Recently I thought to myself that hardly anyone ever interviews the people at a distribution company, so I asked Phil Lewis, who’s my contact at ArtsmagicDVD, if they’d be willing to do an interview for Rogue Cinema. Being the super nice guy that Phil is, he quickly arranged the interview. The reason I wanted to do this interview is because we buy DVDs all the time, but we don’t often think about what goes into making a DVD release, getting it out there and marketed, and how decisions are made as to what films get a DVD release at any given time. So hopefully this interview will shed a little light on those aspects of the distribution world for you. Before we start the interview, I asked Phill and Gerry to introduce themselves so you know a little about who they are. By the way, in the photo below, Phil is the second from the right in the black shirt and Gerry is the second from the left in the blue jacket.
My name is Phil Lewis, I’m 28 and have been working for Artsmagic since I was 19. At the age of 18 having decided to drop out of University, I joined Artsmagic as a tape winder. I worked my way up through the company through QC (quality control), head-end, and moved onto creating a website for the company in 1999 to promote and sell their videos. In January 2000 I started working for Artsmagic’s sister company, New Media Magic on an Objective 1 project to promote Wales entitled WorldWideWales.tv . When funding for this project ceased in December 2003, I moved back to Artsmagic to oversee the launch of their new website aimed at promoting their titles in the US – http://www.artsmagicdvd.com.
I’m Gerry Malir, I’m 57, I founded Artsmagic in 1994 and have been in the video industry for 20 odd years. Before that I taught in Canada, lived in Japan for three years and worked as a fireman on the Australian railway. I returned to Britain to go to film school and then not being able to find a job and stuck between unemployment benefit and accountancy foolishly decided to opt for the latter and from there I fell into the video industry without forethought or intention.
Tell us about the history of ArtsmagicDVD.
ArtsmagicDVD has been a long time coming. We first decided we’d like a presence in North America back in 1997, but as things turned out we got involved in too many other things including production of small documentaries and the creation of a rental label in the UK dedicated to British and Irish film. Our first Japanese releases were the Lone Wolf and Cub films of which we put out the first one in the UK back in 1999. Gerry’d seen them in Japan on their initial release in the early ’70s and had always had a hankering to do something with them. Before we knew where we were we’d created the largest Japanese collection of films in Europe and with the possible exception of Criterion, in the West. This provided us with a story to tell distributors in the States and Ryko was the company that seemed to best understand what we were telling them. They are our sales and distribution partner.
What was the first film the company released and what kind of problems did you run into with the first release as far as securing the rights, going through the mastering process, designing the packaging, putting together the extras and actually getting the film distributed?
In the UK, the first Japanese film as we indicated was Sword of Vengeance. We didn’t really have any problems negotiating the rights. In those days in the UK, nobody else seemed to be very interested in Japanese films unless they had an Arthouse flavour, and even then, not much. The mastering we did ourselves from dubs supplied by an American company. The design took an enormous amount of time because we were really only used to putting together documentary programs. For our previous rental releases we used an out of house artworker. We wanted a look that didn’t have World Cinema all over it.
By the time we launched ArtsmagicDVD we had five years of experience under our belts. Our first release, Full Metal Yakuza was taken from the Excellent Films catalogue. Again they proved delightfully easy to deal with and a very simple contract was drawn up. We did, however run into problems with the master and there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with various formats arriving before they agreed to send us the original digi-beta…not surprisingly with a certain amount of reluctance. Had we lost or damaged it they would have been forced into using a second generation tape. We mastered it ourselves once again now using a Mac-1 which is a highly advanced systems converter / enhancer. We spent a considerable amount of time on this as we always do these days. No matter how many extras you put on, if you don’t do your very best with the film itself, you’re obviously wasting your time. The packaging in this case was quite easy. Whereas we frequently, I might say usually, reject the Japanese wrap this time we really liked it and simply adapted it to our own purpose. Extras are always difficult to acquire for small budget films, and for small companies such as ourselves. However, our experience in production has been a help, in so far as we have in-house all skills of the creative process, camera, edit, etc, etc. In Japan there are two camera crews who work with us and go to shoot interviews that we/they arrange. These are sent back as raw footage. We get them translated, subtitled, and edited in-house. We also do all our own subtitling of the major features. As for distribution, that’s simple, we leave it to Ryko who have ins with all the major chains such as Best Buy and Walmart.
How do you go about gathering together things like interviews and trailers and such? Are the interviews ever shot specifically for the DVD release or are they interviews gathered from other sources that were done around the original release of the film?
As previously explained, we find the people we wish to interview sometimes with the help of the licenser. It all sounds easy but it isn’t. The interviewees will often want to know the date of release to find you a slot. If they think it’s too far in the future, they put it off, and then it can end up too late. Some stars and directors are very easy to work with and very helpful, others less interested and some not interested at all unless you’re prepared to pay a prohibitive fee. Nearly all our interviews were specifically shot for our releases and are in-depth about the film they accompany.
How hard has it been for you to arrange recording times with various people to do the commentary tracks? Have you ever delayed a release because someone you really wanted a commentary track from wasn’t available until a later time?
