Blu is the Warmest Media
A Q&A with filmmaker Ry Levey and the Deaf Crocodile team.
As I look on my computer desk, I see the two custom USB media copies of the short film series The Eyeslicer. Out of the corner of my eye, I see DVDs of indie movies Able Edwards and She Hate Me. Behind me is a shelf of Blu-rays and box sets, including Twin Peaks: The Return and Abel Gance’s Napoleon.
I love physical media. I love watching movies with the audio commentary tracks on. I loved slowly walking up and down video rental aisles and staring at the cover art for what felt like hours.
Should it all go away today, leave it up to the independents to hold on to some copies.
What follows is a Q&A with Boutique: To Preserve and Collect filmmaker Ry Levey and with Dennis Bartok and Craig Rogers of the DVD label Deaf Crocodile. Here, they discuss the state of physical media and what’s being done to save home releases:
What is Boutique about, and what can film fans expect from it?
Ry Levey: Boutique: To Preserve and Collect is a documentary on the history of physical media and the rise of boutique specialty collector labels and the roles they have played in film restoration, preservation, and elevation of underrepresented voices (Female, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and globally diverse).
Best Buy recently announced that they’ll be ending DVD and Blu-ray sales this year. How much of an impact do you think this will have on the home release industry, and how dire were things before this?
Ry: It's sad to see what Best Buy has done. I think many of these retailers had given up on physical media years back and, by doing so, stopped paying attention to the increasing resurgence in the marketplace. My hope is that some of the other big box outlets will reenter the space in light of things like the Oppenheimer 4K sellout, the increased concern of lost digital content, and the specialty collector boom. I'm cautiously optimistic.
Dennis Bartok: I'll be sad to see Best Buy get out of the DVD and Blu-ray business, the same way I was sad to see the major record and CD chains go under in the past 10 - 15 years, but clearly the business is constantly changing. I love shopping for physical media in stores, as well as online, and I'll fondly remember going to Best Buy to get the latest Harry Potter or Pirates of the Caribbean movies on Blu-ray on first day or release to watch with my son when he was growing up.
Craig Rogers: While it's sad to see Best Buy stop selling physical media - given they used to be the place to buy it, I don't think it'll change the landscape all that much. The vast majority of sales are done online and shipped to your home. Barnes & Noble and/or other brick-and-mortar stores will step up to fill the void. That said it's an odd-timed decision to get out of the physical media business altogether. Most reports are that physical media (speaking particularly of Blu-ray and 4K discs) is expected to grow in the coming year(s). Studios are discovering that subscription streaming isn't enough to fill the hole left by physical media and are starting to realize that the life cycle of a film has several significant stages - theatrical, physical media/tvod, and svod/avod - and each stage provides an opportunity to create buzz for the film. Why the studios decided to put all their eggs into the streaming basket and forgo all the other opportunities is a mystery to me.
As an independent group, how difficult is it to find, restore, and release DVDs and Blu-rays of these obscure but fantastic films?
Dennis: It all depends on the film, the cost of licensing it, whether it's been restored or not, the condition of the elements. We're incredibly fortunate that we have Craig as our in-house restoration wizard -- he brings incredible expertise and artistry to every restoration he works on from his long experience with IMAX, Cinelicious Pics and now Deaf Crocodile. A good example is the Croatian sci-fi/fantasy/comedy Visitors From the Arkana Galaxy that we released a few months ago. After a long detective search to track down the rightsholder and license rights, we discovered that there was no decent digital version of the film in existence. So we paid to have the best surviving 35mm elements scanned and audio transferred, and then Craig undertook the first-ever restoration of the film for our release. Most of our releases are restored in-house, and most films take around 1-2 years on average to license, restore and bring to market -- some much longer!
