Really Cool Movies: Anchor Bay's Jay Douglas
by Dale Dobson
Anchor Bay has rapidly become one of the highest quality "niche" title DVD producers in the business. We were able to visit the company's headquarters in an unassuming single-story office building in Troy, Michigan, nestled behind a couple of large car dealerships. Jay Douglas, Anchor Bay's Vice President of Acquisitions, generously gave dOc two hours of his time to talk about movies and DVD.
(Our wide-ranging discussion has been edited and rearranged for readability.)
On Anchor Bay's "mission:"
Anchor Bay is out—it's our job to put out really cool movies. And in a lot of ways, unlike other companies who do sort of finessed presentations, ours is a more all-inclusive label you know, we do it with our tongue in our cheek sometimes. We purposely go after ambitious movies, quite often with flaws in them, but at the end of the day those are the ones that I watch over and over and over. And I think people who love movies in the same way they love music and literature would rather own those kinds of movies. I almost hate the word "cult" film or cult movie, because I feel like I'm part of some creepy group you'd be surprised how wide the demographic is for these movies.
Early on we had this abundance of horror films because of a couple of libraries we had control of for home video. The Media Home Entertainment library, which included Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hidden—Video Treasures owned that library, then Starmaker Entertainment owned the second incarnation of the New World library, which contained Hellraiser and C.H.U.D. and stuff like that. So you put those two together and it was a pretty impressive lineup of independent films. And there were other great independent films in there too, but the cream of the horror genre—well, a lot of the cream—was right there. So when Anchor Bay was formed in the Summer of '95—actually, I think they named the company before that, but I came on board in August of 1995—the early goal was to sort of create a blue-collar VHS version of what people like Criterion and Elite were doing on Laserdisc.
On the transition from VHS and Laserdisc to DVD:
Although I was a consumer for Laserdisc, it would have been hard for me to convince the company that that was a business we should get into, when at the time it was sort of teetering. It was a "boutique" format; so we did some alliances with people like Criterion and Elite and Lumivision and other people who were in that business, to sort of share costs—they would do things for Laserdisc, and we would sort of do the poor-man's version for VHS. And then we began to read about Digital Versatile Discs—and although my first impression of that was, like, anyone who collects things is saying "this is another thing, I have to go out and do this all over again" I still collect vinyl though I never play it, and I still have all these compact discs at home, and now I'm going to trade shows and seeing DVD-Audio, and thinking. "Oh my God, here we go again!"
But we also knew that Warner Bros. and Warren Lieberfarb were behind DVD—it was the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the world and they were going to make this happen. Much in the same way that the four or five big record companies in the early 1980's said, "We're going to make the compact disc happen." And it's coming true now. So we jumped into that—actually, we jumped into that business too quickly it wasn't so much that there wasn't a customer base out there for it, it was just that we didn't know what we were doing. We had all these wonderful masters for all these films that we had created in conjunction with people like Elite and Criterion, only to find out that those masters didn't do us a damn bit of good for DVD because the criteria as to how they were made was totally different. So that was Shock #1. Shock #2, we aligned ourselves with two very very large companies—I can't tell you who—and neither knew what they were doing. So now we were at a point where we had to sort of start all overwe were actually about 15 or 20 DVDs into this when we realized, "Oh, my gosh, we don't quite know what we're doing!"
Right now, our business is about 70/30 VHS to DVD. That's up—it used to be 85/15 last year, in terms of units. In terms of dollars, DVD might even be a little bit more, in terms of percentage. Within two years it'll certainly be 50/50 although I don't necessarily want to see the VHS format go away. There are a hundred million VHS players out there—I hope that everyone who doesn't make the transition to DVD doesn't throw their VHS player in the garbage. I've heard that there are more turntables in barns and garages and closets not being used than there are compact disc players that are in use. When the hardware transitioned, it didn't take everybody with it—I don't want to see that happen.
On DVD quality:
As a consumer that excites me, because I¹m the guy who always complains that they didn't do it right, particularly with music. I hate it when record companies change artwork, or just because a band was popular in the 1960's, they concoct some psychedelic cover art that isn't really representative of the band. I'm the kind of guy who freaked out when they slowed down the Jimi Hendrix tapes, because an engineer said they were originally done too fast—well, that may have been the case, but that's the way it was, that's the way it sounded.
