Mysterious Island (1961), Twilight Time’s Nick Redman, and readjusting the concept of MODs

February 6, 2012 | By | 1 Comment

PART I:  Mysterious Island on Blu, and Twilight Time Turns One

In less than a month, indie home video label Twilight Time will celebrate its 1 year anniversary, and I’m pretty sure its founders, employees and contributors will look back with pride at what was accomplished.

This could apply to any label that aspires to essentially fill a void that’s kept niche fans hungry for ages. I use the term niche deliberately, and with some regret, because that’s what seems to happen as a generation of film fans (or film music fans) age, and titles that were once cherished just doesn’t impact people the way they used to.

I also bring up film music because Nick Redman’s been involved in both camps for more than two decades, which is why fans from both film and film music camps know his name is a sign of quality. This isn’t fawning adulation; I’ve been collecting soundtracks since I was 14 (great, thirty Goddamn years just wooshed through my chest), and there are certain names that have remained constant with the running of certain pioneering companies, the restoration of certain soundtracks, the engineering of certain recordings, and doing good work that literally ensures studio assets that have remained dusty and ignored not only see the light of day, but are given a small nudge into the commercial realm – sometimes for the very first time.

He was a key member of the Bay Cities team before that memorable soundtrack label passed away; and has maintained an ongoing relationship with Fox’s music and home video departments, which is why rare soundtracks emerged on the ephemeral Fox Music label during the 1990s, and more recently we’ve started to see certain Fox films either premiere on DVD, or finally make their way to Region 1 land after being widely available in Europe.

Now, at this stage I’d suggest jumping to the interview [M] with Nick Redman, and then check out the review of Twilight Time’s Mysterious Island [M] (yes, the 1961 Ray Harryhausen classic!) Blu-ray, and a review of the original Bernard Herrmann soundtrack recording [M] from Cloud Nine Records, because what follows next could be misconstrued as a bit of a rant; it’s still tied to the above paragraphs, but it (er, I) digress(es), and it may contain some spoilers.

So, after you’ve read the above interview & reviews, 1) grab a coffee and (preferably) something loaded with sugar; 2) read the last two paragraphs again; and 3) move to:

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PART II: MOD – Selling an Illusion

Now then. Welcome back!

In our lengthy Q&A, we discussed these issues because they’re affected the kind of films you like to watch but aren’t seeing very much of on physical media, and what’s striking are similarities between what happened to the soundtrack market that was at one time almost exclusively dominated by major labels prior to indies such as Varese Sarabande and Citadel reissuing Decca titles and acetate recordings of music long forgotten.

There is a constant battle with fans to maintain a work’s relevance, and it seems to become more urgent as one ages, but I wonder if Tony Thomas’ efforts to rescue acetate recordings by Max Steiner and Hans J. Salter on LP 40 years ago are any different than La-La Land rescuing 1980s orchestral / electronic fusion scores by Jerry Goldsmith that were released in truncated 35-40 mins. albums (such as First Night [M], or Sleeping with the Enemy [M]).

I think they are, and it’s because of the radical changes in the way media – the physical delivery unit of music and films – has lost a chunk of its relevancy. If several generations have mitigated the shift towards digital media, then it’s logical older generations will do the same because it’s simple the way things are going; no one wants to have boxes of heavy videotapes (I still have a locker of them), painfully heavy laserdiscs (I curbed those I couldn’t sell), or racks of CDs hogging valuable wall and floor space. The fact so much can fit onto something so small digitally makes the need to hold onto anything chunky and heavy absurd.

And yet four of the colleagues at work – all twentysomethings – own record players. One’s rabidly buying old and new vinyl, while the other’s plugged her turntable into her TV until she gets a pre-amp. Yes, they are a minority, but they’re not stubborn holdouts or fad followers. I’m still buying a select amount of CDs, because after spinning MP3 and FLAC files, there are specific albums I want in their highest quality format, which I then pipe through a 40 year old Marantz (which by the way, looks and sounds Holy).

The digression here is deliberate: I’m a minority as much as the aging classic film fans wanting favourite movies on DVD and Blu, because there are simply less people buying these titles on disc. The slide has been ongoing for several years, and the question is whether it’ll bottom out and settle into a niche market like vinyl, or die out.

The home video industry’s survival has depended on shared relationships between consumers, distributors, broadcasters, manufacturers, and that thing once called rental shops, of which there are fewer and fewer each year. If several of these key members steps away from the marriage within a short time span, there’s a mess of instability that ripples from one to the other, which is one reason why fewer sales of classic films has resulted in a concentration by studio labels on new and best-selling titles in physical and digital formats that appear to have sustainability.

That’s also why we have crazy single-title offerings like 3DBD + BD + DVD + Digital Copy, which frankly can’t last because the manufacturing cost on these monster sets are high, and the returns months later must be brutal. It’s literally the equivalent of issuing an album on CD, USB, cassette tape, LP, and micro-SD, plus a time-limited cloud account.

I know back when I was snapping up LPs in high school at Peter Dunn’s Vinyl Museum (do a Google search), I found many useless mono pressings no one wanted because during the late 50s through to the late-late 60s, the labels felt there was a need to cater to the mono-crowd because stereo was still regarded as upscale and faddish (or, conversely, labels knew they good make an extra buck per item by selling the soon-to-be-stereo-standard at a premium, much in the way it’s taken 4-odd years for Blu-ray prices to level towards something logical).

