By and large, the DVD business is driven by recent theatrical releases, just as the VHS business always has been. DVDs usually contain more special features, with a substantially lower initial retail price, but aside from calculating the first-run-to-home-video window, it doesn't take a lot of thought to make Kangaroo Jack the movie into Kangaroo Jack the DVD. The visionaries of the DVD business–and the heroes to movie-lovers everywhere–are the ones who find a way to present older movies in such a way that they look vital and relevant. The Onion A.V. Club spoke to three men on the archival front lines, who work to bring the kind of movies that play big-city repertory houses into the Wal-Marts and Targets of Middle America.
George Feltenstein, the Senior Vice President in charge of Warner Home Video's classic catalog, has been responsible for some of the most exciting DVD releases of recent years, from magnificent double-disc editions of seminal films like Casablanca and Citizen Kane to smartly packaged box sets like last year's Film Noir Classic Collection and this year's Warner Bros. Pictures Gangster set. Warner has become the model of how a big-studio home-video company should operate: Its catalog is unassailable, its discs are packed with classy special features, and the product keeps coming, month after month.
The Onion: This year already, you've released the Gangster Collection and the Classic Comedies Collection, and you've got the box sets Broadway To Hollywood and Controversial Classics coming up. Some of these groupings of movies are natural, and some are a little odd. What's the advantage of handling your catalog titles this way?
George Feltenstein: It's something I've been doing for years, going back to putting classics out on videocassette. You provide a value to the consumer if they can buy a five- or six-title box for the same price as three single titles. It's turned out to be a huge success. It's not like the promotions are created along the lines of "Let's have a box to do this," it's more like, "We have these titles to release. How best can we release them?"
O: Do you brainstorm themes based on what you know is in the catalog and what's due to be released?
GF: Yeah, I basically make the decisions in this regard. For instance, the Controversial Classics: I had a bunch of titles that I needed to find a way to bring out. It's a looser thread than, let's say, the Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection, or the Film Noir box, or The Marx Brothers. The Controversial Classics are films that are very disparate in how they were made and their sensibility, but each one of them was progressive in its time.
O: You've got I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang in that set, and Fury, two of the best films of the '30s.
GF: And on the other side, from the '60s, we've got The Americanization Of Emily, which is a very early anti-war satire. It's more topical now than ever. There's a four-page article about it in this month's Vanity Fair, questioning why it's not on DVD. And here we are, laughing. [Laughs.] Yeah, I'm very, very excited about that. And then A Face In The Crowd, which is a masterpiece that was too ahead of its time. They're great films. All of the films, in both of the boxes.
We keep a very loaded schedule, with a lot of product and a great deal of care for each release. Everything is remastered and restored. We put a tremendous amount of effort into the packaging and the marketing. We spend money to advertise. We don't just throw these films out there and expect people to naturally gravitate to them at the store. It's harder to sell these films then it is to sell a brand-new movie, or something like Bambi, which is preprocessed and prepackaged, and it's Disney and people buy it regardless of what the movie is. It's a lot harder to do, but the net benefits have been tremendous.
O: That Bambi DVD includes a very innovative featurette that allows viewers to see the movie along with a lot of the background sketches and notes and tests that went into making it. Do you pay attention to what other companies do in terms of special features like that?
GF: Oh yeah. I haven't bought that disc yet. I have something against that movie, because they killed his mother off. [Laughs.] That scarred me as a child. No Bambi for George. But no, I buy a lot of product from our competitors. I love movies. I watch what everybody does. But though I don't mean to sound egotistical in a corporate sense, I think we're kind of in a class by ourselves, in terms of what we're doing right now with the classic American motion pictures. We're approaching them with a lot of care. And we're not selling something necessarily that's like Bambi. The Disney features are the Disney features, and there's nothing else like them. They get put away for seven years, then brought back out, and you know, they live forever. We have a very different strategy. But we're also the home of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz and Casablanca and Citizen Kane and Singin' In The Rain. We have I think, the greatest classic live-action film library. [Laughs.]
But to get back to your question, of course it's important to be aware of what everyone else is doing in terms of how special features are presented. But we've done things that I think are innovative too, like the "Warner Night At The Movies" feature, where we recreate the movie-going experience of a given year with a short and a cartoon and a feature and so forth. And we create mini-documentaries.
O: How far ahead do you plan for special features? For example, if you have a director or actor in for a recording session for one title that's coming out in six months, do you go ahead and get his thoughts on films that might not be coming out for years?
