So extra: how the director’s cut became Hollywood’s best ruse to milk fans dry | Film

Apocalypse Now returned to cinemas again this month, with a self-proclaimed Final Cut that runs half an hour longer than the original version and 20 minutes shorter than 2001’s Redux cut. Once, the strangest aspect of this new release would have been Francis Ford Coppola’s inability to finalise his vision for the film. Now, the weirdest thing is that it took so bloody long.

Apocalypse Now waited 40 whole years before returning to cinemas with this new, definitive version. Let’s compare that with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which came out almost – but not quite – two months ago. An extended version is already about to be released. Same with Midsommar. This also came out in early July, but that won’t stop an unrated director’s cut from launching next weekend. By these standards Avengers: Endgame is the model of restraint, managing to wait for two months and two days before being theatrically revived with a smattering of new footage.

And – make no mistake – calling it a smattering is generous. Although it is a little impolite to compare a work as substantial as Apocalypse Now with what basically amounts to a punctuation point in Superheroes: The Soap Opera, Coppola’s Final Cut continues the dramatic reshaping of the film that began with 2001’s sprawling Redux version, whereas the Endgame re-release includes what exactly? Six extra piddling minutes of almost-footage, including a scene where an unfinished Hulk with an immobile mouth rescues some people, a montage of Stan Lee shooting his cameos and the opening scene of Spider-Man: Far From Home. That is it. Two DVD extras and a trailer. That will be the full price of a cinema ticket again, please. Refreshments are available in the foyer.

Still, it did the job. The Endgame re-release was a transparently commercial manoeuvre, cynically willed into existence because the original run couldn’t quite squeeze past Avatar to become the highest-grossing film of all time. Chuck in a handful of scraps – without even integrating them into the film – in the name of fan service, and bingo: Endgame just about nosed it.

Midsommar: a re-release that offers a lot more.

Midsommar: a re-release that offers a lot more. Photograph: Gabor Kotschy/A24

And where The Avengers go, everyone else follows. The Far From Home re-release (containing an unseen four-minute action scene and three minutes of other fluff) is almost certainly just to squeeze a few more bucks out of the fans. If it works as well as Endgame, it could bump the box office tally up by about $5m, which might be enough to leapfrog the third Lord of the Rings film in the all-time chart.

The Midsommar re-release, at least, feels as if someone has spent some actual time on it. The director’s cut is about 25 minutes longer than the version released in June and, according to those who have seen it, provides greater character depth and deeper mythological understanding. Whisper it, but it might actually be a director’s cut in the truest sense of the term. This could actually be the version that Ari Aster wanted to release in the first place.

You cannot possibly say that about anything burped out by Marvel. It is impossible to imagine the Russo brothers tossing and turning at night, worrying that audiences might not get to see their complete artistic vision of having Endgame bookended with a 61-second advert for a Spider-Man film.

But this is where we are now. Cinemas are having a rough time of it this year, with all manner of “tentpole franchise” sequels – the films that were only made because they were going to be hits – flopping enormously. We knew that audiences didn’t want to see smaller indies, or character-driven mid-budget dramas, or anything based on original properties, but now it appears that they don’t even want to watch the big bangy spectacle stuff they’re supposed to like. So what are cinemas supposed to show instead? That’s right, infinitesimally altered versions of the films audiences literally just went to see.

We should expect to see this happening more and more now: a blockbuster comes out at the beginning of summer, and then it returns in a slightly different form six weeks later to tide you over until the DVD release. This is certainly going to be the case with all future Marvel films, and probably all Disney and DC films, too. Can’t wait for Wonder Woman 2? Then you’re going to love Wonder Woman 2: The Director’s Cut, featuring a never-before-seen 20-second clip of Gal Gadot inspecting her boot for dog poo.

Whether this will last is another question. Audiences are bound to wise up to the outright cynicism of this practice before long. And then what will Hollywood do for money? My guess is that it will keep re-releasing Endgame once a fortnight until the end of time, with a new scrap of unused DVD extra footage bolted on at the start. Why mess with a winning formula?

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