When discussing the scrappy and hirsute “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” generation of 1970s filmmakers, the narrative arc of William Friedkin is a fun one to tell, and is often the stuff of legend. While he doesn’t rank up there among some of the peers of that era like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, he was the first of them to deliver what many call the first true blockbuster before “Jaws” and “Star Wars” with 1973’s “The Exorcist.” Arriving just two years after his critical hit “The French Connection” (which earned him an Academy Award for Best Director; 4 wins and 8 nominations total), “The Exorcist” became one of the highest-earning movies of all time during its era, grossing over $441 million worldwide (which is still a great figure by today’s standards).
The narrative goes downhill from there. Thought to be the the youngest person to win the Best Director Oscar at the age of 32 (this was disproven years later when it was revealed he was actually 36!), like Peter Bogdanovich‘s early success, it’s widely assumed that hubris and cockiness made his career go awry. Following “The Exorcist” came 1977’s “Sorcerer,” a remake on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s suspense masterpiece “The Wages of Fear,” and as a follow-up to the rather epic box office of “The Exorcist,” the $12 million-grossing picture (budget was $22 million) is widely recognized as one of the biggest flops of 1970s filmmaking.
While there were certainly good pictures subsequently (“To Live and Die in L.A.” in particular), “Sorcerer” is generally perceived as the beginning of Friedkin’s end. But viewed after the fact, and free from the prism of expectations and box-office, this undersung thriller is moody, tense and unnerving, and features a throbbing and spooky score from electronic musicians Tangerine Dream.
Recently, Friedkin filed suit against Paramount and Universal Pictures (the domestic and international distributors) alleging that neither party delivered a profit-participation statement or accounting regarding the film in more than 20 years. But the main issue is that Friedkin just wants to screen the damn film and hopefully bring it back to DVD (we’d kill for a fancy deluxe director’s cut, frankly). But one of the main problems: neither company seems to know who owns the rights to the movie.
In a recent interview with Variety, Friedkin said the whole impetus of the lawsuit is to “simply to free the picture. It is not the financial interest that draws me to this. No one will come forward and say who owns the rights.” Evidently, while it screened in 2011 without issue, when the L.A. rep theater Cinefamily recently attempted get gain permission to screen the film, Paramount apparently said they didn’t even have a physical copy any longer and claimed they didn’t currently control the domestic distribution rights.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Friedkin’s attorney told Variety. “Imagine this: On the one hand, the studio says it does not control the domestic theatrical rights, and in an earlier letter they say you are not free to proceed with screening opportunities of this picture. On the one hand, we ourselves do not have the rights to give permission. On the other hand, it ain’t you, so don’t do anything.”
So what’s going on exactly? The lawsuit will hopefully surface some answers, but what could be the fact of the matter, as Friedkin says, “is either that [the studios] don’t know or don’t care.” And possibly it’s a bit of both. Let’s hope this one eventually lands right side up.