So as a consumer, I'm excited by the fact that it's not just about the music or the movie, it's about presentation, it's about creating a document that Middle America can own—here's a $40 million movie, or for that matter a $300,000 movie, that—could it look better in the future? Maybe, but my God, it looks like you could stick your hand right into the picture. That's the part I like.
What's exciting about DVD is that it's priced low. That was the idea behind Anchor Bay originally—it was, "Look, I can't afford to pay 100 bucks to see a movie the way it's supposed to be every single time. I'm crazy enough to do it every now and then, but I still have to buy videocassettes." The whole idea of DVD is, here's something that's a little more reasonable, and if it's done right it's kind of a godsend.
Unfortunately, now DVD shows you how bad they really used to look. But what's exciting is now you have filmmakers coming out, saying, 'since you guys are doing this, I want to be involved, because this is my chance to get it right, or this is my chance to color correct that, or fix that horrible part in the film where the sound fades out.' So, quite literally, it's a chance at redemption for some of these films, particularly ones that were treated shoddily to begin with. Which for genre films is often the case.
To me [Dario Argento's] films are eye candy, so even if there are moments—the story's almost secondary to the way they look. And that's something I've just appreciated in the past ten years; now I can actually enjoy a movie for the way it looks. You get used to this beautiful look that DVD gives you, then you go back and remaster a film like Minnie and Moskowitz—John Cassavetes is a great filmmaker who makes films look sort of gritty of purpose. And the grittiness and the choppiness of the editing—you sort of have to re-introduce yourself to that kind of a movie again and realize that even on DVD it's supposed to look that way.
On cool movies:
In the 1980's, late 70's, early 80's, before rental stores were out there, I used to go to the drive-in to see these kinds of films, at least the horror films. And I was in Columbus, Ohio, where there were places like Marzetti's and University Theatre and the Drexel theatre where they used to show the foreign films, a Herzog picture or something like that. And as neat as all that was, until the video store came along, you really had to seek out those kinds of films. You had to go out of your way to do it, plan an evening and then the video stores came along, and a lot of the stuff on the bottom shelf in the back of the store in the Horror section was the stuff that I gravitated to. European stuff, stuff that was Unrated or Not Rated or just looked quirky or surreal... because so much of that stuff, I'd never seen it before. So probably like a lot of people, I'd rent everything in the store, then go back and sort of yawn at the new releases or look for that one copy of that one movie that was among the 4000 copies of the latest Robin Williams movie.
Sometimes interesting is better than good. I'd rather see a movie that was so over-the-top for being a mess, even, than I wouldas long as it's not straight-to-video with a guy with a machine gun looking to the left and a girl with a machine gun looking to the right. And if you DO give me that movie, have them do something completely nutty right in the middle of it!
On the Werner Herzog collection:
A friend turned me on to Nosferatu, not because it was a Herzog picture, but because he just said, "Hey, I just the saw the best vampire movie I ever saw, you've got to check this out!" So we saw it. At a later date, we went to see Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and I went to see that based on an article that I read in a New York Newspaper, the Village Voice or something. I was fascinated by foreign film but didn't put together that it was the same man that made Nosferatu. I only became really familiar with Herzog when I saw Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams—then it was like, "Oh!" So over the years I've looked for his name—obviously, a lot of his films didn't come around.
We never dreamed in a million years we'd be collaborating with Werner Herzog on his entire library, at least most of his library. Except for a brand new film he's working on now called Invincible, if I can just put Scream of Stone to bed we'll pretty much have the entire library locked up. But the way that evolved was, I was out looking under rocks for those films that were between licenses or lost in the shuffle, and a film I'd always enjoyed was Nosferatu the Vampyre, and I couldn't understand why Twentieth-Century Fox had never put it on video. So I had a friend at Fox who told me that the film was expiring, and they had no intention of putting it out—if I was there, I'd certainly [have been] trying to extend the agreement. As a film fan, I knew it was in demand, so I made contact with Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, which is run by Werner's brother Lucki Stipetic, who lives in Munich. I contacted Lucki and he said, yes indeed, it's expiring, but I'm talking to Fox about doing a home video, and if that happens we'll extend the agreement. So we jumped in and negotiated and licensed that picture, and it became apparent that most of the library was now controlled by Werner Herzog. So it was like, hey, as long as I'm here, let's do everything, and let's do it with Werner's participation, although at the time I thought, my God, what are we biting off here? Because from what I knew of Werner Herzog, he was this mad genius who might possibly be too tough to work with. To make a long story short, number one, he's a perfect gentleman; number two, he's the most interesting storyteller I've heard in my life; and number three, he's literally supervised every aspect of his releases at Anchor Bay and continues to do so. The most exciting thing, is, my God, we're working with Werner Herzog! One of the high watermarks.
