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The Z Channel wasn't America's first premium cable outlet specializing in feature films, and it wasn't the most commercially successful, but few, if any, had as strong an impact on the film industry or a more influential list of customers. Based in California and blanketing sections of the state dominated by the movie business,
Z Channel had been operating for several years before former screenwriter Jerry Harvey took over as head of programming in 1980. Under the guidance of Harvey and his staff, the channel became a film buff's dream, screening rare classics, important foreign films, and maverick American titles that had fallen through the cracks of commercial distribution. Harvey and his staff also programmed original and uncut versions of films which had only played American theaters in altered form (including Heaven's Gate, Once Upon a Time in America, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and The Leopard) long before the concept of the "director's cut" had currency beyond the most hardcore of film fans. And The Z Channel aggressively championed pictures they believed were overlooked, and programmed deserving Oscar-nominated movies during the Academy's voting period, years before studios began distributing video "screeners" to potential voters. (More than one industry expert has credited Z Channel's showings of Annie Hall as a key factor in the film winning Best Picture.) But Jerry Harvey was also a deeply troubled man, and when legal and economic problems began dogging the company in the late '80s, he snapped, leading to a horrible and tragic murder and suicide. The Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession is a documentary that looks at the channel's short but remarkable history as well as Harvey's damaged personal life. It includes interviews with Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, James Woods, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne and a number of other filmmakers and critics who attest to Z Channel's lasting impact.