Return of the living movies

Movies have two lives. The first involves an initial release in theaters, where a film’s reputation is made through reviews, box-office revenues and awards. The second life comes after a film is released as home entertainment, and legions of video viewers get to know films they might not otherwise have seen. Often, the films lingering longest in viewers’ imaginations, the ones they want to watch over and over again‚ aren’t those which have previously been praised, or even respected.

Take The Stepford Wives. "Try to find a positive review of The Stepford Wives from the 1970s," says Jay Douglas of Anchor Bay Entertainment. "You can’t do it. Yet it’s in our vocabulary. When you watch the film now, it’s just as suspenseful, it’s just as over-the-top as it was then."

During the five years that Douglas has been the creative head of the Troy-based company, Anchor Bay has actively sought out and released a treasure trove of lost gems on home video/DVD. An unabashed film fan as well as a savvy businessman, Douglas realizes that a movie’s post-theatrical afterlife is the domain of the true cinephile.

"I’m a believer that a lot of films that aren’t successful are just misunderstood or mismarketed somehow," he asserts. "Thank heaven they were, because that’s why we’re here."

Most distributors of home video/DVD are arms of the studios which initially produced the films, or companies such as the Criterion Collection, which trumpets the importance of each release as if it were the second coming of Citizen Kane.

"The difference (in our approach)," explains Douglas, "is Criterion is more of an art house and we’re more of a drive-in. They’re very stoic and we’re tongue-in-cheek. In terms of presentations we’re identical, but I happen to think Macon County Line is a better movie than Ran. A lot of people will disagree with me, but the truth is, those are the movies that people come back to.

"It doesn’t mean I like every film we put out. It just means every film we put out has an audience who thinks the film is a real hoot. That’s the bottom line."

The key to Anchor Bay’s success is variety, which includes its share of highbrow movies, including four Alfred Hitchcock titles (Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious and The Paradine Case), and the ambitious release of the films of German iconoclast Werner Herzog, from his noted Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God to recent documentaries such as My Best Fiend, about the tempestuous actor Klaus Kinski.

"When people ask me for the thread that ties it all together," Douglas explains, "it’s this: It has to be cool. "Within that context, it can be Army of Darkness or it can be Charlie the Lonesome Cougar. It can be "Moonlighting" (the television pilot) or Minnie and Moskowitz from John Cassavetes or They Might Be Giants with George C. Scott. But it has to be something that, at least after the fact, isn’t laughable. It may not have been popular the day it came out, but the cachet of the film has to have grown since then."

And some of the films are essential to the collections of both film buffs and pop-culture aficionados.

"Films that are sort of unattainable, things like Two-Lane Blacktop or The Stepford Wives … have somehow become pop culture. That doesn’t mean that everything has the same significance. It just simply means that big title, little title or in-between title, it has to put a smile on someone’s face and they have to be emotionally attached to the film."

When it comes to licensing the films for video, sometimes it’s simple and sometimes it’s not. For example, licensing The Stepford Wives from its unlikely owner, megacorporation Bristol-Myers Squibb, was a challenge, but paled in comparison to landing the elusive Two-Lane Blacktop.

Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s 1971 existential road movie, has been cited as an influence by numerous filmmakers, but it’s rarely been shown since its initial run. When Douglas set out to rectify that, the biggest hurdle turned out to be securing the post-theatrical rights to three songs used in the film, a contract that was never negotiated in the days before home video.

It’s ironic that music clearances came into play with this particular title, because Anchor Bay is a division of the Handleman Company, the largest music distributor in North America. When Handleman was looking to branch out into other entertainment fields, they became an early proponent of priced-to-sell home video. The precursor to Anchor Bay, Video Treasures, began by licensing several independent movie libraries. These included quite a few horror titles, a genre which would become the company’s backbone.

"The reason we were so heavily into horror films so early on," Douglas says, "was because they just happened to be there. It wasn’t some master plan."

But horror movies have a fan base which is not only knowledgeable but eager to purchase a definitive version of their favorite movies.

"So many horror films were (severely edited)," Douglas explains, "and the uncut versions were being sold on the black market and (at) collectors’ conventions. The best way to take a pirate out of business is to put out an official version. The best example of that is (Sam Raimi’s) Army of Darkness. The director’s cut has a different ending, an ending that only an Evil Dead fan would understand."

The company’s horror staples include the work of Detroit-born Raimi as well as the baroque stylings of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci and the seminal output of George Romero and Hammer Films.

Anchor Bay is also home to numerous cult favorites (Repo Man, Kentucky Fried Movie, Tapeheads and The Hidden among many others) which their in-house design team packages with loving attention to detail.

A comprehensive Web site lists the status of upcoming releases, often chronicling the tortured history of a film as it winds its way to a peaceful afterlife.

Douglas believes some Anchor Bay titles (the irreverent Heathers) function as rites of passage. Others (ultracool British spy caper, The Ipcress File) are personal favorites. But he knows that each film they release has a passionate viewer waiting to discover it.

"It sounds corny," he says, "but what people collect is who they are."

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
Scroll to read more Movies articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.