In 1982, sci-fi-action-thriller Blade Runner polarised critics and audiences. Acclaimed movie critic Roger Ebert tarnished whatever reputation it had, becoming one of the strangest Hollywood projects of its decade. The film tanked, forcing Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford to reconsider their options.
Blade Runner ‘Final Cut’ came out after several re-jigged versions of the 80s smash, removing everything Scott and Ford disliked. The move kicked off the rise of extended/special/director’s cuts in home entertainment. Today, it is considered one of contemporary Hollywood cinema’s most ground-breaking blockbusters. The film shaped an entire generation of filmmakers, convinced the film was the pinnacle of Hollywood potential.
Over cinema’s history, there has been a strong divide between the director’s cut and theatrical version. A film’s producers, refining the run-time and content to fit the rating system and avoid ambiguity, typically decide the theatrical cut. The director’s cut is longer, broader, and more explicit than the theatrical cut, presented as the director’s approved copy.
The director’s cut refers to what is decided on in the editing process. This particular copy comes between the rough and theatrical cuts, leaving in everything the directors they accepted and endorsed. Many of these are released after the original version, with ‘Director’s Cut’ or ‘Extended/Special Edition’ DVDs selling like hotcakes and attracting increased critical attention.
Many theatrical cuts exist to fit in more screenings per day at the cinema complex. However, with most blockbusters stretched to two-and-a-half-hours, the call for more cuts and minimal directorial control may be necessary. There are two key examples of how studio, director, and producer dynamics have transformed some projects into some of the most memorable productions in contemporary cinema.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is a packed middle chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whilst telling its own story – introducing a new villain, protagonists, settings etc. – the 11th franchise instalment forced director Joss Whedon to set up future flicks including Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok. To achieve his vision, Whedon set his sights on a four-hour cut to complete this monumental task. The move would have potentially split the instalment into two parts, fleshing out each element to its full potential.
However, the film was designated as one instalment by MCU/Disney heads – receiving mixed reviews from critics and fans for pushing too much into one production. Here, Whedon and the studio clashed head on. Whilst Whedon’s idea would have provided more bang for your buck, the MCU’s plans for future movies would have been stalled. Age of Ultron left the director and studio butting heads, leaving the debate over Whedon’s vision up in the air.
Whereas Age of Ultron blurred the lines between Whedon and the studio’s visions, Ridley Scott’s features make a clear distinction. Scott, from Blade Runner onwards, has had several projects flipped and switched by the studios. For the 2003 re-release of Alien, Scott agreed to create an alternative cut to satisfy 20th Century Fox directly. However, with films including Gladiator, American Gangster, and Black Hawk Down, Scott and the studio’s vision matched directly. All three were released as extended/special editions for DVD editions.
Of course, the most common version of the director’s cut is adding more scenes to extend its run-time. The theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven was met with mixed reviews and dim box-office returns upon release in 2005. Despite being considered a failure, Scott stood by the project throughout its production, release, and reception. The underrated crusades-epic was given the green light, with Scott developing a director’s cut for release several months later.
Screened at the Laemmle Fairfax Theatre on December 23rd, 2005, the director’s cut is approximately 45 minutes to one hour longer than the original. As the version Scott wanted for release, the director’s cut – at 194 minutes – includes a more thorough, fleshed-out version with an overture and intermission. The film received a much stronger reaction from critics, praising Scott for sticking to his original vision. The film, thanks to Scott’s version, is considered one of the filmmaker’s best movies.
The debate between theatrical and director’s cuts has pros and cons on both sides. Big-name, visionary directors including Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg have final cut privilege over their films to positive results. On the other hand, producers, taking advice from focus groups and people involved, have good reason to change the edit, understandably protecting their investment to gain commercial success.