‘Physical obviously has benefits.’ An interview with DVD producer Michael Brooke

Do you remember 2017? That was the year when, among such momentous world events as the start of Donald Trump’s Presidency, North Korean nuclear tests, Article 50, etc., I wrote an article for The Spectator on the immensely productive decline of DVDs. Whilst preparing for that article, I spoke to Michael Brooke, a film historian, journalist and home video producer, as well as a very decent and knowledgeable guy. Here, for anyone who’d like to read about the inner workings of one of Britain’s most valiant industries, is a transcript of my conversation with him.

PH: How would you describe what you do?

I’m a freelance producer. Basically, I’m responsible – either on my own or with a colleague – for going from that concept that ‘we would like to release such and such a film’ to the final physical product. This involves a number of things along the way, whether it’s finding archival materials or commissioning writing for a booklet. Above it all, you’re trying to keep everything more or less on schedule.

MB: What’s the first step in putting together a DVD? It is clearing up the rights?

Rights is stage one, obviously, because without rights you can’t do anything. With an individual film, this can take hours or it can take months – it really depends on the film and on the stance of the rightsholders. Sometimes, you might be able to do some sort of package deal.

For example, with Powerhouse at the moment – not forever, but at the moment – they are exclusively releasing films from the Sony catalogue.1 I think there was a licencing deal whereby Powerhouse got access to 100 titles, give or take, from the Sony catalogue. Obviously, you can’t get everything. You’re not going to be able to get the main cash cows, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but, clearly, they were prepared to let us have things like the Ray Harryhausen films, which was a pleasant surprise.

It’s all a mixture. There’ll be the stuff that’s commercially attractive and the stuff that we very much want to do that may not be commercially attractive. An excellent recent example of the latter is The Reckoning (1970), the Nicol Williamson movie that’s been undeservedly forgotten.

So, after the rights?

Stage two is materials and, in a lot of cases, it will be an existing high definition master that was created for another reason – perhaps a Blu-ray release elsewhere or for television, which is quite common for major studio stuff.

In extremis, you have you to create your own master, which adds enormously to the cost of the project. Powerhouse has not done their own transfer from scratch yet. We’re getting there with the Hammer titles we’re doing, because Sony’s masters are the US versions of the films, so we’re creating the UK versions by accessing prints in the BFI National Archive, scanning the bits that we want, and then sticking them on to the Sony versions – which seems to be working pretty well.

Because of the cost and time, full-on restorations from scratch are off-limits for many labels. For example, I think the last time that Eureka – who have one of the best reputations – did it was for the The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), five years ago. The BFI does it because they have in-house facilities and they have an archival remit, so there’s that imperative as well. But, on the whole, it is quite unusual for a label to do a lot of their own film restorations.

How long can it take to gather materials?

It could be the the same day as sorting out the rights, it could take weeks or months depending on how much detective work is involved. Obviously, if the original negative has survived, we’re laughing. If the original interpositives still survive, that’s great because you can get a terrific picture from that. But if stuff like that either no longer survives or is in poor condition, then it gets trickier.

One interesting phenomenon is that, if the negative survives for a rare or very little seen film, then it’s often in immaculate condition as it’s barely been touched. Whereas the negative for a very popular film can be falling apart. My old friend James White restored Night Mail (1936), and he said that he had to piece it together from the best parts of whatever scraps he could get hold of. It still looks a bit ropey, but that’s completely unavoidable.

I suppose a lot of what you’re saying applies to the sound of the film as well.

Oh, yes. And sound presents its own issue too. In particular, there’s the trend of surround sound remixes, which some labels – though, thankfully, none I’ve ever worked for – will publish instead of the original sound mix. I’ve never approved this, and hopefully never will. In fact, in one case, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the disc was already pretty crammed, and I left the surround sound mix off because it sounded terrible. It was very, very obvious. You could actually hear the way they had cut up the original and forced it into various speakers.

Another issue with sound is what languages you feature on the disc. Boutique labels generally only have the right to present films in English and the original language, if different. It’s different for the major studios when they release discs. They want to create economies of scale, so they’ll proceed with a gazillion language options, a gazillion subtitle options, and effectively publish the same disc in multiple territories.

Lots of people ask boutique publishers: why can’t you add French or German or Polish subtitles? The answer is that we’d have to licence a French or German or Polish speaking territory as well, which is really quite expensive.

While we’re talking costs, what sort of numbers are involved? What is the standard cost for a boutique label release?

That’s hard to answer. The budgets that I’ve dealt with have been as little as low four figures or as high as mid five figures. It depends on all sorts of factors. I tend to work on the lower budget end of the production scale. The Czech New Wave titles I did, for example: clearing the rights was mid four figures; the masters came as part of the deal; and my budgets for the extras were about £1,500 to £2,000. Because I was doing two discs at the same time, I could keep costs down by licensing archival interviews from the same source, as well as by doing two back-to-back pieces myself. You do get to be quite creative when it comes to extras.

Which brings us on to extras! It’s already clear that the process and the particulars vary from disc to disc. I guess the same goes for the extra features.