And as we can catch him, he goes to our studios that we work with in Los Angeles—his commentaries are worth the $20 (cost of the DVD), he's just a master storyteller. The stories behind Herzog films are at least as intense as the films, and in most cases even more intense, so those commentaries are really important.
We're releasing Woyzeck and My Best Fiend and gearing up for Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Cobra Verde.
On DVD industry recognition:
With a film like Fitzcarraldo, for example, the ambience from the opera house to the South American river is so different. In the theatre you don't hear any difference, but with DVD, guess what? It's pretty overwhelming. Werner literally redid the sound of Fitzcarraldo. It was a big undertaking—not like dragging the ship over the mountain, but a big undertaking.
We did win an award for Best Commentary for Army of Darkness, which was a very funny commentary, but on Fitzcarraldo we had Werner talking for 150 minutes, there's not a boring sentence and it was totally ignored.
The truth is, we're always going to be on the fringe, and just to be included and have our titles listed among big Hollywood movies is kind of neat for us, because it gets us some publicity and some notoriety. At the end of the day, though, it's not so much that we want to win awards, it's just that a lot of people work very hard. We get letters all the time from fans, and that keeps us going—but it would be nice to get a tip of the hat now and then from the people who are really in the film community. We feel like we're on the outside looking in.
On the DVD fan community and sales:
We're closer to the fans, actually, than to the people in the middle, the distributors and so forth. I don't mean that in a negative way—but what we do with Heathers or with any title, a lot of that's determined by the feedback we get from past presentations, or, "you know, what you guys ought to try is this." Frankly, we can't see all of the work that these other DVD companies are doing, and it's the fans that let us know—they'll bring our attention to something that was on the Ghostbusters DVD, or licensing ideas, or leads on where to go, or let us know that there are three different cuts of a film and they're all five minutes apart. Somewhere out there is the Ultimate Fan for every movie. We try to make every film for that ultimate fan. We know everybody else will be happy if he or she is happy. Then the second criteria is, "Can we afford to do this?" So obviously—there are prestige titles, where it's a matter of trying to lure a new audience into an old film with a picture like They Might Be Giants. This is a film that George C. Scott thought was one of his best films, but he went to the grave associated with Patton or roles where he was the screamer or yeller. So here he does this turn in They Might Be Giants, and he absolutely is a sympathetic, charming— 180 degrees from the way people remember him. That's an Anchor Bay film.
The point is whether the audience is wide or narrow or old or young or in some cases, you're shocked by how diverse the audience is. Just as long as the target audience likes what we do—whoever we're aiming it at, if they like it, that's fine. If other people like it, that's fine.
People of the Internet generation have grown up in a video store—gee, you've seen movies—you guys got your pop culture degree when you left high school. You took in more popular arts in the way of film and television and probably print media than people of my generation. If I wanted to go see John Saxon in Blood Beach, I had to drive 40 miles to a drive-in and watch it before the sun went down. I didn't have access to that video store—so your generation is a lot more familiar with Lucio FulciI swear I saw a bumper sticker driving through Detroit that said "Fulci Lives." I know they didn't make just ONE bumper sticker!
Army of Darkness was a pleasant surprise because it was already being marketed by Universal, we have a non-exclusive license, which means we're selling a hot-rodded version of Army. And we can't kill it, it just sells and sells! With our first limited 2-disc set, we just made everybody angry. We were sweating because we were going to make 30,000 of these and it just seemed like a lot—within days of the release, the complaints started coming in. So we asked if anyone would be offended if we made a second run, and basically people didn't care, so we didn't make the same thing, but something that was a little bit different. The goal is TO keep it limited, and if they're selling 3 million of this and 4 million of that, our combination is still pretty damn limited.
