‘We can’t afford to lose them’: the fight to bring missing movies back

Films such as The Heartbreak Kid and I Shot Andy Warhol remain unavailable on any platform but a new initiative is aiming to change that

Last modified on Mon 7 Mar 2022 02.28 EST

The Heartbreak Kid, Elaine May’s uproarious 1972 comedy, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, but if you want to hold an honorary screening at your house, there’s no legitimate means for you to do so.

The film, about a newlywed (Charles Grodin) who falls for a beautiful blonde (Cybil Shepherd) on his honeymoon, is not available on any streaming service. It’s no longer being produced on DVD or Blu-Ray, and not even Netflix’s old DVD-by-mail service has a copy on hand. There are a few used discs available for purchase from individual sellers, but that’s a risky and expensive proposition. Your only real option is to watch a pirated copy on YouTube, where it looks awful.

The reason you can’t see The Heartbreak Kid legitimately is because a pharmaceutical company doesn’t want you to. Bristol Myers Squibb owns the rights to the film, a holdover from the brief period in the 1970s when its executives decided it would be cool to be in the movie business. In 2021, the company has announced no plans to sell the rights to an actual distributor. It’s strange. Even as Elaine May has become a cause celebre in film circles for her underappreciated work in the 1970s, The Heartbreak Kid is no closer to finding its audience.

This is where Missing Movies comes in. A new advocacy organization composed of film-makers, distributors and film lovers, Missing Movies has a mission to “locate lost materials, clear rights, and advocate for policies and laws to make the full range of our cinema history available to all”. On its website is an initial list of “missing” movies, including The Heartbreak Kid, and the group has asked for help in expanding this list. Its initial goal is to draw attention to the problem, making viewers aware that the convenience of streaming services does not equate to widespread access to cinema history. Many films have already been lost and, without a concerted effort, another great purge could be on the way.

“The popular conception among film fans is that 70-80% of silent films are missing, and that’s true,” says Dennis Doros of Milestone Films and a member of the Missing Movies working group. “I would say that with the digital tsunami that’s coming, that could be just as viable a percentage of total films unavailable in the world.” In 2017, film archivists at Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation estimated that half of all American films made before 1950 are now lost, and none of the major distributors are itching to find them. Streaming services may offer the appearance of infinite choice, but so many of them are increasingly focused on original programming, creating a bottleneck that squeezes out any film without a quantifiable audience. With algorithms designed to only show viewers what they already want to see, there are frighteningly few ways for a film to get back in.

One such film is I Shot Andy Warhol, a 1996 biopic of Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist author who wrote a manifesto urging the killing of all men, and eventually tried to put her thesis into practice by shooting the titular guru of pop art. Despite winning an award at the Sundance film festival and earning largely positive reviews, the film has suffered the same fate as The Heartbreak Kid: it’s simply not available. Its director, Mary Harron, who is part of the working group at Missing Movies, explains the problem succinctly: “Most [indie films] are produced by small companies, and most of them go bankrupt.” This is especially true of films in the 80s and 90s, when new independent production companies were being created daily. Harron says I Shot Andy Warhol was sold three times before it was even released due to the ephemerality of the film distribution business. It has been a struggle for her to even determine who owns her first film, let alone convince them to distribute it or sell the rights to a company that will.

Beyond the legal red tape, there are cultural issues that determine a film’s availability. “When you look at the kinds of films that are not available,” explains Amy Heller, co-founder of Milestone Film and Video, a boutique distribution company, and Missing Movies, “you see documentaries about poor people, Native Americans, queer people, disabled people. These images are part of our world, and we can’t afford to lose them.” Black directors are overrepresented on the list of missing movies, with films from Charles Burnett, Ossie Davis and William Greaves currently undistributed. Kiss of the Spider-Woman, an Oscar-nominated film about a gay revolutionary remains unavailable, while the Denzel Washington-starrer Mississippi Masala, about an interracial romance in the American South, was missing for years until Criterion announced it would be adding the film to its collection this spring.

For some, the issue of availability starts when a film is first released. If a film doesn’t capture the zeitgeist, it becomes harder to secure its legacy, and female film-makers like May and Harron are perfect test cases. Their movies were celebrated at the time, but they both came up in eras when the press was distracted by new crops of male film-makers, and neither fit neatly into the narrative. May began making films when the New Hollywood crew of Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas was soaking up all the attention, while Harron burst on to the Sundance scene at the same time as Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino. “There was an unconscious bias that relegated films like mine or Elaine May’s,” says Harron, “and the things I was criticized for in I Shot Andy Warhol would be seen in a different light today.” Female film-makers already deal with challenges at every stage of production that men don’t face, but it’s shocking that in 2022, with the market for women-directed films so well established, these film-makers are still fighting to get their work seen.

This is true of all films for film-makers of all underrepresented demographics, but even if Missing Movies films get distribution, who will see them? When The Heartbreak Kid gets its long-awaited distribution, students of film history will celebrate its release like it’s Christmas morning, but how will more casual movie fans even find it? I Shot Andy Warhol will surely show up on a streaming service at some point, but will the young women with whom it might resonate the most be able to find it there? For some, if it’s not promoted or highlighted on the homepage, it might as well not exist. These are perhaps unsolvable problems inherent in a movie landscape dominated by streamers, but at this point, simply saving movies from the dustbin of history is a worthy short-term goal. “These images are part of our world,” according to Heller, “and we can’t afford to lose them.”

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