Exactly. If we just look at Powerhouse, they have the run of Sony’s existing extras. This meant that putting together the Ray Harryhausen boxes, for example, was pretty easy because we already had a lot of wonderful extras – including a lot featuring Harryhausen himself, who did tons of documentaries and commentaries and things like that.

But the Hammer box was much more difficult because all Sony could provide was trailers. We had to buy or create everything else from scratch. So, what were our options?

For all of the films we commissioned a short documentary featurette from Marcus Hearn, who is the official Hammer historian. In addition, we commissioned a series called Hammer’s Women, for which a female film critic explores the career of the lead actress in question. I’m delighted with how these have turned out because Hammer women are often just treated as eye candy – but this is a far more interesting angle on them.

Then we commissioned other pieces about individual things. For example, we’ve got David Huckvale, who has written a book about Hammer scores, talking about Wilfred Josephs’ rather peculiar music score for Fanatic (1965), including live piano demonstrations and breakdowns of how the opening music works.

Obviously, with films like this, which date from the early to mid-60s, virtually everyone of significance who worked on them is now dead. But we did manage make use of someone called James McCabe, who goes around interviewing long-retired British technicians and actors about their careers, and then licences snippets to video labels. Having now worked with a lot of his stuff, I’ve learnt not to second-guess the content based on its description. You’ll see something like ‘Interview with the continuity supervisor for Fanatic’, and you might think, ‘Wow! That’s scraping the barrel!’ But, actually, no, it’s brilliant because the continuity supervisor was on set for the entire production, and often had to liaise with – and sometimes argue with – the actors, so there’s lots of great stories from there.

Oh, and these also count as extras: the booklets.

The booklets! I was going to ask whether there’s a form of extra that you’re particularly keen on. Among boutique labels, booklets seem to be a major thing. Video essays have become more and more popular over the years.

The video essay largely come about, I think, because of technological improvement. People now have access to the kind of video editing equipment that would have been available only to professionals about ten or so years ago.

I mean, I do video essays for Second Run and they are 100 per cent single-handed. It is wonderful having that kind of control.

Are video essays your favourite extra, then?

From a personal perspective, I love putting them together. I have done a couple of audio commentaries, but I’ve always found the commentary to be an incredibly difficult medium because you have to get the timing absolutely bang on. There’s a reason why the same names appear again and again for critical commentaries. It’s a very unusual skill, which I can fake because I do the editing myself, but the number of people who can bring it off live in one take is tiny.

The video essay gets around all that because you can focus on whatever you like within the film and speak about it at your own pace.

With the rights, the picture, the sound and the extras, the release of a disc must be pretty close. What’s left? The art?

Yes, absolutely, the art. As it happens, artwork generally gets commissioned at the very beginning of the process and usually gets delivered about three-quarters of the way through. Then it gets delivered to the designer, along with the booklet text and everything like that.

This has been less of a concern of mine recently because Powerhouse has Nick Wrigley, who basically does all of the artwork, usually based on original poster art.

Do you have any views on artwork? Is original poster art better?

Again, it depends on the film. At Arrow, we generally went with original artwork, though not always. There was one case where I thought the Czech posters were so good that I chose to go with those instead.

Quite a lot of the time there is newly commissioned artwork on the front of the paper inserts and original poster artwork on the back, so people can choose according to their tastes.

When it comes to artwork – and in general – are boutique labels trying for commercial appeal, for something that will stand out on shop shelves? Or is this about appealing to a small group of cineastes?

I’m going to answer that this way: one weird thing about the Powerhouse discs, which I didn’t notice until I started working for them, is that there’s no descriptive blurb at all. The assumption is that people buying the film will already know what the film is. I’m sure there are some casual purchases as well, but these discs are mostly for people who know what they’re in for.

How big or small is the boutique DVD publishing industry?

The real boutique labels tend to be absolutely tiny. Second Run, for example, does not have its own physical office. It is basically two or three people who work out of their homes. Powerhouse is only slightly bigger.

Again, modern technology enables this. I’m based at home; our encoder, David Mackenzie, is a freelancer based in New York; but we’re united by broadband. In fact, one of the jobs I’ve done today is check the subtitles for The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and I’ll send any directions to David. With him being five hours behind us, if I get stuff ready by early afternoon, he’ll be waking up to it, so that works really nicely.

Even the BFI video department is a fairly small team within the organisation. Obviously, they have various resources that other labels couldn’t hope to have, but it is still a single-figure operation in terms of staff.

There’s a flipside to this question, which is: how big or small is the marketplace? I think you once told me that the BFI’s biggest-selling discs were, at some point, the British Transport Films because there are more trainspotters than hardcore film fans. Are we talking hundreds, rather than many thousands, of people?

