Elvis, Fox, Disney, and the Digital Oubliette

September 21, 2019 | By

One of the virtues in seeing career missteps on Blu-ray is to reappraise and appreciate aspects which period critics and audiences missed, and the filmmakers’ creative decisions they failed to accept, especially when a star like Elvis Presley was flexing his dramatic muscles in movies.

The fact he wanted to do straight drama isn’t a surprise – prior musical-infused hits like Love Me Tender (1956) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) had shored up his career as a powerhouse talent across the globe – but letting an artist learn, stumble, and maybe fail is part of the necessary experiences in building greater talent, and future-proofing a star for other paths should singing go through some dips and stumbles.

Twilight Time’s presentation of Wild in the Country (1961) features a clean transfer with a stereo isolated score track, and allows both Presley fans and the curious to sample this slightly notorious misfire which was produced & released by Twentieth Century-Fox, a studio whose own corporate history is far less tumultuous than rival MGM.

Since the 1960s, MGM has been bought, chopped us, resold, reconfigured as MGM / UA, and repeatedly hacked up until what remains is a catalogue locker and modest production shingle than a major studio entity, especially the ‘more stars than there are in Heaven’ stable ruled by Louis B. Mayer during its peak years.

Fox wasn’t immune to change – new production heads during the 1950s, the widescreen revolution, the return of bigwig Darryl F. Zanuck after Cleopatra (1963) and Doctor Doolittle (1967) almost killed it – and it too went through some reconfiguring after the studio founded the fourth TV network FOX TV in 1986, but the studio was always aware of its decades-worth of cinematic glory which it would release & re-release on tape, laserdisc, CED, and later DVD in laudable special editions with commentaries, vintage newsreels, stills, interviews, and bio pieces taken from its cable stations.

When DVD sales started to dip after 2005, the Fox catalogue wasn’t exploited as much as fans wanted on Blu-ray, and not unlike Columbia and the remnants of MGM / UA, Fox licensed titles to interested labels because, well, it’s a no-brainer: if you have HD masters airing on TCM, on propriety stations, and streaming services, why not license a physical release to labels like Twilight Time, KINO, and others?

When I interviewed Twilight Time’s co-founder, the late Nick Redman, way back in 2012, I asked him whether Fox was involved in the European DVD release of its catalogue, and the answer was no – Fox Spain could and often did release titles available nowhere else, and for years the practice continued throughout Europe, offering widescreen catalogue titles that never made it to disc in Region 1 land, but with Disney’s purchase of Fox and its massive film and TV catalogue, fans knew things would change.

Disney, which used to release DVDs of their classics in the same limited waves as theatrical reissues, also went through a shift after DVD sales started to dip. The tins of animated shorts was the last gasp from its in-house special products division, and with a few Blu-ray special editions of old standards excepted (Dumbo, Pinocchio, Mary Poppins), there’s been little traces of its deep catalogue, especially the adult Touchstone Pictures line, making it to any special edition Blu-ray.

Their highly selective offering of classic titles is no longer part of the bullshit ‘vault’ campaign in which a movie is released, then goes on moratorium for 4+ years to create a fake state of pent-up demand among parents and fans before it re-emerges in a slightly tweaked (and limited) special edition.

Disney has always been an exceptionally savvy corporation, but its desire to gamble on new ideas is gone; its chief interest lies in reformulating franchises by recombining elements through film, TV, and stage musical permutations. Hit films are run through the genre-o-matic over & over again; if it was animated, make it live action, then make a musical, then film the production for the big screen before it returns in another recombined re-imagined mutation.

Remakes, prequels, sequels, and reboots were pioneered by the studio during its home video days with direct to video tie-ins to brand classics (Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure, Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride); with the ingestion of the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars franchises, the studio’s emphasis is on building flexible, interconnected universes which are expected to fill a supposedly insatiable appetite Disney believes can be maintained season after season, year after year, at the expense of everything else.

It’s tent-pole productions offering staid, predictable templates much like MGM / UA’s James Bond franchise, which Fox handles through an existing theatrical agreement, and a video release setup inspired by the Disney plan of putting all titles on moratorium until the latest sequel is set for home video release. (This plan has since been tweaked to allow for single DVD edition and collections tied to specific actors.)

One stateside practice never fully enforced in Canada until last fall is the 28 day moratorium on shops being unable to rent a major Disney title on street date. You can buy Avengers: Endgame if you really want to see it on disc, but renting a DVD or Blu is verboten until that month clock has rung.

