The Admirable Criterion

Monday, April 18 2016
The Admirable Criterion

The black and white circle swirls, with the words The Criterion Collection spooling around, mirroring an old film reel… It’s one of the most distinctive distributor identities in the world, one which is known far beyond its original home in the US… And now, some 30 odd years since it first launched, 800-plus releases down the line – and after British collectors have ordered scores of imported titles which have crossed the Atlantic via air mail – The Criterion Collection has officially launched on these shores.

The first question anyone should ask Criterion chief Jonathan Turell, in London to promote the launch of the much loved imprint, is fairly straightforward: “Why the hell has it taken so long?”

Well, you can thank Criterion’s recently forged relationship with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

“A lot of the reason we’re doing it now is because of our relationship with SPHE,” says Turell, talking to The Raygun in Sony’s Soho HQ. “It started a couple of years ago, it’s a very symbiotic relationship, rather than a licensing arrangement. They got what we do, they’re very easy to work with and they got the brand.

“In our discussions, we looked at what else we could do together, that was a question we asked each other. And [the launch of] Blu-ray had got rid of the obstacle between NTSC and PAL, we could use the same master in essence, same authoring process and we could be distributed in the UK.”

There were other factors too, not least the vast catalogue that Criterion had built. Sure, some of its rights, licensing arrangements and releases were US-only, but given SPHE’s own library, plus others for which Criterion had some overseas rights, or could extend deals for, meant that there was, as Turell notes, “a critical mass of product that seemed to make sense”.

UK distributors had long been beating a path to Criterion’s door, although the label guarded its extras and value added material. Many labels in this country had been trying to license documentaries and more from Criterion, although Turell says he wasn’t aware of any approaches to launch the label in the UK (a few distributors in the UK might have you think otherwise, saying they’d asked the question).

Criterion was certainly aware of the strength of the UK market. “There are so many brands doing such good work here, it’s an indication of how strong the market is. Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema, the BFI, Artificial Eye, Arrow, Studiocanal… there are so many good lines and there’s a thirst for this kind of product in this market.

“It’s natural,” he continues, “if there’s five, there’s room for six. If there’s only one, there’s probably not any room for two.”

Criterion is not planning to tread on anyone’s toes with its UK operation though, as Turell gamely says: “We’re very conscious of not trying to take movies away from the other labels in the UK.

There are plenty of other rights available.”

For the time being there’s the SPHE titles that Criterion has already release in the US, more which it has added international deals for and others in the pipeline, although you’re unlikely to see any exclusives just yet: “We have been buying more titles for international, certainly rights for English speaking territories. Once we launch, it’s much easier [for rights holders and licensors] to. We can show them, we’ve done this. We’ve reached out to several of our licensors, we’re expanding the rights. We have agreements, we’re extending those licences.” He adds that at least two studios are poised to sign to allow Criterion to release titles it has already brought out in the US in the UK, later, at the launch held at Bethnal Green’s Rich Mix cinema, Turell will add that more approaches have been made. But, as he notes there, with 25 to 30 titles planned a year, it’ll take a good few years to even approach the total US titles. “At the moment,” he tells The Raygun, “we’re only looking for films either have published in the US or will publish in the US. Not titles presently scheduled a UK release without a simultaneous release.”

What is it, then, that qualifies a title as a Criterion release. Turell recites the Criterion mission statement like a mantra – “It’s a continuing series of important, classic and contemporary films” – before expanding: “We’re about the movies, we’re auteur driven. Every film we release gets added material, added by its director [if living], so we’re director driven in that sense. We’re true to the movie, we present them in the way we believe a director would like them to be seen.”

The modus operandi is simple – each film is assigned a producer, who’s in charge of the whole project, working with talent and the different Criterion departments (design, tech, restoration, audio…). “What we try to do is create a cohesive package, that what’s important.

Where does the film fit in history, how does it fit in this director’s body of work? What is the story? We try to tell what is the story behind every release.  That’s what the producer is there for.”