Craig: Tracking down the rightsholder(s) and elements can take a very long time. Negotiating with the rights holders can also take a very long time. Sometimes we are lucky and a newly restored version is available and we can license that (examples: Zerograd, Cat City, The Tune), other times we're starting at zero. We'll need to get the elements (picture and sound) scanned and launch a full restoration. Depending on the condition of the elements that alone can take several months. The good news is there's an endless amount of cinema out there to be discovered and I'm lucky enough to have Dennis Bartok. When we come across something cool that even he doesn't know about - that's super exciting. The man is a walking cinema encyclopedia (for the young ones: an encyclopedia was a series of books that contained vast information. It was what we had when we wanted to know something before Google.)
In the interviews that you conducted, was there ever a sense of worry and anxiety about the future of film preservation and collecting, or do you and others feel that we are in good hands?
Ry: I think there is excitement from collectors and fans, but full awareness of the fragility of the film medium from celluloid to even the digital formats, and how important it is to be aware of that. Cinema is still young in terms of an art form, and we've already seen technological changes that have impacted the medium. So, that understanding will be essential for cinema's future and its history's preservation.
Do you think that mainstream physical media has a future for consumers? If not, what must be done by Deaf Crocodile and other boutique labels to save pieces of cinema and thrive among the streaming platforms?
Dennis: Clearly there's still a mainstream market for physical media even if it's much smaller than in the heyday of DVD. Film fans love having physical copies of movies, and the growth of boutique home video labels like Severin, Arrow, Flicker Alley, Vinegar Syndrome and others shows that. There's even been a resurgence of interest in obsolete retro formats like VHS and 16mm, with some 16mm prints going for thousands of dollars on eBay recently. These are obviously very small niche markets but they show that people still love physical media. In terms of boutique labels helping to save or preserve cinema, that's a different question: most labels license movies for 5, 7 or 10 years maximum, and many aren't doing restoration or preservation of the materials, just releasing whatever version of the film is provided to them by the rightsholder. It would be great if there were more communication between the major film archives and boutique labels to ensure that any digital restorations undertaken by labels are properly stored and preserved archivally for the future.
Craig: Physical media constantly changes, but continues. I'm not concerned that it will simply go away. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the outlook for blu-ray/4K is bright. I think you'll see more releases in 2024 than 2023. Where I think boutique labels play a part is in keeping the smaller, obscure titles from falling through the cracks. The big studios will always take care of the classics. But access to everything is what's important. What was yesterday's forgotten film is tomorrow's rediscovery. Without access to these films how can anything be rediscovered? Access to the source materials so that companies can undertake restorations is equally important. Agreements can be worked out that benefit everyone. Negatives sitting in vaults doesn't help anyone.
At what stage of production is Boutique in, and what can people do to help?
Ry: Boutique: To Preserve and Collect is currently in the editing phase and on track to be completed this Spring. I'm excited to have a broader audience learn about these fantastic preservationist labels, the incredible experts elevating the collectible formats they put out, and the filmmakers, past and present, currently experiencing an elevated spotlight. We are currently raising additional funds with the support of a fiscal sponsor, From The Heart Productions, who allows us to offer tax-deductible donation receipts, so hopefully, we can offset some of the post-production and editorial expenses through that. Those interested in supporting can go to https://rblfdpr.wedid.it/campaigns/12043-boutique
If you could find, restore, and release any title in history, what would it be and why?
Dennis: Probably the long-lost complete versions of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons or Erich von Stroheim's silent masterpiece Greed. Two great films by two legendary directors that only survive today in reduced, cut-down versions of the originals.
Craig: Hmm...for the longest time my answer would have been David Lynch's Lost Highway or Todd Solondz's Happiness, but Criterion finally got both of those titles. Another on my list we'll be releasing next year. I've been pretty lucky with my wish list. I suspect the film I'll be the most excited about is one I don't know about yet. But I've got Dennis. He'll find it.
How large is your movie collection, and what titles do you prize?
Ry: I actually have had to downsize temporarily, but I still have a significant collection. There are just so many beautiful reissues of films I never thought I would see, thanks to labels like Vinegar Syndrome, Altered Innocence, Severin, Synapse, Kani, and so many others. Their presence has required the old guard labels like Criterion and Kino to step up their game; it's a great time to be a collector.