The Problems with Directors’ Cuts

This month we’re looking at contemporary trends in social media which have damaged the perception of film as both a form of art and entertainment media. This week, we examine how Directors Cuts don’t actually add much value to a film and can actually take away from it. 

A Director’s Cut is supposed to be a cut of a film “approved” by the director. In many ways, it is seen as the version of the film the director wanted his/her audience to see before the studio got their hands on the picture and edited it to be more palpable for your typical movie theater audience. The differences might included different edits of scenes, deleted scenes, added contextual information, different music, or even modifications to the plot. 

These days, we hear a lot about Directors’ Cuts. They are considered as a more pure version of the film. They are unadulterated by studio greed and the necessities of keeping people’s attention in theaters. They are the definitive versions of their films – the purest interpretation of the creative vision the director set out to accomplish in the first place. When a movie is released and gets panned by critics, fans are always telling you to hold your opinion until the Director’s Cut comes out. It’s supposed to change our minds. It’s supposed to be what we all expected, instead of the flawed theatrical version we had to make due with. Directors Cuts are supposed to be more of what we love about a film, and less about what we didn’t.  

 But, I’m here to tell you more doesn’t always mean better. Yes, it is true that some Director’s Cuts are good, sometimes much better than the theatrical release. But for every good “Director’s Cut”, I would say there are at least two bad ones. The idea of a Director’s Cut has really caught on, but I feel like its intended purpose has strayed from what it was originally intended to do. In fact, I feel like the Director’s Cut is now doing more harm than good to the integrity of film. Let me explain this troubling trend. 

I am a huge fan of the Alien franchise. When I was growing up, I had all 4 of the original films on VHS. When we got a DVD player, I bought all of those films on their original DVD releases. But in 2003, they released the (original) Alien Quadrilogy, a massive 9-disk box set with “Special Editions” of each film. Those “Special Editions” were essentially Directors Cuts, even if only the cut of Alien was labeled as such. These versions of each film had never been released before. For an avid Alien fan like me, it was terrific. I got to see new versions of my favorite films, and it was every bit as great as I hoped. 

But for all of the enjoyment I got out of these new cuts of some of my favorite films, I couldn’t help but notice how the introduction of these alternative versions also made things more complicated. For instance, I fell in love with Alien because of the original theatrical release. The new “Director’s Cut” added in a bunch of really cool scenes, but was it any better? It didn’t necessarily make me love the film any more than I already had. In fact, some of the new scenes introduced ideas which would be inconsistent with what is shown in later sequels. How could more of a good thing end up being less impressive? This paradox brings up the first problem with Director’s Cuts. Are they meant to replace the original or exist only to appease fans of the original. 

The director of Alien is Ridley Scott, who has had his fair share of Director’s Cuts over the years. The most famous example is Blade Runner, which has seen no fewer than 3 new cuts released which differ from the original theatrical release. Only one of these is labeled as an official “Director’s Cut”, but the penultimate version is considered to be the “Final Cut”. While Blade Runner was panned by critics and audiences upon its release, it is now considered one of the best science fiction films ever made. The alternative cuts are all considered to be even better versions of the original film, and in most circles the “Final Cut” is seen as being better than the “Director’s Cut”. 

But even if all of those special releases are better, even slightly, than the original film it doesn’t actually change our perspectives on the original. Either you love it, or you don’t. Despite the “Final Cut” being considered the best version, it isn’t different enough to change the mind of someone who hated the original cut to begin with. People’s minds can change over time. Their perspectives may change as society catches up with ahead-of-its-time genius. But Director’s Cuts have little influence in both of these areas. Let’s face it, Director’s Cuts are designed to make people spend more money. 

