Recently I got into a lighthearted debate with someone about the fact that people will wish a “happy birthday” to a to a movie on its release date. It took an interesting turn when I decided to debate when a movie’s birthday actually is.
Join me as I venture into a pseudo-intellectual rabbit hole about something far less absurd than calling for Paw Patrol to be canceled. I promise also it’s going to be more fun and, considering I’m going up against The New York Times, written considerably better than most things in that rag.
The Debate Point
The debate sprang from the point, again, of people wishing a “happy birthday” to a movie. Say, for instance, you noted that Batman came out on June 23, 1989. That would mean on June 23, 2020, you would wish Batman a “happy 31st birthday” and accumulate the requisite number of likes to validate your day.
Setting aside the absolute inanity of wishing a happy birthday to a piece of entertainment, I contend that June 23, 1989 wouldn’t be Batman‘s birthday at all. (Please save the jokes about it being Bruce Wayne’s birthday or whatever. I’ve already established I’m talking about the movie directed by Tim Burton.)
The Technical Disagreement
I would contend that Batman‘s “birthday” would be when they’ve locked picture. Picture lock means the major edits are made, the pacing is set, and if you were to watch it at that point it’s by and large ready for show. I know that changes are technically made after that point in terms of sound, color grading, and other post-production work, but if someone sat down to watch the film they’d essentially see a final product.
It is, in essence, born at that moment. All birth is messy, and every child is tended before going into the world. The rest of the work after picture lock could be seen as the film in its infancy or childhood, being nurtured and given the right care.
Now, to be clear, sometimes the birthday is perilously close to the release date, or even closer than intended. It happens! In the era of digital filmmaking, the very concept of a picture lock may be eroding. But it’s what I’ve got right now, and I’m running with it.
The Complicating Aspects
Of course, the idea of celebrating a movie’s “birthday” opens a whole other can of worms, as the saying goes, even if you concede the point about picture lock.
Directors who fiddle with their work post-release further complicate the whole “birthday” angle. Ridley Scott has released three different versions of Blade Runner theatrically. Does Blade Runner therefore get three birthdays? the answer is no, because even with the changes, the picture lock was still the starting point.
What about extended editions? Do we have to celebrate the “birthday” of Wedding Crashers for both its theatrical and home release since it had an extended cut on disc? Of course the answer is no, because there was no intermediary stage of a second picture lock after the theatrical release. If anything, the extended cut is usually the release including things they cut before the theatrical premiere, and so could be even closer to the original form.
And of course, no discussion about post-release work on a film can possibly be had without acknowledging George Lucas. One of my most beloved artists, Mr. Lucas has earned the enmity of odd-smelling rage addicts for generations thanks to his special editions of the Star Wars films.
(Most of the time, they ignore that he made changes between the 70mm and 35mm releases of The Empire Strikes Back, accept that Episode IV: A New Hope wasn’t added until well after 1977, and so on and so forth. )
But each of those versions of the films is still, in essence, what the movie always was. There’s no cut where Luke misses the climactic shot on the exhaust port, for goodness’ sake.
The Concluding Argument
That simple point – that the essence of the film is determined at that key stage – is why I argue that picture lock is the “birth of a film.” Regardless of whether you subtract narration and tighten edits like in Blade Runner, add digital background enhancements and characters like in Star Wars, or erase someone from official pictures who angered you, the essence of the story is there and you have a completed film for all intents and purposes. Everything from that point on is cosmetic.
Remember, too, that if you like a movie, don’t ever apologize for it. Like it, love it, and embrace that you do, even if it’s the sixth alteration it’s gone through in a few decades.
Now, of course, there’s the matter of director’s cuts and that will lead into tomorrow’s post. Stay tuned!