The Spectator

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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Happy Halloween! And an especially happy one for me, as I’ve just had my first article for The Paris Review published. It’s on a suitably spooky subject: the literary past of the Ghost Club, which counts Dickens and Yeats among its former members.

My favourite part of the article isn’t actually something that I wrote. It’s a quotation from Brenda Maddox’s very fine book Yeats’s Ghosts, which I included in this paragraph:

Yeats’s contributions to the Ghost Club are connected, in some intriguing ways, to his poetry. During the years of his membership, and with the help of his wife Georgiana, he redoubled his experiments in automatic writing. She would hold a pencil to a piece of paper and, while in a semiconscious state, scrawl down the words of invisible messengers. At first, she did this as a trick on her husband (as Brenda Maddox observes in Yeats’s Ghosts, “the messengers seemed at times to have been reading Marie Stopes’s Married Love, a highly popular book that stressed the husband’s duty to give his wife sexual satisfaction”). Later, she would claim, she did it sincerely. Yeats ended up telling the Ghost Club of the “lessons in Philosophy he had received from a group of beings on the other side.”

You can read the whole article here.

Since it’s Halloween, and since I’m linking to my stuff, you might also care to read this old Spectator piece of mine on horror movies.

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I enjoy gaming because, well, I enjoy gaming. But I also enjoy it because, as a relatively young art form, it’s constantly defining and redefining itself. Other art forms do this too, of course – but the pace and extent of gaming’s self-discovery is hard to match.

I’ve written about one aspect of this self-discovery for The Spectator. The short version is that gaming is taking greater care of its own history. Whether it’s the release of retro consoles such as the SNES Classic Mini, or of remastered, revamped titles such as Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, gaming’s past is no longer fading away with each successive console generation.

This is a very good development, but it could have some tricky ramifications. To discover what they are, you’ll just have to read the article, dammit. You can do so by clicking here.

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Remember my preview of the new Twin Peaks for The Spectator? That article stuck a fork into the wonderful, multilayered cake of nostalgia that was the original series, but I hadn’t yet seen the new stuff. Now I have – or at least the first two episodes. All my usual bedtime rules were broken so that I could tune in at 0200 on 22 May on Sky Atlantic, and then write a review for The Spectator‘s arts blog. That review concludes:

As one character put it, ‘Is it future or is it past?’ The third series of Twin Peaks is a juxtaposition of new and old – and perhaps that’s the point. Can the latter survive the former? Can a mountain town isolate itself from whatever came out of that box in New York? Can the next 16 episodes maintain the brilliant standard of the first two? My coffee pot and I are in it for the long haul.

Anyway, you can read the whole thing here.

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All the hubbub about whether Matt Damon is – y’know – too white to play the lead in a film set in medieval China has obscured an important fact about The Great Wall: it’s part of a massive cultural change. Over recent years, we’ve grown used to seeing Hollywood producers trying to wring money out of the increasingly open Chinese market. But now, as The Great Wall demonstrates, Chinese producers are trying to wring money out of Hollywood and the rest of the world. It’s a change that raises some pretty big questions about the business of cinema, as I write in the latest issue of The Spectator:

Above it all hangs the question of whether the two film industries are cooperating for mutual gain or for competitive advantage. Last year, Chinese box-office takings ($6.6 billion) were second only — albeit by some distance — to America’s ($11.4 billion). Is Hollywood piggybacking on China to maintain its privileged ranking? Or is China piggybacking on Hollywood in order to surpass it? The implications in either case are not just financial. Cinema, even when it’s not twisted into propaganda, is a medium through which people see the world. What will we see through it in the decades to come?

For the full story – or as full as 1,100 words will allow – you can read my article here.

Oh, and I also blogged some of the numbers here.

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Film lists are always a tricky business, particularly when you start putting words like ‘alternative’ in front of them. Alternative for whom? The man on the Clapham omnibus? Or the long-gone, sweating film junkie who mainlines a half-dozen movies a day?

Nevertheless, I think I’ve done an okay job of picking out some alternative Christmas movies for the latest issue of The Spectator. There’s light (The Man Who Came to Dinner). There’s dark (Christmas Holiday). There’s in-between (8 Women). And there’s a John Ford western (3 Godfathers) because there should always be a John Ford western.

There aren’t many more movies on the list, but I still won’t reveal them all here. After all, I want you to read the actual article. And, naturally, you want to read it too.

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