Our Long, Arduous Attempt To Watch ‘Cocoon,’ And Why Some Classic Movies Seemingly Just Vanish

“It is everything you dreamed of. It is nothing you’d expect.” That’s the tagline that graced movie theater posters in 1985 for the movie Cocoon, the Ron Howard movie that would go on to become the fifth highest-grossing movie of that year and win two Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Visual Effects). That poster tagline is, perhaps, fitting in that if you’re dreaming about watching Cocoon right now, not only is it everything you dreamed of, you’re just going to have to keep on dreaming – because Cocoon isn’t available for you to watch. Anywhere. One of the most ubiquitous movies of the ‘80s is just gone. Vanished. Nowhere to be found on any platform in the era of streaming, a moment in time where seemingly everything is available within seconds via the push of a few buttons.

It was strange timing, because the day I decided I wanted to rewatch Cocoon for the first time in I can’t even remember how many years was the day before Wilford Brimley died. So, my futile attempts to watch this movie were met, the very next day, with soaring tributes featuring film clips from a movie that is impossible to find – including one from Ron Howard himself* – for a movie I wanted to watch even more now.

*What’s great about the scene that Howard tweeted is, in context to Brimley’s actual age at the time, it’s pretty funny. Brimley’s Ben Luckett is telling his grandson, David, who is 11, that they plan on leaving with the aliens to go to a world with no death, but not seeing David anymore is giving Ben pause. Now, in the viewer’s mind, we are thinking, well, how much time do they have left together anyway? But in reality, Brimley lived another 35 years after this movie, so the line to this 11-year-old kid really could have been, “Look, David, I’d only be around until you’re 46 anyway.”

So let’s back up for a minute. Since the pandemic hit the United States in full force back in March, I’ve been on, what now seems like, a never-ending movie marathon. A lot of the movies I haven’t seen before. A lot of them, like Cocoon, are films I haven’t seen in ages. Every now and then, I’ll come across a film that isn’t readily available via a streaming service and every time I find myself surprised because, for the most part, these aren’t obscure titles. But I’m even more surprised when a movie isn’t on those streaming services, nor is it available to rent on iTunes or Amazon. That’s when I find myself extremely perplexed.

And this has happened a few times over the last few months. I tried watching Mannequin, which is nowhere to be found, even though Mannequin 2: On The Move is right there on iTunes ready to be rented at any time. Though the original Mannequin does seem to be available on-demand to DirecTV customers, and if that’s some sort of exclusive deal, it at least sort of explains its absence. Regardless, I solved this by just buying an inexpensive Blu-ray. This scenario repeated itself when I tried to watch Less Than Zero and Johnny Dangerously. The only difference being neither of those movies have been released on Blu-ray, so I had to resort to buying fairly inexpensive DVD copies.

But the thing about all the movies I just mentioned, none of them were top-five grossing movies of the year like Cocoon was. This would be like Fast & Furious 7 being impossible to find in the future.

At first, I did what I always do: I checked the internet to see if Cocoon was on any of the streaming platforms. It was not. Then I went to iTunes and, strangely, Cocoon: The Return popped up, but not the original. I tried Amazon, no luck. I even tried YouTube, which sometimes has movies in full that the studios just kind of gave up on, but no. And also, it wouldn’t make much sense to dump a big movie like Cocoon onto YouTube. (Though, if you want to watch the Kenny Rogers vehicle Six Pack, well, you’re in luck).

I scoured the internet for anything about this and came across a GQ piece from December about notable movies that aren’t available on streaming, and it does mention how Cocoon is impossible to find, so at least it alleviated my fears that I was just somehow missing something.

From there I just figured I’d just do my handy trick of ordering the Blu-ray and it’d soon be on its way and I’d shortly be watching Cocoon in beautiful HD. Well, no, not so quick. It turns out Cocoon’s 2010 Blu-ray is now out of print. And since Cocoon is still a fairly popular movie, it’s not cheap, hovering around $100. (If you go searching yourself, don’t be fooled by the moderately priced Blu-rays, those are all region 2 and you’ll need a Blu-ray player from that region to watch it. There are many negative Amazon reviews from angry Cocoon fans complaining their discs don’t work on their players.) As much as I wanted to see Cocoon, I didn’t want to spend $100. Finally – finally – I found a Cocoon DVD from 2004 on eBay and bought that for $25. When it arrived, it was one of those DVDs that has the full-screen version on the flip side of the disc. It’s 2020 and this is how I watched Cocoon.

Anyway, this all made no sense to me and I wanted an explanation. Why was it so hard for me to find Cocoon?

Rewatching Cocoon on my sad 2004 DVD with a full-screen version readily accessible, I found it more emotional as an adult. There are a lot of themes about loss that I missed as a kid when everyone in my family was all still alive and healthy. Back then, I thought it was a fun movie about aliens. (And, back then, I had no idea Wilford Brimley was only 49 when he filmed the movie.) Yes, there are aliens, led by Brian Dennehy on a mission to rescue their friends who had been left behind centuries before, all encased in cocoons at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Tampa. The cocoons are brought to a swimming pool to gestate, with a side effect being that humans who enter the pool are given healing powers – as a few members of a retirement home next door soon realize after sneaking in and using the pool.

