Make Way For The Originals

Saturday, May 25 2013
Make Way For The Originals

Newly-created artwork… Gorgeous packaging. Specially-produced value added material, much of it made just for the UK. Hefty, information-packed booklets with essays commissioned…

The aforementioned elements, either in full or a selection of them, all add up to an extensive package for a release, one that deserves a premium price.

It’s long been a mainstay of our market, one that has often been reserved for all-singing, all-dancing special editions of blockbuster releases.

But it’s also becoming increasingly popular in other sectors too, most notably horror.

One could argue that it’s something of an anomaly: an expensive, premium-priced package devoted to a low budget, exploitation film. Irrespective of that, it’s certainly become a more common sight.

And this trend for premium packaging for horror and genre fare is spreading too.

It now takes in not just DVD and Blu-ray (think independent outfits such as Arrow’s Arrow Video and Second Sight, two of the most lauded labels in this field), but record labels specializing in soundtracks (the rather excellent Death Waltz Recording Company, our current favourite label) and posters too – the ever-enterprising FrightFest has a new licensed offshoot producing new artwork posters from classic British horror flicks.

The quartet we’ve mentioned are all performing well and, perhaps more interestingly, are all pointing a way forward for labels and imprints in the physical world.

So what’s changed then? Why now? Well, you could argue, horror fans were always discerning, but maybe in the past they weren’t being looked after.

“It has always been a market with an strong customer base, it’s just no one really catered to it as well as it is being now,” explains Arrow Video’s Francesco Simeoni, “many horror and cult film focused labels are really upping their game.

‘It was always assumed that arthouse and classic film fans wanted quality presentations but the horror fans do too and they want to buy these films over and over again, something the arthouse connoisseur does not seem to want to do with quite the same vigour.”

“As a general rule I think horror film fans are more discerning,” says Second Sight’s Chris Holden. “They are very discerning when it comes to the release of a film they love and if justice isn’t done to it they’re going to let you know, quite rightly. They know their stuff and we get a lot of great responses on our Facebook page which ends up being a great forum for discussion.”

“It’s a bit more than a trend,” acknowledges Spencer Hickman, who runs Death Waltz. A former HMV and Rough Trade staffer, he started his boutique vinyl label, specialising in horror soundtracks, as a hobby, only to see it turn into a full-time business. It’s predominantly vinyl only, all releases are on coloured vinyl (which matches the film’s themes and mood), all boast newly-created artwork. “I wanted to deliver a package that’s exciting. Who wants a CD? Who wants that, it’s nothing, just boring.

“There’s definitely a movement of people young and old who want physical media,” he continues. “They want something tangible. It seems to be getting bigger too. It’s what people want and that’s the way forward. If you talk to someone at the majors, they’re not interested in physical media. They’re so out of touch, they don’t have their ears to the ground. We’re into it, we’re fans. There’s still a massive market out there.”
The initial ideas for the assorted imprints revolves around the fandom and devotion of horror fans. Knowing – and being fans – helps enormously.

In recent years, FrightFest, the annual London-based horror film festival that has expanded far beyond its roots into a many-tentacled beast, has been at its fulcrum. As Ian Rattray, one of the organisation’s founders and also a partner in the licensed FrightFest Originals prints business, explains: “People in the industry don’t understand them. They think [FrightFest is about] spotty students who live at university. that is a part of the audience, but there’s a much deeper part, that’s a bit older. They like the films, understand the films and are prepared to spend. FrightFest is an example, it’s not a cheap thing to attend.”

“Our horror releases gain more attention than probably all our other releases put together,” says Arrow’s Simeoni. “[Horror devotees] have a quite remarkable attention to detail, we get hundreds of emails about whether a film is cut or not, even if it’s doesn’t have to be cut by the BBFC they already know if there is an R-rated version that could be released here by accident, or a version which had extra scenes in the trailer but not the feature. They are incredibly knowledgeable so they really keep us on our toes. The key is working with the right collaborators and consultants and heavy research.”

Arrow Video now boasts a vast catalogue of releases, with bigger and bigger titles being added to its roster. Initially, the plan was to pay homage to the good old days of clunky VHS and Betamax, as well as the films of the pre-cert, video nasty era.

“The original thinking was to hark back to the glory days of video rental shop covers, lurid and exciting artwork rather than what slowly became dull photoshopped covers that didn’t really tell you a whole lot,” says Simeoni. “Of course classically the covers were often better than the films so we’ve focused on classics of their genre and made quality presentations, with bonus features including posters, booklets, postcards, reversible sleeves and stacks of on disc extras too.”

The sleeve image is crucial and if all four we spoke to – Arrow, Death Waltz, FrightFest Originals and Second Sight – have one thing in common, then it’s artist Graham Humphreys. The illustrator includes the original Evil Dead artwork on his CV (as well as early greatest hits from rockabilly faves The Cramps – Off The Bone – too), and has worked for all four.

“We’ve only recently started doing this for particular projects,” says Second Sight’s Holden. “We commissioned Graham Humphreys, who is something of a legend in the world of horror posters, to do artwork for the Basket Case Trilogy. He did the original Basket Case artwork for Palace and as we wanted something to bring in the elements of all three films it made sense. We have commissioned him since for some new titles such as From Beyond but with our release of Scanners the original artwork was so iconic we had to go with it.”

