received by the original character design for the Sonic the Hedgehog movie undoubtedly resulted in a better end product) to the less realistic and confusing (what is the evidence behind the claims that there is a George Lucas cut of Star Wars Episode IX waiting to be released?). Social media itself serves as a powerful means of protest, as demonstrated most obviously by the Snyder fans who have made it difficult to find a single tweet by Warner Bros. which isn’t filled with calls to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse in the comments. There is an underlying risk of this sort of protesting overstepping the mark in terms of its behaviour, with the term ‘toxic’ having been labelled to the Snyder Cut movement before (although many will refute this as coming from a small minority), and if reports are to be believed, Warner Bros. may actually be less inclined now to ‘give in’ to the fans.
Streaming services may offer the answer as free from the confines of a physical release, runtime becomes less of a problem, as does the expectation that each individual film to perform well, as subscribers are paying for the service overall rather than individual films. One has to only look at Netflix’s recent output of films such as The Irishman, Mank, or I’m Thinking of Ending Things to see that they are willing to take risks with more challenging films. More speculatively, there seems no reason why several different versions of films could not be released simultaneously on streaming. While there is a certain degree of uncertainty about what the future of cinema will be in a streaming landscape, and many will mourn the shift away from traditional distribution methods, there is also a lot of possible changes for the better to be optimistic about.