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GREY AREAS

by
in Filmmaking
on Jun 2, 2006


In her Risky Business blog, Ann Thompson links to John DeFore’s “Bootleg Movies,” a piece appearing in Slate detailing “the strange films you find in the back alleys of the internet.”

From the piece:

These businesses, outgrowths of the kind of tape-trading scenes familiar to Grateful Dead fans, are run by enthusiasts out to finance their own hobbies, not to make a killing. (Traditional bootleggers charge a premium, but most offerings here are half the price of ordinary releases.) They sell everything from forgotten silents to auteurist curiosities to spaghetti westerns—usually on discs mastered from an old VHS release or TV broadcast, but occasionally from a collector’s personal film print.

Isn’t that illegal? Dealers proudly cite a chunk of copyright law called the Berne Act, which they interpret this way: As long as a movie hasn’t had a commercial release in America, it’s fair game. Given that a few of these enthusiasts have done business for years at the same Web addresses, perhaps Hollywood’s “cease and desist”-happy lawyers believe there’s something to the argument.

I’ve always been of two minds about these sites. The film geek in me loves to know that lost obscurities and never-released cult titles are available for viewing. The conscientious member of the film community part of me, however, knows too many very poor directors who have been startled to discover that their underground movies are being distributed without their knowledge and consent. Also, I know a few directors who have made films that have acquired a bit of a repution in their making but which the director’s don’t intend to release. That’s up to them, as it should be, and I know they’d be furious if they discovered those unfinished rough cuts floating around the internet.

All of that said, if you want to know where you can get a copy of Quentin Tarantino’s true first feature, My Best Friend’s Birthday (“The 36 existing minutes, mastered from a fairly degraded videotape, have the ill-lit, black-and-white look of Clerks but with setups and camera movement Kevin Smith would never have attempted.”), Todd Haynes’s copyright-flaunting Superstar or Robert Frank’s legally enjoined Rolling Stones doc Cocksucker Blues, DeFore lays it out for you. And for the true cinecultist, DeFore does answer the obvious question: no, he didn’t discover a copy of Jerry Lewis’s Holocaust-drama The Day the Clown Cried (pictured).

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