The people who are going to spend money on a Director’s Cut are the ones who enjoyed the original film enough in the first place. If you go to a theater and see a film, and enjoy that film enough, you may decide to purchase it or rent it to watch again. If you did not enjoy the film, you probably won’t be buying it on home video or renting it again later. Since Director’s Cuts aren’t often first released in theaters, the only way you would be able to watch one is to either buy it yourself, rent it, or watch someone else’s version. In all cases someone (should have) spent money. Consider the fact that Director’s Cuts are usually only released after the theatrical version of the film is already available on home video. This is an enticement to those fans who enjoyed the original film immensely and have already bought/rented it and want more, or have been holding out to buy/rent the Director’s Cuts in the first place. 

Part of what determines our views on film is how general audiences respond to it. Those that are loved at first viewing will get positive word of mouth, and their popularity and appeal will grow. Director’s Cuts don’t have an opportunity to positively impact a film’s cultural seed-planting. Theatrical cuts are the versions of a film which will have the most impact because it is this version which is not only seen the most widely, but has the opportunity to create the first impression 99.5% of the time.  Very infrequently would you have the opportunity to have your first viewing of a film be the Director’s Cut. So, in the grand scheme of things, Directors Cuts have a very minimal impact on how a film is viewed in the first place, compared to the collective clout we seem to bestow upon them. Think of a Director’s Cut as an extra spice added to your favorite dessert. It may change the flavor profile slightly, but it’s not why we came to the table in the first place. 

Many people see Director’s Cuts as the unmolested version of a film. This is what audiences were meant to see before commercial requirements came into play which may have “soured” the end result. But when you take this approach to the Director’s Cut, there are some important aspects you are overlooking. First, consider what it takes to release a Director’s Cut in the first place, either a home video release or temporary run in theaters. This isn’t just the director having his cut laying around in a closet somewhere. The studio has to be involved, because ultimately they have the rights to the film. So a true Director’s Cut seeing the light day is really the combined work of a director and the studio, not a director going rogue. Second, they are motivated to do this by fan service. So, again, people have to love the original movie enough for it to make sense for a Director’s Cut in the first place. It takes time and money, and so there has to be enough of a potential incentive to go through the process. 

Of course, there are exceptions to everything and so of course there are Director’s Cuts which don’t quite fit into the situation I have discussed so far. Most of the time a Director’s Cut is just an addition of a few new scenes or adding in some extended scenes. Maybe the end is different because test audiences rejected the original. In these cases, we’re talking about minimal changes to the end result of the film. Some Director’s Cuts are not minimal modifications. Sometimes Director’s Cuts DO show a different version of a film. 

Back to the Alien Quadrilogy example, there is one of these type of Director’s Cuts included in that set. Alien 3 was David Fincher’s first feature film, and it did not go well. You can read about the challenging process of making that film here. The film that ended up in theaters was not the film that Fincher intended. Frustrating productions like this happen. Due to the constraints of film making, director’s intentions for a film don’t always get fully realized. The special edition of Alien 3 included in the Quadrilogy set is a version of the film edited to be closer to Fincher’s original intent, not what we ultimately ended up with in theaters. 

This version of the film changes some of the plot, adds more depth to the characters, and even required several special effects shots which were never finished. Many people say that this version is the best version of Alien 3, but the problem is it was never finished. I think the correct perspective to take is to say that the ideas behind Fincher’s version of Alien 3 are better than those behind the theatrical release. But can we definitively say the “Director’s Cut” of Alien 3 is better than the standard version if that special edition is incomplete? Furthermore, taking everything else I have commented on up until this point, does it make a difference? 

The truth is, no matter how great a Director’s Cut is, I don’t feel like it can really change our opinions on a film as significantly as we think they should. First impressions are very important! If something didn’t work right the first time (when you saw it in theaters), why does it deserve another chance? If it didn’t end up well the first time, there is a reason for that. I know we have our allegiances to certain franchises, filmmakers, or stories. Those fans will always be hoping there is a better version of the thing they love to help convince other people to love it too. I’m sorry to say, Director’s Cuts are not the answer. They can be better films than the original versions, but they can’t change what has already happened.  Director’s Cuts are not second chances. They aren’t reboots. They are remixes (of different degrees).