Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues has made $125 million at the domestic box office since its December release. But on February 28, for one week, about 1,000 movie theaters around the country will screen a version of the movie that is both the same—same plot, same characters, derived from the same filming sessions—and completely different, featuring exactly 763 new jokes. This new-ish film's title is appropriately bloated and unfunny: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: Super-Sized R-Rated Version.
It was depressing enough when they took a beloved, hilarious cult comedy, 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and made a weak sequel out of it—an aging Gen-X reunion whose only purpose was to mint money. But this almost unprecedented move—remember the video-only Jackass 2.5?—is evidence of an even broader cultural crisis. More advanced technology means that the means of production are cheaper than ever, and so we can expect to see ever more gambits like this. “Why?” asks The New York Times’ Michael Cieply of the Super-Sized R-Rated’s release. He then answers: “In this era of high-speed digital editing, the better question is: Why not?”
Here’s why not: When you make something, whether a highbrow literary novel or a shoot-em-up video game or a film comedy, you should try to do as good a job as possible. This release is either an example of failing to do that, or evidence that the makers failed to do that the first time around. I did not see Anchorman 2, because it got mediocre reviews and worse word-of-mouth. But if this second version is sufficiently different to justify its own theatrical release and public-relations push, then either Super-Sized R-Rated is worse than Anchorman 2 and therefore really shouldn’t see the light of day, or Super-Sized R-Rated is better, in which case they should have released that one. Instead, the moviemakers are using the license afforded by technology to line their pockets. It is deeply cynical.
Super-Sized R-Rated is, according to star and co-writer Will Ferrell, 20 minutes longer than the original (bringing the running-time up to two hours, 19 minutes) and “contains a musical number we had to cut from the original,” but the main difference is that it’s rated R instead of PG-13, allowing for “even raunchier” jokes, according to Cieply. There is really only one reason to take what should be an R movie and dilute it down to PG-13: to sell more tickets by letting teenagers attend without their parents. So if we buy their own logic, Paramount is telling us that it chose to release a worse version of the movie because it was easier for 15-year-olds to go see it on group dates, and that Ferrell, a producer on the film and one of the more powerful talents in Hollywood, acceded to this. Stay classy, San Diego.
But more things are going to happen like this, and in more industries than just movies. Digital technology makes production and distribution easier; that means more expansive, more narrow, and just plain more versions of artists’ works can be made available to audiences gullible enough to think that more is better.
My own industry, journalism, is not immune from this dynamic. The Internet has “empowered” writers and editors, in that the prior constraints of costs and column-inches have been eliminated. The natural instinct is to think that this is a completely good thing. In fact, it is and it isn’t. Word counts are free to be dictated exclusively by the needs of the subject matter, and that is good. But when writers and editors—or filmmakers and comedians—take the lifting of material handcuffs as a sign that the need to edit or withhold no longer exists, they quite literally dehumanize the creative process, removing the audience from the equation.
In a much-discussed article published in December, The Atlantic editor-in-chief James Bennet summed this argument up well: “When you dont have to print words on pages and then bundle the pages together and stick postage stamps on the result,” he wrote, “you slip some of the constraints that have enforced excellence (and provided polite excuses for editors to trim fat) since Johannes Gutenberg began printing books. You no longer have to make that agonizing choice of the best example from among three or four—you can freely use them all. More adjectives? Why not?”
Had Ferrell and his collaborators Adam McKay and Judd Apatow (who has never believed a movie could be too long) and their studio, Paramount, been thinking of their audience above all, they would have needed only one version of their film; given how great the first Anchorman was, that version may even have been good. Instead, they goofed off, erroneously believing that the net of cheap moviemaking would catch their fall. They should have listened to Alfred Hitchcock, who made great films because he was attuned to audience expectation and demand: “The length of a film,” he famously quipped, “should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Super-Sized R-Rated is probably more directly related to the contents of the human bladder.