Cinematic Treasures Are Disappearing. That’s Where Missing Movies Comes In
The Heartbreak Kid, Elaine May’s classic anti-rom-com, turns 50 this year. But unlike The Godfather, also celebrating its golden anniversary, there are limited opportunities to see it. The Heartbreak Kid hasn’t been afforded a restoration, nor was it rereleased in theaters. It is not available to stream. Your best bet is to find a now out-of-print VHS or DVD edition of the film—currently going for $57 and $170, respectively, on Amazon.
For all practical purposes, The Heartbreak Kid is missing. It is one of many contemporary films that, to the surprise and distress of their makers, have fallen into distribution limbos. “All of us involved in The Heartbreak Kid have been hoping it would be rereleased,” Jeannie Berlin, Oscar nominated for her hilarious and heartbreaking performance as Lila—the newlywed dumped by her husband on their honeymoon—tells Vanity Fair in an email. “There are many practices, theories, and ways of making decisions in this business that make no sense to me.”
For The Heartbreak Kid, as well as films like I Shot Andy Warhol, the documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time, Laurie Anderson’s concert film Home of the Brave, and many more, a happy ending may be on the horizon. Missing Movies, a consortium of film artists and professionals, has set itself up as an advocacy group on behalf of directors looking to regain the rights to their films. It also hopes to educate the public about the vagaries of film distribution.
“So many people say, ‘You can get anything with the internet,” notes Amy Heller, a founding board member of Missing Movies along with her husband, Dennis Doros. “We’re talking about an industry that’s owned by a few extraordinarily large organizations. That also makes for less diversity and flexibility [in what is available].”
Adds Doros, “The subscription model depends on new product. That’s where the money is. They focus on creating new content.”
Officially launched last February, Missing Movies began in large part about four years ago. That’s when Ira Deutchman asked director Nancy Savoca to screen her 1993 independent film, Household Saints, at Columbia University, where Deutchman has taught for 35 years.
“The university put together a retrospective to my career,” he says. “One of the films I advocated for was Household Saints, which I was involved with as an executive producer and co-financier when I was running Fine Line Features. I started calling around to find out whether it was available to screen. Low and behold, not only was it not available, but it was a mystery who controlled the rights and where the materials were. It was a mess.”
No one was more surprised than Savoca and her husband and producing partner, Richard Guay. Household Saints was one of 1993’s best-reviewed films and earned an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting female actor (Lili Taylor). “The 1990s was a wonderful era,” Savoca says. “All these companies wanted content to put out on home video. A lot of wonderful filmmakers had opportunities to do really interesting work. So, we were thinking, Get to the next film.” Little thought was given to previously released works.
Deutchman’s request was a wake-up call. Household Saints, as well as the Emmy-nominated anthology *If These Walls Could Talk—*which Savoca cowrote and directed two segments of—are unavailable for streaming. “I turned to Richard and said, ‘I’m going to disappear,’” she says.
There are many reasons why a film may go missing, ranging from clearing prohibitively expensive music rights to the producing entities and rights holders going out of business and studio indifference. The issue with Household Saints, says Deutchman, was that New Line’s rights and Columbia TriStar Home Video’s rights had expired. “Nancy, Richard, myself, and Sue Bodine, their lawyer, started investigating to whom the rights had reverted. We came up with a television production company that no longer existed, nor was there any successor company. That added further to the mystery.”
But it’s all good, according to Deutchman: The rights to Household Saints have been cleared, and the film is going to be restored and rereleased. “But that whole adventure got all of us thinking that there are numerous films that fall into this trap, and the filmmakers are not even aware of the fact that this trap exists,” Deutchman says. Other artists have emerged with similar tales.