Last month the Center for Social Media released Untold Stories: Creative Consequences of the Rights Clearance Culture for Documentary Filmmakers. Many of the stories are unfortunately of a familiar type: contemporary documentarians must go through incredible lengths to gain clearance for “culture” in essentially every second of their films. Often clearance means removal when the price is too high, ironically removing mass culture from films meant to document it.
Untold Stories also tells of the disappearance of existing documentaries due to clearance issues, for example the famous 1992 civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize:
Jon Else, series producer and cinematographer for Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize, noted, “Eyes on the Prize is no longer available for purchase. It is virtually the only audio-visual purveyor of the history of the civil rights movement in America. What happened was the series was done cheaply and had a terrible fundraising problem. There was barely enough to purchase a minimum five year rights on the archive heavy footage. Each episode in the series is 50% archival. And most of the archive shots are derived from commercial sources. The five year licenses expired and the company that made the film also expired. And now we have a situation where we have this series for which there are no rights licenses. Eyes on the Prize cannot be broadcast on any TV venue anywhere, nor can it be sold. Whatever threadbare copies are available in universities around the country are the only ones that will ever exist. It will cost $500,000 to re-up all the rights for this film. This is a piece of landmark TV history that has vanished.”
Indeed, PBS does not sell copies, and those available used on Amazon are extremely expensive — $600 and up for a VHS box set as of this writing.
A short video introduces the issues explored by Untold Stories. It’s always a hoot to see a Creative Commons notice in film credits, so I’ve included a screenshot in this post, but go watch and read for yourself.