Mike Vraney founded Something Weird Video around 1990 as an outlet for his vast collection of forgotten exploitation films and nudie loops. On videotape, Vraney's collection reached a small but fervent bunch of connoisseurs, but since making the jump to DVD in 1999, Something Weird has discovered an entirely new audience for quaint old smut, thanks to inexpensive, high-quality discs filled with generous quantities of vintage shorts and trailers–many of which are more entertaining than the features themselves.
The Onion: Given that you have such a huge collection of exploitation ephemera, how do you decide what to release on DVD?
Mike Vraney: Eighty to 90 percent of what I put out on DVD, I've already put out on videotape, so it makes my decision-making pretty easy. When you have a whole bunch of really bad movies, what you do is take the worst of those. They're the most popular. The first ones were the Blood trilogy and the Bettie Page movies. A no-brainer.
For the first 20 or so we put out, I was still learning about "extras." For 10 years, I always filled my tapes up to two hours, because the movies are only 70 minutes, and I have all these great trailers and shorts and weird stuff. I put stuff on there like they were Cracker Jack prizes. Now suddenly they're calling them "extras." I never was involved with laserdiscs, because I didn't like 'em, but once I got involved with DVD, I suddenly understood. They finally made something that I can embrace, because it's a cube, not a flat piece of paper. It's like a time capsule: Fill it up and throw in the kitchen sink. If you put the trailer to the movie and a commentary by the director and you find outtakes and you put together a gallery of stills and advertising and promotional material, then all of that is married to the movie and will never be lost again. People like it now, but 25 or 100 years from now, all of this will be kind of important, not just culty, fun, "wheeee!" It'll be like, "Wow, there's this whole world of movies, and all of it was archived and presented correctly and married together."
So it's easy for us to pick what we put out. We take the most extreme things put on the face of the earth, match 'em up, put 'em all together, and make it look as consumer-friendly as humanly possible. So far, nobody's asked for their money back. [Laughs.] The thing about DVD that's different from my video business is that I've crossed over, consumer-wise. All of a sudden I'm in Best Buy. I shake my head every month, going, "I can't believe I released that, and people bought it." It's all a joy to me.
O: What's your opinion of the movies you put out? Are they neglected classics? Kitsch?
MV: No, I actually look at them as a window into an era. The best ones are the ones where they rented the gear on Friday and returned it on Monday, and they have a finished movie. Because of that, they captured trends and fads that were happening at the moment more accurately than movies that took a year to make. I'm just fascinated with the whole genre. I don't think I have any "classics," but as a genre, it's important that these movies aren't lost. When I got in this business, everybody told me, "Yeah, all those movies of the '50s and '60s, there were barely any prints made, and they were all thrown away and they're all gone!" How can that be? That's like a weird crime. That fueled my fire. Plus, the movies kick ass. Barely any of them hold up on their own individually, but collectively, they're fascinating. That's why so many people collect virtually everything I put out, because it's all interrelated. It's a weird little world.
O: How much preservation is involved when you put these on DVD?
MV: Oh God. First off, I'm a negative fanatic. In the world I represent, the majority of the men would make a movie, have the negative struck, and at the most, they'd have 15 prints made. And those 15 prints would go out first-run, and then they'd go out second-run, and then they'd get retitled, and they just kept playing them to death. They ended up in shreds. By 1985, the drive-ins disappeared and these films started getting thrown away. They actually started getting thrown away the minute pornography became legal in the early '70s. By the middle '70s, people were already wandering why anyone would want to watch naked girls with giant hair and guys in their socks and underwear. So I got really lucky when I discovered negatives. Most people who make a film, it's like their baby. Nine out of 10 never throw anything away, and they have that negative in their basement or in a garage or whatnot.
I started collecting negatives when it was ridiculously expensive to transfer them. At the beginning point of the company, all I cared about was getting it on tape, and then later I learned about how things can be made pretty with color-correction and all this. So we were doing that long before DVD came along, because we were getting negatives, and I thought it would be cool if, you know, here are the worst movies ever made and they look like Ted Turner put 'em out. [Laughs.]
Plus, you take a really bad movie and you give it a scene-to-scene transfer, you make it sparkle, and they become better than you would ever imagine. They play much better when they're transferred correctly. When DVD came along, it was hard to realize that I had to start all over again from scratch. It was a horrible feeling: "God, I've got to pull this movie again, and it costs 10 times what it cost before to transfer it." But we do tons and tons of new scene-to-scene work, and I do scene-to-scene work on ridiculous things too, like 8mm loops. We went crazy with our DVD line.
We also do a lot of galleries and audio crap, which I hate. I hate commentaries with a passion. I've done so many of them, and I can't remember what I said the minute after I say it. But I realize it's part of the archival history, and I'm good with these old jokers. Dave Friedman and I are like the Abbott & Costello of exploitation. I've done, I think, 25 or more commentaries with him. I want him to have more commentaries than anyone else on earth, because he is Grandpa Exploitation America. Plus he's really fun. We get together and he says, "What are we going to do a commentary on, kid?" And I'll say, "How about Marihuana?" And he'll say, "Well I had nothing to do with that." And I'll say, "Perfect. Let's do it." [Laughs.]
O: What, roughly, does it cost to put one of your DVDs together?
MV: It's changed drastically. Through Image, I'm given a creation budget, and for virtually every disc I put out, I spend more than I'm given. Very early on, when we had single features, I went to Image and said, "How much time can you get on these things?" They said, "Well, dual layer, you can get 220-odd minutes, la la la." I said, "Oh. Then I want to do double features." And I pitched it like, you know, my stuff's already a damn hard sell, but if you put two unknown movies with really racy titles and make it look like a fun time? Like a night at the drive-in? They'll sell. And they bit. And thank God, because six months later Universal and MGM started doing double features, and I look like a genius.
I knew I was successful when I got a panicked call from Image: "You've gone over! We've got to take something off this disc because you put too much on it!" I was cheering, going, "Yes! I filled the son-of-a-bitch up!" [Laughs.] Virtually from disc number 22 or 23 to the present, we're solid. The most you can get on a dual-layer disc, every disc. Early on, people said, "Oh, you should do compilations." They were great for video, but they're horrible for this medium, because they go straight to the "Special Interest" section, where nobody can find them. Instead, what we've done really is take movies and put enough extras on them that they're really just compilations disguised as movies.
O: Are you going to run out of material any time soon?
MV: Never. No, no. A couple of times in my life, I've thought, "Oh no, the spigot's going to get turned off." But you know, other people have tried to do what I do, and it doesn't work if you put out just six titles. It only works if you put out a mountain of stuff. I figured that out early on. And now I have the knowledge. I've figured out what exists, what is and isn't out there, what's left to find, who made it, why it's lost, how many prints were made. And now every single month, I don't solicit, but it's like I'm this huge weirdo magnet, and all the film people know, "Oh there's this guy and he'll buy anything with naked people in it." As long as it's not hardcore. And it's old.