Then we have titlesfor every breakout that you don't expect, you have one that just doesn't seem to go anywhere. Sometimes that's a shock tooyou try to go back and say, "did we screw it up or miscalculate who the audience was for it?" And the beautiful thing about the Internet is that immediate feedback. It takes about three minutes—the whole world will tell you if they liked it or didn't like it. When it came to music I'd never heard, I went by what the music critics I admired said about it—even if I disagreed with them after I bought it, that's the reason I went out and bought it. You learn from the bad ones—the Web will let the consumer know the title's a dud, and part of that's reflected by the way you see it sell.
In theory, pre-order data helps us, but sometimes it just doesn't happen the way you expect it to. The problem with DVD, unlike VHS, is there's only so much capacity. It's like the Secretary of State's office. You get up to the front and say you need 20,000 of this because you've got preorders for 15 or 16 thousand, so you take it and as you head out the door, someone says we need 10,000 more, but you have to get back into line behind all these other people with all their other titles. The guy who doesn't get it on day one, there's a good chance he has to wait 3 or 4 weeks. So we're trying to make sure the first shipment is enough to get us through the first 60 days, but it doesn't always work that way.
Supergirl isn't supposed to be Superman—Supergirl's fighting Satan's minions here, Helen Slater is the girl next door. It was important for us to sort of say, look, Supergirl may not be Gone with the Wind, but you know what? It's gotten a bad rap. And the reality is, I know it's better than Superman III or Superman IV. And I would almost say that the international version of Supergirl stands shoulder to shoulder with Superman II.
We do a lot of business with Studio Canal/Canal Plus, and we had a license for Supergirl. We originally put it out in home video way back, and it wasn't out more than 3 days when someone called to say, "You screwed it up! It should be 124 minutes, not 118." So we found out that the International version, as far as the fans were concerned, was the only version. It had been so drastically cut, they edited the charm right out of the movie. So we set out on a quest to find the International version—a gentleman we worked with, Scott Bosko, he's "The Guy" for Ilya Salkind films—we got Scott to work with us and he brought the director in to do a commentary, we located a gentleman who had worked on the film and had tons of material, storyboards, publicity photos, et cetera. We contacted Helen Slater and got very close to getting her on-camera, but I suspect she didn't think we were for real, and perhaps she was a little guarded about Supergirl becausesometimes actors and directors still smart from those kinds of things. So here we are with a THX-approved transfer and this and that—I'm sure she thought we were either insane or lying, one of the two. So meanwhile, all this is going on and we're 90% done with this enormous project and all of a sudden, Bill Lustig, who produces most of our DVDs and certainly oversees a good portion of the production, found cans labeled Supergirl that said DO NOT USE. Lo and behold, it was a 140-minute director's cut. We were 90% donethere was an anomaly in the director's cut print, this little white dot, so we wouldn't have gotten that cut THX approved. And we'd already done the 5.1 mix—it was turning into Heaven's Gate. Bill said, "You know what, Jay, except for this defect, the 140-minute version looks as good as what we've already done what do you want to do?" So it was like, we've come this far, let's do it. We didn't have the proper elements to do a 5.1, it'll never be THX approved, but it'll really be a collectible, particularly for people into DC comics and the "Super Family." So we said, "anything worth doing is worth overdoing," so we did it. What I'd love to see is people who say, I don't remember this being good, but it's better than I thought it would be.
On "family fare:"
People my age grew up on all those cool old Walt Disney films, that I call "critter films"—they work on a lot of different levels. Most of those films I didn't see in theaters, I saw on TV. But I happened to watch some of them a few years ago—number one, I was enjoying them, number two, they're kind of freaky. So I wondered if other people really liked these films? And we get mail from people who own Halloween IV, Charlie, The Lonesome Cougarit's kind of like old AM radio where you used to hear the Beatles and Dolly Parton and T-Rex and Deep Purple, all in the same twenty minutes. It's just movies, that's what it is. And what's really cool about those old films is they address conservation, being kind to animals, all these things that animal movies today don't really address—now they're mechanical and cute and running around in your house, but they're not out in their own environment.