The scene that really got me was — after a number of residents of the retirement home were invited by the aliens to leave with them, promising a world of no disease or death (sounds pretty good!) — young David sees his grandparents (Brimley and Maureen Stapleton) leaving by boat (driven by Steve Guttenberg) to meet the alien spacecraft. David jumps aboard the boat at the last second. Later, as they are being chased by the Coast Guard, David jumps in the water so the authorities will have to rescue him and not chase his grandparents. Brimley’s Ben is about to jump in after him, but David tells his grandfather, seeing him for presumably for the last time (we will ignore the sequel, which, again, you can watch), to go and that he’s not afraid. It’s a wonderful, touching moment about saying goodbye to loved ones. I will admit, watching Cocoon for the first time after losing my grandparents and my father, the waterworks hit me. And it’s even more preposterous this movie isn’t available for younger viewers who have never seen it and who aren’t going to purchase a 16-year-old DVD off of eBay. I suspect that if Cocoon were on Netflix, or whatever, it would be pretty popular.

So, I started asking around. I emailed the representative of Lili Fini Zanuck, a producer on Cocoon. As of this writing, my emails have been not returned. (Though, if Lili Fini Zanuck has a Google alert on her name set, please know that I’d love to talk to you.) I emailed the screenwriter (Tom Benedek), who also hasn’t yet returned my email. I emailed Ron Howard’s publicist, who told me to contact his agent. I emailed Howard’s agent, who has yet to return my email. (I knew this was a longshot because, in the aforementioned GQ piece from December, it includes an anecdote about someone who knew Ron Howard personally who texted Howard for the answer and he didn’t respond.) I emailed the representative for the effects supervisor, who won an Oscar for this movie, and got no response. I even emailed someone who worked in distribution at Fox and, you guessed it, no reply. In a desperate attempt, I even emailed Michael Sembello, who performs the song “Gravity” for the film (who is best known for the song “Maniac” from Flashdance), because maybe it has something to do with song rights? Again, nothing. Honestly, in all my years of reporting on movies, I’ve never been ignored by this many people.

Then I emailed Steve Guttenberg. Through his rep he said he didn’t want to discuss Cocoon, but asked if I’d read a script he just wrote about Hurricane Katrina. (As I am writing this piece, he sent me the script. I have yet to read it.)

I also spoke to representatives at Disney. Look, there are a lot of questions still about Fox’s catalog of films after the Disney purchase. And, yes, Cocoon is a Fox title, but from what I do gather this is in no way related to Disney. Cocoon has been missing in action long before the Disney sale was finalized. Also, if this was Disney holding back Fox titles (which really doesn’t seem to be the case, at least digitally), that wouldn’t explain why Cocoon: The Return can be watched right now as you are reading this.

To Disney’s credit, the last thing I heard was an update that they were still looking into it. And, look, I get it. Imagine working remotely for the last five months and having someone come out of the blue to ask, “Hey, you know that whole studio you just bought? Why did they not have Cocoon, this one specific movie from 35 years ago, available?” Though, I did like the idea that he would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s just an oversight,” then hit a button and Cocoon would be available for us all to rent or buy immediately. (So, yes, in my mind at Disney headquarters there’s just a button that says “Cocoon” and, once pressed, it shows up on all the streaming services.) Though, if another Ron Howard movie, Splash, can be on Disney+, I don’t see a reason Cocoon can’t be?

(If I hear from any of these people, I will update this story. I will also update the story after I read Steve Guttenberg’s script about Hurricane Katrina.)

I guess the larger point here can be taken as “maybe don’t throw away your physical media.” Personally, I still like discs better because the quality is always going to be better than streaming. But during quarantine, the vast majority of movies I’ve watched have been over some form of streaming, since most of the movies I own I’ve seen before. And I am a big fan of streaming for that reason. Most movies you’d want to watch at any given time are a few button presses away. (Just like the Disney “Cocoon” button.)

But I’ve learned a lesson that even old DVDs have a good deal of value. Because right now, as I type this, I can watch Less Than Zero and Johnny Dangerously and you can’t. (Well, unless you, too, own the DVDs for both. Then you can.) So, yes, in the greater context, I suppose that is the lesson: Hey, kids, hold onto your discs because you never know when movies might just disappear. Who knows, maybe it will be Fast & Furious 7 next!

But, really, I just wanted to watch Cocoon. And I wanted an explanation as to why I can’t, other than a 16-year-old DVD. And as of this writing, I still don’t know why. (But, on a positive note, if you want to watch Cocoon in pan and scan full screen, I’ve got you covered.)

UPDATE: Almost a week after this story published, someone who only only wants to be identified publicly as “a source with knowledge of the film” has answered the question. This person has learned that the music in Cocoon is not currently cleared for new media or transnational sales and this is “likely” why the movie is not available at all right now. Though, this person adds there could be other reasons, too, but this is at least one known hurdle.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.