The process creates (surprise) an exaggerated state of demand for a month and artificially boosts sales figures, and one can see the moratorium lock being extended if future physical sales dip, and / or titles remain available at premium pricing; as the logo on sleeve art and preceding the movie infer with little subtlety, to own a Disney DVD is a privilege, not a generic impulse buy or simple stocking-stuffer.

When Disney’s purchase of Twentieth Century-Fox was formalized in 2019, fans of studio libraries became worried the former would start to impose its restrictive policies on licensing and circulation on the Fox catalogue, which is frankly bigger, richer, and more interesting than Disney’s limited output.

Remember: Fox, itself a merger between Fox Film (1915-1935) and 20th Century Pictures (1933-1935), mass-produced shorts and features since the silent era, licensed movies to TV and every major home video format, and enabled rep cinemas to program themed screenings for decades.

Disney, roughly founded in 1923, took several decades before it became a major force in animation and key family entertainment programming in cinemas and TV, but their deep back catalogue is nowhere as massive those retained by major studios Fox, Warner Bros., MGM, and Paramount.

Columbia was initially regarded as the poorer of the majors, Universal was a lesser major, and United Artists a spunky rebel that catered to indie producers (Stanley Kramer, the Mirisch brothers) and actor-producers (Burt Lancaster) wanting to control their careers and earn a piece of gross profits.

Medium-major RKO had a lucrative chain of theatres and less imperialistic corporate heads to meddle and shape product until Howard Hughes made a lethal mess of things, contributing to its demise before the end of the 1950s.

The 1948 Paramount Decree put an end to extreme block booking, and forced the majors to sever their cinema chain ownership because it was anti-competitive. (This didn’t happen in Canada, hence Paramount’s Famous Players retaining an influential hold on theatrical exhibition until it merged with Cineplex Entertainment; the latter had already absorbed the Rank Organisation’s Canadian branch of their Odeon chain.)

In 2019, Disney’s post-Fox maneuvering is now being felt with unsettling ripple effects. Rep cinemas can show either old movies or new, but not both.

NOW Magazine and other outlets published recent reports and podcasts of local rep and indie cinemas now unable to screen Fox library titles because they also show new movies. This makes for strange allies, with indie cinemas on the same ‘Hey, wait a second!’ side as Cineplex, which dominates 93% market share of Canadian cinema attendance.

Cineplex, like the indies, has shown classic films from either DCPs or Blu-rays, licensed from the studios in themed screenings usually during the holidays, but now they too can’t show classics at budget prices in their multiplexes.

Classics not from the 1940s, but seasonal favourites like Die Hard and Home Alone, the Sound of Music sing-a-longs, or cult favorites like Phantom of the Paradise, which the Revue screened as part of their cheekily branded series Fox Vault Farewell. Disney has said The Rocky Horror Picture isn’t affected by the no-show rules, but that’s one aging cult film amid a studio’s massive cinematic history.

Is the RHPS allowance supposed to be a grand gesture to fans worried the Fox library is being rolled into a newer, bigger, tighter ‘vault’?

The most popular programming in rep cinemas are 80s and 90s themed screenings, but there’s also a successful silent series which consists of sometimes restored classics, forgotten gems, or once-lost films which, if from the Fox library, are now verboten if a cinema shows a new release. So while F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), restored by MOMA, and screened with a trio of live musicians at the Revue happened in 2018, that’s likely not going to happen again unless there’s a policy change within Disney’s assets management office.

That means local programmers in every city, province, and state lose out on educating cineastes; audiences lose out on seeing rare slices of film history on the big screen; and the musicians and composers skilled at performing music live to picture lose work, and future opportunities to practice their art are severely limited because of the Either-Or Decree.

It also begs the question: If MOMA’s recently completed restorations of Fox’s Murnau and Frank Borzage titles had been proposed in 2020, would there be any point in following through, given the films could only be played in educational, non-profit, rep, or festival engagements?

And if the restored DCPs were restricted to key cities for limited engagements, and subsequent streaming on Disney+ among a glut of rotating, generically curated Fox content, would anyone else know these rare films exist?

It’s not an alien concept. Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind was slated for restoration, completion and Blu-ray release courtesy of a Kickstarter campaign, but after Netflix funded the remaining work and bought the distribution rights, the last completed work by a major figure in American film can only be seen as a streaming file. Not in cinemas. Not on home video. Not even as a DCP available to film societies, programmers, or even a limited release in major international cities.

If the result of years of negotiation among Welles’ heirs, various investors, and a meticulous restoration is essentially dumped and buried among rotating streaming catalogues, was there even a point to finishing Welles last fucking movie?

