My Point Break quest: “It was about us against the system”

My search for the rights to screen Kathryn Bigelow’s surf classic seemed to be all washed up. Yet suddenly the tide turned, and now Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves’s Bodhi and Johnny can return to British screens.

☞ This story is an update to 2013’s Point Break – not coming to a cinema near you!

Sophie Brown

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 ‘Little hand says it’s time to rock ’n’ roll’: Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze take a stand in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991)

 ‘Little hand says it’s time to rock ’n’ roll’: Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze take a stand in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991)

After years of anonymity, the cover is blown. The law has finally penetrated their immaculate criminal pattern. Impassioned and a little breathless, Bodhi tries to rally the shaken troops around the beach bonfire: “This was never about the money for us. It was about us against the system. That system that kills the human spirit. We stand for something. To those dead souls inching along the freeways in their metal coffins, we show them that the human spirit is still alive.”

Bodhi’s philosophy, if slightly flawed in practice, is the fire that kept my hunt for the theatrical rights to Point Break burning. It is quite possibly the mantra for many a programmer struggling with the elusive rights and high fees that often mean many small cinemas can’t afford to screen the films they want to show.

Five years ago I began a dogged wild goose chase for the theatrical rights to screen Point Break. It started as an idea for a season of double-bills on surfing and skating films, both fiction and nonfiction, but it hit a brick wall with that one thrilling classic.

Point Break (1991)

The film is both an exhilarating feat of adrenaline-junkie action, and a blockbuster that subverts the system from within. Director Kathryn Bigelow broke the mould with her choice of leading men. Keanu Reeves was fresh out of Bill & Ted and far from the macho, war-machine type favoured in 80s action heroes. Patrick Swayze was famous for his sexy moves in Dirty Dancing or erotically moulding clay, as a supernatural being, in Ghost. The character of Tyler was originally to have been a typical California beach babe, but by casting Lori Petty, Bigelow transformed her into a more androgynous figure.

Bigelow luxuriates in the ecstasy of the surf scenes, the physicality of the male bodies and the sheer liberation of the counter-culture life. She once described Point Break as a “wet western”.

I went to every distributor in the UK, having missed the last cinema screening (at the Prince Charles Cinema) by a couple of years, and found the non-theatrical rights in America, but everything eventually led to a messy rights war. Point Break was in a library of films produced by Lawrence Gordon’s Largo Entertainment, which had been eaten up by another company, which had gone bust, and two men called Ron Tutor and David Bergstein had emerged with the assets, and a trail of financial chaos in their wake.

I wanted Point Break so bad it was like acid in my mouth.

Reeves and Lori Petty as Tyler in Point Break

Reeves and Lori Petty as Tyler in Point Break

My initial hunt reached a dead end with a series of unreturned emails from Tutor’s lawyer and long-distance phone calls to his secretary, who couldn’t help me. I continued down several equally unsuccessful routes. I tried to track down Lawrence Gordon himself; and even used WikiLeaks in the attempt to source the leaked email addresses of other key figures related to the film.

Eventually, though, I caught a wave. Overnight Film Festival founder Sam Cuthbert had heard on the grapevine that Alamo Drafthouse programmer Sarah Pitre had finally secured the rights for Point Break after submitting a research request to the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.

Operating since 1928, the library is “devoted to the history and development of the motion picture as an art form and industry” and home to the Academy Film Archive, “dedicated to the preservation, restoration, documentation, exhibition and study of motion pictures”.

This haven of free knowledge provided the key to making sense of this fiasco. Rachel Bernstein, the librarian who undertook the challenge, came across the same dormant production companies and intricate court cases that had left me stumped. The answer was there in the details, though: Ron Tutor was a successful construction magnate. Bernstein found the phone number for his construction company, and passed it on to Pitre.

As Pitre told me: “I called the construction company and after talking to several very puzzled people, I was finally led to —————— ———————.” 

Point Break (1991)

It turned out that an international sales agent was liaising with the construction millionaire’s company to license the film. It would be possible to bring it back to audiences on the big screen once again, to revel in Bigelow’s riotous action sequences, and admire Swayze’s mystic adrenaline junkie Bodhi and Reeves’s Johnny Utah, an FBI rookie and defiant thrill-seeker. 

My next step was to speak to Paul Vickery, the Prince Charles Cinema programmer who had supported my quest for the film rights since the beginning. He called in the one good 35mm print in the UK for a test and provided the box-office figures I needed to propose a coastal tour in a dozen independent cinemas, as well as a run at the Prince Charles cinema. When I realised the cost of this project would be £100,000, I had to dramatically reconfigure my goals.

Maybe Bodhi would say I only live to get radical, but I took a gamble and secured two screenings that I could only afford if they both sold out, at the Prince Charles Cinema in August and at BFI Southbank this November. Ain’t it wild?

Vickery managed to get word to Keanu Reeves, who was too busy filming to attend, but after hearing my story, sent a video to play before the screening at the Prince Charles Cinema. On a late August night, I ran through the auditorium in a wetsuit and a mask and introduced the first UK theatrical screening of the film in nearly seven years. Then Reeves’s face filled the screen as he delivered his personal message for the audience.

My second and perhaps final screening of the film will be at the BFI Southbank on 16 November. I still hold on to the hope that I can take Point Break on the road from coast to coast, and it saddens me that many independent cinemas around the UK won’t be able to screen it, because the ultimate ride is also currently a financial risk.

Until then, vaya con Dios.

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