Often the people we use for commentaries we have a friendly relationship with due to a common interest in Asian Cinema. So far so good. All have been completed in time.
How do you go about deciding what films to release? What considerations do you take into account when making your decisions?
Gerry is in sole charge of decision making. At one time he used to put screeners around to certain members of the creative team who particularly liked Asian films, but the response was so varied that they made choice more difficult than ever. Now he does it using his own taste and knowledge backed up by research mainly on the internet but also in books and by suggestions from other people, some of them professionals and some fans. Incidentally we always encourage visitors to our website to make suggestions. We take them all seriously and carry out appropriate research.
You do your translation and subtitling in house, and I must say your people do an excellent job with it. It seems that they go out of their way to be accurate where so many others don’t. Tell us a little about the people doing it and how much time it takes to do the subtitles on an average release.
We have five Japanese translators who work with us. They prepare the first draft of the script. Next Gerry takes it (at one time he was a playwright) and turns it into a more correct form of English. However, it should be emphasized that sometimes the Japanese translations are excellent in their original and possibly have a better feeling for American vernacular than we Brits do. That part of the work normally takes about a day. The script then goes through to the subtitling members of our staff who also double up as graphic artists, stock controllers, you imagine it, they probably do it. They put in the timecodes to accompany the script, and this can take anything from a few days to two weeks, including amendments. This then goes down to our authoring section where the subtitles are put onto the encoded film which then goes back to Gerry for checking. He watches it annotating the script for further adjustments, back to the subtitlers, back to authoring, final check, and hopefully that’s it. It always takes longer than you expect, but since subtitling is the way you communicate the linguistic part of the film to a non-native audience, we really like to do it in-house.
When it comes to the actual mass production of your releases, how is that handled? Are they done in house or do you have the duplication and production handled by an outside company?
We don’t do any DVD replication. Artsmagic has spent nearly 15 years as a manufacturer and is now happy to pass the ball to other players. Our replication is done by Cinram in the US and the physical distribution is handled by Warners.
Many of the releases from ArtsmagicDVD have been region 1, and yet I’ve received a couple of films that are region 0 (region free). What are your feelings on region coding, and what determines whether you region code a release for one region or all regions?
We prefer to encode Region 0 so that our releases can reach the largest number of potential viewers and play on the largest number of DVD players. However, many of the major studios insist that you regionally encode and of course if this is part of our contractual arrangement, we have to comply. Left to our own devices we wouldn’t regionally encode and we own outright a very large collection of documentary titles … nothing to do with Japan, that are all encoded 0.
It has to be hard working your way into the American market where most if not all of these films have never even been heard of by your average American viewer. What marketing strategies are you pursuing to bring more awareness of Japanese film to the American market?
It’s not as hard as working your way into the UK market, where similar problems apply, but you’re talking about a smaller audience which is possibly slightly more conservative. We are currently having some of our films taken up by festivals which provides us with a good showcase. We work hard with websites which we think fit small companies, and large companies like a glove. The response time is fast, the knowledge is great since they’re frequently run by enthusiasts, and their visitors are there because they’re interested in our sort of films. We also work with certain US magazines like Fangoria.
Many distributors edit their Asian films for release in the American market. One shining example of this is the tragedy with Miramax completely destroying the extremely cool Stephen Chow film Shaolin Soccer. What are your thoughts on this practice, and have any of your releases ever been edited in any way for American distribution?
As far as we’re concerned we only make a cut if the law necessitates it. We are totally opposed to censorship full stop. By and large our policy is to try to avoid films that are likely to fall foul of the censors’ shears. From an artistic point of view, companies who feel they have the right to edit are taking an enormous amount of responsibility and with it risk. They’re effectively claiming that either their artistic sensibility is superior to that of the filmmaker or artistry be-damned so long as there’s a buck in it. Either way they lose.
Thanks in large part to Phil (at least judging by my interaction with him), you seem to have developed a very good rapport with a large number of film review websites. In a time when it seems that most distributors won’t even respond to web reviewers who request review screeners, you guys are going out of your way to make sure your product gets out there to pretty much anyone that does quality reviews and wants to review your releases. What are your overall feelings about review sites on the web and how much do you think they help or hurt your business?
Judging by the response we have received from reviewers such as yourself, I’m sure that review sites on the web will without doubt help our business. Having striven to release quality product packed to the brim with extras, it’s good to see that the reaction from reviewers is very positive. Many are keen to offer suggestions for possible extras we could look to include in future releases, which is a great help to us. Other reviewers come back with suggestions for titles we should look to release. Through such interaction with reviewers, we are able to keep on top of our game and give the Japanese Cinema fans what they want.
What releases do you have in the works right now, and what are some of the films that we can look forward to seeing in the relatively near future?
Signed and sealed are Young Thugs in two parts, Bird People In China, Blue Remains, Nine Souls, Bullet Ballet, and the whole Nikkatsu series of Angel Guts, which is comprised of five separate films made by four directors. Chusei Sone, Toshiharu Ikeda, Noboru Tanaka, and Takashi Ishii whose entry into the film world was facilitated by being the author of the eponymous manga.