The current hysterical climate of piracy-bashing means that free cinema is more important than ever and, as modes of distribution change, it’s important for film makers to stay abreast of better and more effective ways of getting their work out there. Free cinema can also be something of a legal quagmire – copyright expiry means that some very famous films are in the public domain, as copyright only exists for a finite period of time (an amount that is usually extended when Mickey Mouse approaches the end of his copyright).
Whether the film makers intended to release their film for free, or if it’s available for free due to some legal mishap, this here list shows you which films you can get gratis, without fear of The Man knocking on your door. The oft-quoted definition of “free” is used for this article – “Free as in freedom, not free as in beer”. www.openculture.com is a fantastic resource for open culture and public domain cinema, as well as www.archive.org for hosting the majority of the files, along with www.youtube.com. Copyright in cinema, although pretty dry in places, is actually quite fascinating.
1. Tromeo and Juliet
I’ve put Tromeo and Juliet because it’s a particular favourite of mine but in fact Troma have recently put 150 films from their collection onto Youtube, for free. You can see Cannibal! The Musical (Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s first feature film), Nightbeast, White Zombie (starring Bela Lugosi), and The Battle of Love’s Return, in which Oliver Stone made his debut in front of the camera (as opposed to behind it). Find the full list here (http://www.youtube.com/tromamovies).
Again, like Troma, all of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s films have been put onto Youtube for free – I just chose Mirror because it’s my favourite. You’ll need to sign in to view these ones, but if you feel like being sucked into a world of hallucinogenic Russian cinema, then you could happily waste entire days watching the films found here (http://www.openculture.com/2010/07/tarkovksy.html).
Fritz Lang considered it his greatest work, and his exploration of the murder of a little girl and the hunt for her paedophillic killer is atmospheric, tense, and more than lives up to its reputation. More information and a free download can be found here (http://archive.org/details/PhantasmagoriaTheater-MFritzLang1931574).
4. A Trip to the Moon
This film is probably the most important in cinematic history. Techniques that seem completely obvious now were invented by George Meliés in this very film. It’s the first SFX epic, and prefigured Transformers by a hundred years. And it’s free here (http://archive.org/details/Levoyagedanslalune).
5. The Tunnel
This film has also made cinematic history – the first film to be funded via crowdsourcing and released online, via BitTorrent, completely free. It’s a found-footage thriller about the investigation into whatever lies in the sewers beneath Sydney. You can find more information on their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TheTunnelMovie). Unfortunately their website is currently down, but there are free and legal torrents of the movie available all over the internet, as well as a higher quality version on iTunes and Blu-ray.
6. Rembrandt’s J’accuse
Peter Greenaway‘s period comedy about Rembrandt’s famous painting is funny, witty, and historically compelling, with a cast of stars (including Martin Freeman and Greenaway himself). It’s available from Indie Movies Online (http://www.indiemoviesonline.com/watch-movies/rembrandt’s-j’accuse).
7. Night of the Living Dead
Probably the most famous film on which (due to an administrative hiccup) the copyright was allowed to expire, George A Romero‘s pioneering horror movie invented a genre and rewrote the rules of cinema. It’s freely available online, from Archive (http://archive.org/details/Night.Of.The.Living.Dead_1080p) amongst other places.
Open culture is a part of music, literature, and is a burgeoning movement in cinema. Hopefully it will continue, either as free work or as a part of so-called remix culture, whereby the viewer makes their own films from the ingredients given by the film maker. It’s ambitious, but a change in perceptions towards cinema might mean that while the standard model will remain, the more interesting subsections might become financially viable, which is the depressing reality of anything that strives to become more popular.