Masters of Cinema

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

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Trends can’t always be trusted. Take the subject of my latest article for The Spectator – DVDs. All of the trend-lines show that DVDs are on the way out, to be replaced by downloads and streaming. And yet, thanks to the efforts of wonderful distributors such as Arrow, Eureka and Second Run, they’re on the way in-in-in to my over-stuffed folders of discs. As I write in the article:

Strangely, the decline of physical media is helping to sustain these distributors. There was a time — sometimes referred to as ‘the Golden Age of DVD’ by weirdos like me, who have collected thousands of discs — when the big studios brought their archives to home-video wholesale. Universal Pictures released dozens of old science-fiction movies, right down to Monsters on the Campus (1958) and The Leech Woman (1960). Warner Bros. printed box set after box set of films noirs. Fox went all out on Charlie Chan. But then the economics changed. The studios are now concentrating on digital, and leaving their archives to the specialist DVD publishers.

A case in point is Arrow Video’s forthcoming edition of The Thing (1982). Several years ago, Universal wouldn’t have dared to loosen its grip on one of John Carpenter’s most popular films. Now it is allowing a boutique British label to release a new restoration on Blu-ray, and collectors are shivering with anticipation. Arrow is known for the care that it puts into its releases. Its edition of The Thing is overflowing with behind-the-scenes material and has sublimely illustrated packaging. There’s a sense of luxury about it, as though the Golden Age has become the Platinum Age.

All proceeds from the article will go towards funding my habit.

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