There are familiar patterns when one examines history, and they help in discerning what’s rational, what’s a hasty decision, and what’s stupid (er, the protracted HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray battle), but certainly one issue is whether nostalgia can exist and be fed and nurtured without blanket abandonment, and the signs, for now, seem to suggest indie video labels are not lonely keeping catalogue films alive, but rescuing many others from oblivion. They may not remain in print for a decade or be manufactured in large numbers, but as we know, things are changing and shrinking and shifting.

But here’s a new quandary which should familiar if you’ve read this far: how much longer can studios sell on-demand [MOD] titles – digitally or physically as DVD-Rs – for $20?

I doubt they understand the difficulty in explaining to a less than tech-savvy film fan (of which there are legions) how a non-returnable purple DVD-R is not only different from an off-the shelf silver disc, but why studios are adopting this weird trend.

Whether it’s Warner, Universal, Sony, Disney, or MGM, MOD is in a state of utter absurdity: it’s brilliant in terms of making niche titles available to a niche market, but absurd in the way the product is being exploited as prestige “limited” products.

MOD = on-demand. I.e.: you ask for it, they make it. There’s no vault or limited run that mandates that, after some hidden figure is reached, titles like MGM’s The Satan Bug is gone forever. (It’s not; and it was released in Italy on a nice DVD.)

Some MOD titles – like Warner Archives’ The Night Digger – were remastered. Now, if a film on a lesser format with an unknown lifespan is remastered, it means it can come out again, which in theory should make it cheaper, since the nature of reissues and remastered titles on a lesser format is sell-through.

Casablanca is poised to be reissued in a gorgeous new HD transfer on Blu from Warner Home Video, and yet those wanting a budget version of the film can still select between two prior 2-disc special editions on DVD – you know, the lesser format that has a better documented longer lifespan and history of sustaining physical abuse. If you drop a DVD-R and the edge makes contact with a hard surface, it splits, and your imported $36 CAD Warner Archive is a coaster.

While prior MOD titles have generally focused on previously unavailable films, TV series, and TV movies, we’re now seeing former catalogue titles going MOD. Case in point: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, which was released in 2003 on DVD in a snapper case and sold in-store for around $15, and now out of print / deleted, but has been brought back in 2011 as a MOD title for $15 + shipping via Warner Archives’ site (shipped to U.S. destinations only); $20 + shipping at Oldies.com, and at TCM Shop; and $25 on Amazon.com + shipping.

There is no premium value one can associate with a DVD-R housed in an alpha case with a soft-focus, colour laserprint of scanned DVD box art. Collectors will track down old stock of the DVD release (which still exists, albeit now at collector prices pushing past $30), or perhaps rent the DVD – which happens to be a classic foreign film by a filmmaking giant whose works are taught in schools and exhibited in cinematheques – and rip it, or download it.

At $10, a Kurosawa MOD is a bargain, but at $20-30 (when shipping & taxes are taken into account), you’re insulting your target niche audience by gouging them, and convincing a specific generation comfortable with ‘getting things for free’ to ignore a legal alternative, and partake in the illegal activities the MOD program in theory should be reducing through widespread availability, economical pricing, and easy vendor accessibility.

The indie labels that exist – and there are many of them – may not be vital to any single studio’s survival, but they keep the catalogue titles relevant; it’s a synergistic relationship (yes, that word is vintage 1992), but while indie labels treat their versions as the Citizen Kanes of silent film, blaxploitation, slashers, eighties nostalgia, or Euro-sleaze, the MOD program is playing the same old game: it’s a new format, a new system, and there’s a premium attached to it.

TCM’s Greatest [insert genre / actor / actress / franchise here] collections essentially repackage 4 movies for $20-30 – movies that if bought separately would cost $30-50.

Secondly, the moment MGM via Fox started reissuing select, best-selling catalogue titles like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [M] or the new Spellbound (streeting this week) on Blu-ray for under $17, it broke the glass barrier that once mandated all Blu-rays be above $20 because it’s a ‘new’ premium format.

If Blu-ray is the norm (it is), and if HD transfers are mandatory for their success with consumers owning HD sets, and if catalogue material still has life being mass-produced for $17 by the studios, there’s no justification for the MOD program to exist if its price point is rooted the delusional tactic of making something seem special by making it pricey.

It’s a burn made by a guy named Gus who sits on an office chair and presses a few buttons to re-route a file from a hard drive to a DVD burner, or more than likely, a mass-produced run of 5,000-10,000 copies that sit in a smaller warehouse, ready to be shipped, and when stock runs low, based on pre-orders, another run is made with adjustments, taking into account noticeable increases / decreases in orders from the last two quarters.

You can make a lot by offering very little for $20, but you could make more if you charged less and made your product available internationally through the wonders of online mail order using existing replication and fulfillment houses.

As I raised near the end of the Q&A, a studio-branded release still has the stamp of quality, and even with a lower price point, it works. Remember all those bare bones, single layer DVDs MGM dumped in Walmarts and made a fortune? MOD has the potential to become a modest windfall if key barriers are dropped.

Which label is willing to take the initiative?

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Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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Category: EDITOR'S BLOG, FILM MUSIC, FILM REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS

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