If physical media is dying, as the business pundits have been telling us for years, then someone forget to send the memo to Shout! Factory.
Born ten years ago out of the DNA of the original Rhino Records crew, Shout! Factory is the pop culture geek squad of home video and it has carved out a niche in the home video industry—actually, a few niches, from horror and science fiction to cult movies to classic TV.
Last year, the company released over 300 titles on Blu-ray and DVD, including a handful of remastered John Carpenter special editions and an impressive box set of Bruce Lee films (everything but "Enter the Dragon") on Blu-ray and DVD. Coming up in 2014 is a deluxe set of 16 Werner Herzog films on Blu-ray (slated for the end of July) and a complete "Halloween" box set, from Carpenter's original to Rob Zombie's revivals, produced in partnership with Anchor Bay (scheduled for release in the fall – just before Halloween, of course).
Shout! is just as committed to releasing television shows on disc, from the complete run of "Hill Street Blues" to collections showcasing Steve Martin TV specials, Mel Brooks on the small screen, and the incomparable and innovative TV work of Ernie Kovacs.
While the major studios have slowed the pace of disc releases to a trickle, at least where classics and catalog titles are concerned, to focus on digital distribution, independent labels are filling the void. Olive Films released a slate of classics from the Paramount catalog on Blu-ray, from John Wayne's pre-"Stagecoach" B-westerns to Betty Boop cartoons to cult noirs like "Cry Danger" and "Sleep My Love." Twilight Time has been delivering limited-run Blu-ray releases of films from the Sony and Fox collections for a few years now. Kino, known for foreign imports and silent movie classics, has just created a Kino Lorber Studio Classics line for films licensed from the MGM Home Video catalog, with films like Billy Wilder's "Witness for the Prosecution" and Blake Edwards' "The Party" making their Blu-ray debuts this summer.
And of course there is Criterion Collection, the gold standard for classics on Blu-ray and DVD. Founded in 1984, Criterion sets the bar for home video presentation with its commitment to high-quality digital masters (often created with the participation of the filmmakers and directors of photography) and supplements, starting back in the days of laserdiscs, when it introduced the audio commentary track on the 1985 release of "King Kong."
Clearly there is still a market for Blu-ray and DVD in the age of streaming and digital downloads. "There definitely is an audience for it,” said Cliff MacMillan, a disc producer who pursues acquisitions for the Shout! Factory classics and Scream Factory lines. "Just like there is an audience for the Criterion Collection. Just the first week's pre-orders on the ‘Halloween’ set are amazing.”
Like most independent labels, Shout! Factory doesn't own its film library. It licenses releases, mostly from small, unaffiliated studios and independent producers and rights holders. It is now benefiting from the studio flight from physical media by licensing films that a decade ago were out of reach, notably a number of titles from MGM and Universal.
Some of them were chosen from inventory lists of films with digital masters already produced and ready to go, while others came from wish lists submitted to the studios themselves. "All of the titles we did from Universal were from our list," said MacMillan. Those include "Prince of Darkness" and "They Live," and he requested "The Fog," "The Howling," and "Rolling Thunder" from MGM. Once the bread and butter titles of studio catalog releases, these are the mid-level releases that got dropped when DVD sales slowed and retail outlets like Tower records and Circuit City closed. Now they define Shout! Factory and its horror imprint Scream Factory.
Knowing the audience is an important part of the equation. While Shout! Factory has a strong line of kids and family-friendly releases – "Power Rangers" and "Transformers" cartoons and such – that are still carried in Target and Walmart, the genre titles have fallen off the retail racks but for a few specialty stores. Sales are largely over the internet, purchased through Amazon and other online retailers. (Shout! Factory also has its own sales site.) It's a matter of outreach and reputation.
The company has built that reputation over the last decade with a catalog of high quality releases. The transfers are consistently good and almost every major release comes with a well-curated set of supplements, from commentary tracks and interviews and featurettes from previous DVD (or even laserdisc) releases to new extras produced specifically for the new edition. It's a balancing act, said MacMillan. "We all have to stay within budget to make our numbers,” he said, “but we do everything we can for a release, including sometimes doing new transfers if an HD transfer doesn't exist or we think we can create a better master."
For the Roger Corman Cult Classics releases, they created new HD transfers from original elements, the first fresh digital masters in decades for many of these films, and they brought in Dean Cundey to supervise a new transfer for "The Fog." But the majority of releases are produced from existing transfers. Part of the appeal of the new "Herzog: The Collection" Blu-ray set was that they got the films—and the new high-definition digital masters—directly from Herzog.
And there's another area in which Shout! Factory excels, thanks to their Rhino Records legacy: music — specifically, a commitment to clearing the music rights for releases like "Freaks and Geeks," a TV series where music is an integral part of the experience, and "SCTV," where musical references are strewn through the show. "Creatively we are always striving to clear all the music rights we can," said Jordan Fields, the company's associate vice president and head of acquisitions. Next they are tackling the sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati," where music is an integral part of the show's identity. When Fox released the first season in 2006, it simply replaced the original musical cues with library music, a destructive choice that outraged fans.
Maybe it takes a smaller label to do something like this right. Warner and Fox and the major studios will lavish attention on the jewels of their collections with new high definition remasters and ever-expanding supplements, but the mid-level releases tend to get overlooked. Shows like "Freaks and Geeks" and "WKRP" may not have the fan base numbers of "True Blood" or "Game of Thrones,” but the fans are no less committed to the shows. Shout! Factory understands that and has earned its credentials among collectors for its commitment and integrity. It's one instance where the dedicated indie trumps the corporate mindset.
Distribution models are changing every day and Shout! Factory is changing with them. The company recently made its first foray into theatrical distribution with "Cockneys vs. Zombies" and will release their second, the French animated feature "Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart" from Luc Besson's EuropCorp, later this year. Disc and digital releases will follow. Shout! Factory is looking to negotiate as many rights as they can get, or they can afford, in future deals, said David McIntosh, Vice President of Business Affairs. That includes digital rights, from broadcast to streaming to VOD through iTunes and Amazon Instant.
With Netflix and Amazon Prime less interested in catalog titles, they are turning to alternative streaming sites like Fandor and SnagFilms, which McIntosh sees as the streaming answer to "the cool video store on the corner."
The Herzog collection, for example, is more than just a Blu-ray set. The company also picked up the digital rights to the films and signed a deal for Fandor to have an exclusive streaming window on the collection for a limited time. For George Romero's "Day of the Dead," Shout! contracted digital and broadcast rights along with the disc release. "We know that the transfer wasn't quite what George was hoping it would be," said MacMillan, "and so being that we had more than just physical rights, we took the time and spent the money to do a brand new high-def master."
MacMillan is still bullish on Blu-ray and DVD and, at least for the foreseeable future, physical media remains the tentpole of Shout! Factory. As any committed cinephile with an investment in a high-quality home theater system will tell you, there is no comparison between streaming HD and Blu-ray. And popular opinion aside, it's not just the older crowd keeping physical media alive. Much of the Scream Factory audience is in their twenties and thirties. "They're die-hard fans of horror, they like collecting it and they like having that collection," he said. "There's still a business there. There are still fans who want to enjoy the high quality of a Blu-ray. As long as they buy them, we'll still be here."