On the whole, yes. To give some idea, the Powerhouse model is to publish a limited edition of between three and six thousand copies. Then there will be an unlimited edition without the booklet, as the booklet is the most expensive part of the package in terms of per-unit costs. So far, they have sold out of three titles – Christine (1983), Body Double (1984) and 10 Rillington Place (1971) – all of which came out last year. Hardcore (1979) has been a surprise hit and that’s probably the next one to go.2

You have named some already, but who are the heroes of Britain’s DVD industry? I won’t press you for an exhaustive list!

Nick Wrigley, co-founder of Masters of Cinema, is a major, major player. He operates mostly as a designer these days, and is an absolute joy to work with. I worked on Dekalog with him for Arrow, and what struck me was his understanding of the films and everything around them. There were never any quibbles – even when I was being fussy about Polish diacritics!

If there is a better encoder than David Mackenzie, I have no idea who it is. He is massively in demand, which is why he can be understandably tricky to pin down sometimes.

The other producers I know well, which is by no means everybody, are: Anthony Nield, Ewan Cant and Michael Mackenzie at Arrow; Fran Simeoni, who is the man primarily responsible for Arrow’s growth over the last five years; James Blackford, who is ex-BFI and has recently moved to Arrow, where he is going to be a very good fit; there’s Jon Robertson at Eureka, of course; Chris Barwick and Mehelli Modi at Second Run; and Sam Dunn’s work at the BFI was superlative, but he’s moved on now.

And, of course, there are the restoration people: James White at Arrow, Doug Weir at the BFI. I’m sure I’ve missed lots of people out.

Why, when Britain doesn’t take cinema as seriously as, say, the French or the Italians do, do we have probably the best DVD industry in the world?

I think one reason is that we jumped on the home video bandwagon unusually early. Because British cinema was generally so dreadful in the 1970s, as soon as Radio Rentals started hiring out VCRs the British got into them very quickly. I remember going to France in the early 80s, and they were way behind us. But then, of course, France was still thinking in terms of the big screen and so on.

We have also been very lucky in terms of terrestrial TV channels. Even though channels such as BBC2 and Channel4 don’t now do as much film programming as they did in the 1980s, they did lay the groundwork for the boutique DVD.

Being quite a small country with everything based in London also helps, although it doesn’t have to be based in London anymore. The only person I didn’t know before started with Powerhouse was Jeff Billington, who is their booklet editor. I knew everyone else very well indeed.

I remember that Mehelli Modi, who is one of my closest friends, was really overwhelmed by the support he got when he founded Second Run – not just from professional film publications, but also from bloggers and people like that.

Another one of the big questions is: what happens next? Will we still be buying discs in ten, twenty years, as everything turns to digital?

The owner of Twilight Time, in the US, predicted 2020 as the cut-off date. I think that’s overly pessimistic, but it wouldn’t surprise me if physical media were obsolete by the end of the 2020s.

The DVD Gold Rush was in the mid-2000s – that was probably the last time that anyone would enter this business for the money. Since then, it has come down to the willingness of some extremely obsessive and dedicated people to put in frankly insane hours, not for financial reward but for the considerable reward of knowing that you are helping to getting this stuff out there.

Provided the market doesn’t fall below a certain level, there is no reason why we can’t carry on… I won’t say ‘indefinitely’, but certainly for longer than the pessimists have predicted.

Is there a chance that the boutique labels will shift to digital, wholesale? I know you can already buy Arrow titles on iTunes, for instance.

The bigger labels, like Arrow and the BFI, have very sensibly moved into streaming. That’s clearly the way things are going.

But physical obviously has benefits that digital cannot emulate. As with vinyl, which has had a huge comeback in recent years, people like the physical object. There are the booklets, the luxury packaging.

Do you have any favourites among your own work?

I will always have a very soft spot for the Quay Brothers and Jan Švankmajer sets because they are the ones that started off my producing career.

The one I’m probably proudest of, however, is one of the least reviewed of all of Arrow’s box sets. That is the Taviani Brothers Collection. That was largely a one-man effort on my part, and it nearly killed me at the time, but I am really pleased with how it turned out. My edition contains absolutely everything that’s on the American edition, plus another four hours’ worth of extras, plus a book that included some of the first English translations of the source stories, that kind of thing.

I’m very lucky. I have generally worked on stuff that I love. I have had some kind of input into about 50 or 60 titles per year for the past few years, and, for the most part, I’m very pleased with the quality threshold.

And highlights that you haven’t worked on?

Again, there are hundreds and hundreds of things that I could name! The BFI had an incredible year last year. Their Alan Clarke box was an absolute standout. Sam Dunn was the man responsible for that and he did an extraordinary job, not least getting all the stuff out of the BBC in the first place, and then getting virtually everything on Blu-ray which wasn’t part of the original plan. Sam used to ring me up on a regular basis and say, ‘We’re doing everything on Blu-ray!’ or ‘We’ve got the original director’s cut of The Firm!’ or something like that! He was just so excited, and he pulled it off. I would say that that is probably the single best physical media release of the past few years.


Footnotes

1. Since this conversation took place, Powerhouse has already started licensing from other studios. Their release slate for January 2018 contains some Universal titles.
2. Hardcore has now sold out, as has another title: The New Centurions (1972).