GF: Actually, we just did something like that. Vincent Sherman, who directed Mr. Skeffington with Bette Davis and The Damned Don't Cry with Joan Crawford. He came in to do commentary tracks for those, because they'll be coming out at some point in the near future. He's 98, and has total recall, bless him. So while he was in, I had him do some of the other Warner pictures he directed, some of which are somewhat obscure and we might not put out for a couple of years. But… he's 98. [Laughs.] The other thing that we do which is very important is–we've had, since the early '90s, an archival project of filming interviews with anyone who ever worked for Warner or MGM or RKO. We have over 300 people who've done oral histories. We use those in our documentaries, and in the special features on our DVD. It's something we've been doing now for 12 years and continue to do. We do four shoots a year, and we shoot these people on film, not on videotape, because videotape is not a preservation medium.
O: When you're planning your upcoming-release schedule, how much of a role does the preservation process play? Do you wait for films to be restored by independent agencies, or instigate restorations yourself?
GF: We won't put anything out on DVD unless there's a new master of DVD quality. The masters used for VHS and laserdisc are unacceptable. Because DVD is such a huge improvement in quality over those old mediums, we've got to put out the best possible master. That means, usually, doing a photochemical film restoration first, making new film elements off the original negative, and then a new telecine and so forth. So it's very expensive and very time-consuming, and very much a part of the overall quality of the presentation. We have developed, in recent years, a reputation for very high quality. People are generally saying, "Well, if Warner's putting it out, we know it's going to be good." Certainly we're not perfect. Some films are limited by what available film elements there are, especially in terms of the RKO library, which changed hands so many times that a lot of the original negatives were destroyed. But we put so much care and thought and time into it. People will say, "How come you haven't released any Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies?" Because they all have to be restored! And we're doing that, and they're all going to be coming out by the end of the year. That's the other great thing. Because we have such a rich and varied library, while a lot of our competitors are digging through the rubble of what's left, we've still got A titles that haven't come out yet.
O: Does fan input play a role in what you release? You have websites like The Digital Bits that keep people updated on what's coming out, but that also advocate and educate.
GF: To a large degree, yes. I constantly monitor all those sites and forums. But that represents only part of the voice of the consumer. You're dealing with the extreme enthusiasts, and they may not be numerous enough to support the release of a specific title. You need more of a broad appeal than just niche fans. But we participate in live chats with them, and we'll explain sometimes why a particular title isn't available yet, whether it's legal problems, or looking for elements, or something like that. You know it took us literally until just a couple of months ago to get a proper element on King Kong, which is like one of the ultimate, perfect DVD releases. Everybody thinks we held off because Peter Jackson is remaking the movie, but that's just a coincidence. There was an element in Europe that we wanted to get our hands on, and it took a lot of negotiation with the archive that had it. We finally got it, and the restoration is under way. People always think there's some kind of conspiracy. [Laughs.]
O: Is there any title you'd like to put out, but you know there's just not a market for it right now?
GF: I wouldn't know where to start. There's hundreds of them. We have a 6,600-title library, and I'm a film fanatic. The expense of putting a movie on DVD is far greater than it was on VHS, or even laserdisc, and because of that, we have a responsibility to our shareholders and to our company to be as profitable as we can be. To find that balance between commerce and art has been a big battle. I'm very proud that we've been able to do things like the Film Noir Collection last year, which was so successful that we're going to do another one this year instead of next year. We can find ways to do stuff, but there's always going to be titles that take a while to get to DVD, because it's a very expensive process.
O: As a film fan, does it eat you up when you see some of your competitors dumping classics onto DVD without any special features or a clean-up job?
GF: In some cases, it's understandable, because they're making a financial decision. As a home-video executive, I understand it. But in other cases, it represents sheer ignorance and a lack of care. There's a title that came out just last week which I won't name, but it's a prominent film, not that old, and there were some very famous sequences that were cut out before the movie was released. And the studio didn't even make an attempt to find the missing footage. And they didn't even put a trailer on the DVD. It's just the movie. You know, they should try a little harder. [Laughs.] The problem is that most of the people at the studios who are making these decisions know nothing about film. There are exceptions, but a lot of them may as well be selling shoe polish or potatoes or toothpaste. They're strictly thinking of it as a packaged-goods business, and not looking at it as selling entertainment. But the other side of that is that most people who are cinephiles and film enthusiasts don't have any sense of business. They'd run you right into the red ink, driven by their passion, not looking after the purse strings. You have to have a balance. And if you can do that, and be profitable, and achieve something artistically successful, and something great for the film community… that's the goal.