If Disney starts restricting the licensing of classics to indie home video labels, then a chunk of film history becomes exclusively available to Disney’s streaming services. The logic is to force fans to Disney+ and Hulu (of which Disney owns 60%) for what’ll be exclusive content, but it’s an ill-conceived maneuver which ultimately reduces choice, availability, and impact beyond continental borders.

Cinesavant’s recent review of the German Blu-ray release of Soldier of Fortune (1955)  more than infers the Disney ‘vault’ policy is extending outside of North America:

Soldier of Fortune isn’t out on Blu-ray in Region A, but this German disc is Region-Free, at least as far as U.S. standards are concerned. What with Disney purchasing 20th-Fox, we’re concerned that the Fox library may be put off limits to hard media. The foreign distributor behind this disc has already been told that no more titles will be licensed. In this case, waiting for a homegrown release may not be a good idea.

KINO’s recent deal to release a lot of Canal Plus titles may well be a sign of that label’s sly move to ensure steady product to film fans, and a hint that after whatever Fox titles have left the pipeline, no more shall cometh, which, if true, is terrible news for Fox fans, and if we include Wild in the Country, even Elvis may become lost in the digital whirlpool. One hopes the managers of his estate are seeking written assurance that no Elvis Fox titles will be verboten on disc or from any cinema screen.

Disney’s relationship with collectors and fans could be described as dysfunctional, especially with its own product. Where a classic like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) was previously treated to a special edition on DVD, it’s now only available from Disney’s online club as a bare bones Blu. And while the that transfer has been lauded by critics, not every film gets the same TLC.

The Black Hole (1979) had a bungled DVD release from Anchor Bay, a near-bare bones release on DVD from Disney, and the new “Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray via the Disney Movie Club is reportedly an unrestored transfer with zero extras. TBH was and remains an awkward attempt by Disney to spend a lot of money on state of the art effects to put their foot in the space opera craze of the late 70s but remain kid-friendly. The produced opus has very odd jolts of adult imagery, violence, and a bizarre final, but it has definite nostalgic value, but unlike Tron (1982), the movie was seemingly dumped to on-demand Blu, perhaps to gauge interest for a possible special edition should the fan base prove significant, or maybe voice outrage.

The irony is a studio that once made pioneering works in popular entertainment now makes franchise banalities. It’s also contributing to the slow submersion of film history into what may develop into a curated digital oubliette.

Cineplex can’t be happy about losing a very cost-effective form of seasonal programming, but unless major U.S. chains cry foul, nothing will happen, and part of that’s due to the chains benefiting from the regurgitated franchises which, through Disney’s hyper-focus and fast-tracked production plan, seem to fill screens every few months.

It’s an interesting system which may, at some point, exhaust fans, but for now, no one cares. Where ‘Disneyfication’ used to infer the toning down of adult material to G-friendly characters, stories, and happy endings swirling in candy-coloured landscapes, it’s morphed into monopolistic, bloated, noisy franchises & remakes that only sometimes transcend formulaic templates.

As recounted in this Wiki summary of why the Paramount Decree was of deep concern to exhibitors and the U.S. government in the 1940s:

The major film studios owned the theaters where their motion pictures were shown, either in partnerships or outright. Thus specific theater chains showed only the films produced by the studio that owned them. The studios created the films, had the writers, directors, producers and actors on staff (under contract), owned the film processing and laboratories, created the prints and distributed them through the theaters that they owned: In other words, the studios were vertically integrated, creating a de facto oligopoly.

Although no studio owns a stable of talent, Sony is unique in being the only hardware manufacturer that owns a studio, but it’s found a sweet spot in restoring and archiving the Columbia catalogue and licensing titles to indie labels as well as budget brand Mill Creek.

Warner Bros., which also owns the RKO and early MGM catalogue, regularly releases archival material as on-demand DVDs and Blu-rays because it’s easy money, and it’s the end-result of having spent a fortune digitizing its massive deep catalogue of films, shorts, and TV series for all media streams and formats, present and future.

Total vertical integration may not exist, but partial vertical and extreme lateral integration does, and while Disney is now the rightful owner of a massive film and TV catalogue, it can either restrict or foster a new philosophy from within, taking its self-assigned position as a steward of cinema history, and enable the Fox library, and maybe its own, to coexist in new and traditional venues and media formats.

If the corporation’s mandate and culture is firmly tracked towards total control, then the Fox catalogue may become the most notorious casualty of a digital oubliette, of which select titles are extracted by indifferent gatekeepers, while the rest just sink through deep layers of skeletal celluloid.

Not good.

Coming next: some lighter fare, with a review of Severin’s luxuriously packed genre releases All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and the related doc All the Colors of Giallo (2019).

Thanks for reading,



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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