Getting new artwork done is, says, Arrow’s Simeoni, crucial: “It’s very important, it’s what adds a fresh face to the whole release, sets off the excitement from that very first announcement, which is artwork led, so it’s crucial the right tone is struck, that’s it’s intriguing yet faithful.

“We’re looking for something that harks back to the old days but also something as mentioned that’s going to be faithful, whilst exploitation marketing is one thing, we wouldn’t want to push that too far, our fans wouldn’t respect that and nor would the filmmakers who we like to involve as much as possible. Recently Jack Hill (Foxy Brown) told us that our new artwork for his feature debut Spider Baby was the best he had ever seen for the film and Radley Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet) said our new artworks for his films were better than the originals, star Lynn Lowry (Shivers) even got in touch saying how much she liked it.”

The other key element, on the DVD and Blu-ray side, is additional material. Both Arrow and Second Sight excel here, each has commissioned new features put together specifically for their releases. Booklets and other material have become standard, rather than, as is so often th case with studio fare now, a rarity.

“Incredibly, one of the other key things we’ve become known for is stacked packages and this goes for not only packaging and inserts but on disc too.” Says Simeoni. “So we always commission new extras or buy great documentaries or create new featurettes ourselves. As mentioned we like to involve the key players as much as possible so involving them in the transfers of the film may not be a traditional ‘extra’ but when you can say you’re presenting your disc in a ‘director-approved edition’ it’s definitely an extra people want to read on the back of the box.

Second Sight’s Holden concurs. “Extras in this field are pretty much crucial and we pride ourselves in producing most of what goes on our releases. We’ll get as many of the cast and crew involved as possible. This is our usual policy on most cult and classic titles, horror or otherwise.”

Obviously, all these elements add to the cost, but it’s essential, say Arrow and Second Sight.

“No matter what the budget the packaging is crucial,” says Holden. “Some of the most classic horror films were, and still are, low budget but we still need to pay as much care and attention to how they’re presented as any higher budget release.

“This is a big expense in the releases but a necessary one. It does make margins tighter but without going the extra mile the releases will not go down well and sales will suffer.”

Margins are tight, but it’s essential for Arrow Video too. Simeoni explains: “It goes back to the argument about whether you should save money by not having a booklet, or fancy artwork or anything other than a trailer on the disc. If you do that your product is much less interesting and so people are going to look elsewhere or else add it to their wish list and buy it when it’s in campaign. Our releases have the ‘must have now’ quality so people pre-order heavily, and furthermore people import from all over the world. Our website and social media stats show we have fans everywhere from Russia to Brazil.”

The worldwide element is key: Arrow and Second Sight both export to other territories, as do FrightFest Originals and Death Waltz. “We ship worldwide,” says Spencer Hickman, citing the fact that their releases are on sale at stores around the globe.

And as everyone agrees, the premium packaging, both on the disc and around it, as well as for screenprints and vinyl, is welcomed as long as the standards are kept high.

“When we get them in front of people, they see how nice they are and they will buy them,” says FrightFest’s Ian Rattray. “They’re looking for something that’s worthwhile, when the quaity is there, they will still spend.”

“You’re asking people to drop a lot of money, quality got to absolutely be there,” adds Hickman. “That’s what people appreciate – lithos, prints… People want quality stuff. If I was doing a digital business, no one would give a hoot.”
What is, we proffer, strangest about the whole idea that such premium, pricey packaging is being used for what are essentially and more often than not, low budget films.
“The label is high end so in order for everything to feel like a collection it has to all have the same high end feel,” concludes Simeoni. “Another reason is that just because the films are low budget it doesn’t mean the fans love them any less, more likely they love them even more.”

And perhaps it is mere nitpicking. Let’s not forget, that in tough times for trading, it’s good to see at least one genre still performing. As Chris Holden concludes: “Horror has always been one of the strongest genres in the market and has a very dedicated fan base. It’s always good to have that in challenging times.”

And where next for this lot? Plenty more releases, it seems. FrightFest Originals is aiming to get its products under consumers’ noses even more (“Because of the quality of them, we’re going to do more with getting them in front of people,” says Rattray), while Arrow Video and Second Sight have busy schedules. The former branching out beyond its horror roots and elsewhere (Simeoni: “Originally it was mostly horror focused but we knew it had potential to be so much more. It now takes in all cult genres from horror and giallo to erotica and Blaxploitation from Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento to Brian De Palma and John Carpenter.”), the latter will, next on its slate, present The Brood, one of a number of Cronenbergs released in 2013.

One of the key messages seems to be as long as they’re doing what they’d want to see, what fdeels right, then it will perform. As Death Waltz’s Hickman says: “I don’t want to become so big I’m releasing rubbish blockbusters. I want to continue what I’m doing, find obscure stuff as well as the bigger stuff.

“A title [such as] The Devil’s Business not many people know that film, but they’ll see it, see it’s on Death Waltz and think it’s got to be good. It’s not in my interest to release stuff that’s not good.
You’ve got to keep it fresh, keep it interesting, that’s what will keep everyone going.”

“There is a large set of buyers out there, not bound by territories, they are savvy, have the kit and know where to buy,” concludes Simeoni. “If a release doesn’t cut it presentation-wise they will buy elsewhere so they are not to be underestimated.”

Tags: , , , , , , ,