The changing face of the director’s cut

Feature Ryan Lambie 21 Jun 2012 - 06:02

With a rumoured extended re-release of The Avengers, Ryan looks at the director’s cut, and how it’s evolved into a mainstream and profitable practice…

Back in 2009, James Cameron launched his magnum opus, Avatar. A hulking, ambitious sci-fi romance firmly in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mould, the movie cemented Cameron’s reputation as Hollywood’s most profitable filmmaker. Having made more than 2.7 billion at the box office, Avatar exited cinemas and began its home DVD and Blu-ray run in April 2010, and the marketing jamboree was over.

Except it wasn’t. In the summer of 2010, Avatar returned to the big screen in a new, extended presentation which restored some footage trimmed from the original release - this included more exotic wildlife and fauna, as well as a few added seconds to its much-publicised alien sex scene. Although its success was undeniable (the re-release added another $9 million to the coffers), whether the public particularly wanted an even longer version of a movie already approaching three hours seemed questionable, and whether the added footage added much to Avatar’s narrative is also open to debate.

Has the entire notion of the ‘director’s cut’ or the ‘extended edition’ been hijacked by marketing wizards? That’s a question I asked myself late last week, as news of two possible extended editions appeared in the news.

First, there was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which, although still playing in theatres, is already being primed for its release on disc. During interviews, Scott spoke of there being approximately 20 minutes’ footage missing from the theatrical cut of Prometheus, which includes a longer human versus alien confrontation and other sundry moments of sci-fi darkness.

Although Scott says the version in cinemas is ‘fundamentally the director’s cut’, he’s revealed that the DVD and Blu-ray release of Prometheus will feature an extra half hour of footage, either available as a selection from an extras menu, or worked back into the movie in an extended cut.

“This [the theatrical version] is fundamentally the director’s cut. But there will be half an hour of stuff on the menu because people are so into films—how they’re made, how they’re set up, and the rejections in it. That’s why it’s fascinating. So this will all go on to the menu,” Scott explained.

Although we don’t yet know how this additional footage will be billed - Fox may call it an ‘extended cut’, a ‘special edition’ or even ‘director’s cut’, depending on their mood - it seems that an extended home release will be used as a means of hooking in potential customers looking for more clues to the movie’s psuedo-philosophical conundrums.

When is a director’s cut not a director’s cut?

It wouldn’t be the first time Fox has issued a new cut of a film Scott’s already happy with. Scott had previously said in interviews that he was satisfied with the theatrical version of Alien first released in 1979, but in 2003, an extended ‘director’s cut’, restoring a few additional scenes - including one where Ripley discovers the alien’s nest, a moment greatly prized by the movie’s fans. On the Alien Quadrilogy director’s commentary track, Scott said the following:

“Upon viewing the proposed expanded version of the film, I felt that the cut was simply too long and the pacing completely thrown off. After all, I cut those scenes out for a reason back in 1979. However, in the interest of giving the fans a new experience with Alien, I figured there had to be an appropriate middle ground. I chose to go in and recut that proposed long version into a more streamlined and polished alternate version of the film. For marketing purposes, this version is being called ‘The Director's Cut.’”

Back in the present, it’s been rumoured that an extended version of The Avengers may be coming back to cinemas in the autumn. Although writer and director Joss Whedon has stated that his approximately two-hour cut of the film is the definitive version as far as he’s concerned, he’s also spoken tantalisingly of some potentially great scenes which didn’t make the theatrical edit.

"One of the best scenes that I wrote was the beautiful and poignant scene between Steve and Peggy [Carter] that takes place in the present," Whedon told Collider. "And I was the one who was like: 'Guys, we need to lose this.'"

Whedon may be happy with The Avengers as it stands, but if its studio decides that an extended cut will make money at the box office, then it’s almost certain they’ll release one in any case.

A bit of history

The whole notion of releasing an extended cut to cinemas is an interesting reversal of studio habits in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Back then, the whole notion of director’s cuts and extended editions arose as an indirect result of studio meddling. The most famous instances, curiously, come from two directors already featured in this article: Ridley Scott and James Cameron.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was initially released in 1982 with a happy ending and a voice over at the behest of an anxious studio worried about the movie’s commercial prospects. Numerous alternate cuts appeared on television, on VHS and in theatres afterwards, and it was only in 1992 that a Director’s Cut arrived which brought the film closer to Scott’s originally intended version. A further Final Cut appeared in 2007, adding some snippets of gore from the international theatrical release, as well as some other alterations and improvements approved by Ridley, such as reduced unicorn horn wobble in a late dream sequence.

James Cameron’s Aliens was originally edited down not because the studio was unhappy with the finished product, but because it was deemed too long; for its theatrical release, scenes which Fox thought contained "too much nothing" were snipped out. With Aliens running to a leaner 137 minutes, cinema owners could cram more showings of the movie into their daily schedule.

An extended, 154 minute Aliens: Special Edition was released on VHS in the early 90s, and later Cameron films - The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day - were also put out in extended versions for their home video run.

Of course, it’s far more common, over the last decade or so, to see a mainstream movie approach a three-hour duration, and it’s likely that movies such as Aliens and Terminator 2 would be released without edits if they’d been made in more recent years.

The new age of extended cuts

Extended cuts of films are now more prevalent than ever. Movies are regularly released on DVD and Blu-ray in special unrated editions or with labels which shout, “Contains footage never before seen in theatres!” or “Raunchier R-rated edition!” In the autumn, we’ll get to see the uncut version of The Hunger Games for the first time, with the flashes of gore initially removed to get a lucrative 12A certificate reinstated.

With the topic of certification becoming an increasingly prevalent one in recent years, with question marks hanging over whether Prometheus would be released as an R or would be cut to be legible for a PG-13, and where a film like The Hunger Games was trimmed to make it suitable for a teen audience, how long is it before we see more than one edit of a movie released simultaneously?

After all, we can choose whether we want to see a film in 2D or 3D - though the number of screens is often weighted heavily towards the latter - so why not release R and PG-13 rated versions of films, and let audiences decide for themselves which they’d prefer to see?

The special edition goes mainstream

In many instances, these alternate versions offer an insight into the filmmaking and editing process which true cinema fans often crave. It’s also true that, in the case of The Avengers especially, we’re intrigued to see those bits of footage that Whedon felt compelled to leave out, and what they can tell us about the characters’ motivations.

At the same time, it’s strange to see alternate and extended cuts being used increasingly as a marketing tool. What was once a term that indicated some form of restoration - usually as a result of forces outside a filmmaker’s control - is now commonly used as a means of drumming up interest for either a second theatrical run or a forthcoming DVD release.

It’s worth noting, too, that where special editions or director’s cuts were once the preserve of the cult or genre movie – the likes of Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate, Superman 2 or the aforementioned Blade Runner, for example. Now, they’ve gone mainstream; of the top-ten movies currently on the US box-office success list, the following have been re-released in extended versions, or as 3D special editions, often with one or two revised scenes: Avatar, Titanic, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Star Wars, E.T., and The Lion King. If the rumours are true, The Avengers, now the third highest-grossing movie of all time, could be the seventh entry on this list.

Whether you regard director’s cuts as a valuable insight into the process of making your favourite movies, a cunning way of coaxing a little more money out of your pocket or, in all likelihood, both, it’s clear that this once niche interest has hit the mainstream – and for now, it’s clearly here to stay.

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