Title selection is relatively simple: “In order to be on the Criterion Collection, someone at the company has to stand up for it, saying why it should be in the collection. You have Armageddon on one side [one of its more controversial releases] and Rules Of The Gam on the other. Someone has to stick up for it. I don’t believe everyone likes every movie, but you can understand why it’s in the collection.”

Turell acknowledges how important it is to protect the brand and not release sub-standard films. “We build trust, we have to be careful with the audience not to disappoint, the trust might give you one free pass but you have to release good titles consistently.”

That trust, and the loyalty and word of mouth it builds, are essential to the marketing too. “We have a newsfeed, a Facebook following, work our promotions with key outlets,” he says, outlining Criterion’s marketing philosophy, “but the greatest marketing is word of mouth. Unlike the standard US home entertainment curve of distribution, where 90 per cent [of lifetime sales] are in the first three  months and you go down in price and get another month, we double our sales over the next six months. We have a very different looking curve.”

Ongoing activity will be key, as SPHE’s Aodan Coburn later tells The Raygun: “The Criterion name has huge equity with UK film lovers and we’ve been able to capitalise on that with a big publicity campaign and incredible support from our retail partners. As we continue to build a range, we’ll be looking to keep growing awareness of the label and these essential titles.”

Its reputation is remarkable, as Turell can proudly lay claim to two pivotal firsts – the first commentary track (on King Kong’s LaserDisc) and the first widescreen release (again on LaserDisc, this time for the 1956 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) – so it’s interesting to hear that despite these groundbreaking firsts, he is relatively media agnostic. “We started out on LaserDisc,” he says, “we dabbled in VHS, then went on to DVD and now Blu-ray. We’re in the digital space for downloads, in the streaming space, we bring movies to theatres, we still think the best way to see a film is in the theatre. It’s the movie that counts, not the media.

“But,” he says, adding a hugely important caveat, “we do love something when we plant it in your hand. There Is something about having a tangible object. As a collector, part of being a collector is is having something to collect.” Later, at the screening launch, he expands on this: “People like collecting. We think Blu-ray has got a lot of time to go.”

It’s a view that’s echoed by SPHE, whose evp for international Aodan Coburn says: “We definitely see the quality film and collectors’ segment as a healthy part of the market now and in the future. Criterion Blu-ray editions represent the very best of physical product and appeal to the values that those consumers set most highly: amazing films you want to watch again and again, beautifully packaged and curated. As they also likely represent the pinnacle of value we can offer in physical, we see a long future ahead.”

Interestingly, Turell has yet to convinced about 4K Ultra HD, but that is, in part, down to the investment required: “We’re going to keep an eye on it, we have a 4K work flow as we do our own restoration in house, so we’re very much aware of it, but we’ve got a lot on our plate already. We don’t have the resources, we’re not big enough to lead the market, but we’ll let the market decide.”

We could have spoken to Turell a lot longer, we barely touched on his own favourites (its early Hitchcocks and The In-Laws), on more of the history of the company (Turell and business partner Peter Becker’s fathers co-owned another groundbreaking US distributor, Janus), and the three films his now deceased father wanted him to release (Here Comes Mr Jordan, Robinson Crusoe On Mars and Scaramouche), but, as a parting shot, The Raygun asks Turell if he’ll miss the incremental sales Criterion earned from UK punters when its catalogue went on sale in the US – collectors saved up to splurge on the 50 per cent off from one major reseller. “We’re building something good here,” he smiles. “If Barnes and Noble sales drop five per cent, and people buy our titles in the UK, I’ll be thrilled.”

• The first batch of UK Criterion Collection titles, Grey Gardens, Tootsie, Polanski’s Macbeth Speedy, Only Angels Have Wings and It Happened One Night, are out on April 18. Easy Rider is due on May 9, In A Lonely Place on May 16 and L’Avventura on May 30.


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