The one funny thing that runs through all these films—you can count on there being a scene with a baby animal on a log very near a waterfall. "Okay, here's where we put 'em on the log and send 'em towards the waterfall!" And I laugh every time I see it.
On "The Collections:"
The first thing we try to do is get our foot in the door. We obviously try to tie all the films up, but sometimes we have to do these things a brick at a time. When we started talking to Werner and his brother Lucki, I had a feeling from the beginning that I could make that whole thing happen. Argento—that was another matter, because the films were all over the place—we just sort of took that a film at a time. Same thing with George Romero's films—we had to ask ourselvesin my opinion, The Dark Half with Timothy Hutton is an incredibly good, scary (although flawed) movie, same way with Monkey Shines. So I had to say, gee, well, we're never really gonna have those. So I didn't want to call something the "George Romero Collection"—if we're able to acquire the lion's share of something, or the ones that really matter, like Lucio Fulci's The Beyond or Zombiethe seminal films, then I don't feel too uncomfortable calling it the so-and-so "Collection." To be honest, we sort of stuck our neck out with Dario Argento—we had two films that were just produced by Argento, and thought, hell that's close enough, we've got four. Then we went back and got this one, then the next one, then did this agreement for the DVD of Suspiria—from the first time we put out Tenebrae, there wasn't one letter that we got that didn't say, "What are you doing with Suspiria? We'll buy these others, but where's Suspiria?" Even when we didn't have it, they thought we were holding out!
We're gearing up for Straight to Hell, Three Businessmen—Alex Cox has been a real gentleman, he's contributed commentaries, supervised the transfers, et cetera. We're actually doing all of the Paul Verhoeven Dutch filmswe've got everything independent but Spetters, we're obviously working on that. As we speak, Monte Hellman is finishing up The Cockfighter, with a nice documentary on Warren Oates, who in a lot of ways is my favorite actor of all time. He doesn't even have to say anything, it's just that look on his face—you feel like he feels, he was incredible.
On musicals and "rock-and-roll cinema":
If I could take Anchor Bay into a second direction or expand our horizons, we'd be a record label too. When I was a kid, I grew up with the stereo—South Pacific, all the musicals. I grew up on show tunes until I discovered rock-and-roll. In the 60's there were all these movies filled with rock music, if not starring rock stars. Then I worked for record distributors just to be near the music business. Those people that work in music retail stores love music to this day I still collect records. I buy the collections; when they improve them, I buy them all over again. I bought some artists, even on compact disc, two or three times.
That's what got me into all those musicals—obviously, most of the big musicals are tied up with the MGM's and others. The Happiest Millionaire was kind of a hoot—that was another film that was obviously very ambitious and for whatever reasons didn't have a real positive reaction when it came out. Beyond that, I'm just a big Fred MacMurray fan—he was everybody's dad and at that time was one of the biggest stars in the world.
So we got into this with films like Train Ride to Hollywood—you watch it and it's almost impossible to tell what era it's from. It's just a freaky movie. It's Busby Berkeley-meets-Shaft you're thinking, is this real? Then out of that, we started looking at movies where music was just an intricate part of the movie. We're working on a movie right now called Times Square—to me, that's an exciting movie for a couple of reasons. After Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, it wouldn't have mattered if Robert Stigwood put out Silence of the Lambs, no one was gonna go see it. So finally, Robert Stigwood Presents what is actually a cool little movie, and it plays better now than it did then because the people who were into that music didn't necessarily go to see mainstream movies, and vice-versa. So Times Square was kind of out there alone, and now you go back and watch it, and it starts like a drama, or a melodrama, and by the time it's over you're thinking this is some bizarre punk musical. There are these themes of independence and of girls or women being strong, and Tim Curry's character in a way is like the deejay character in Vanishing Point, he's almost like a narrator of sorts. And when Robin Johnson does I'm a Damn Dog Now, you're sitting there thinking, this plays pretty well now.
And those kinds of movies, at least in this building, we call rock-and-roll cinema, whether it's the Bloodstone picture [Train Ride to Hollywood], or some bizarre period piece like Girl on a Motorcycle or Smashing Time, which is basically Laurel and Hardy meet Absolutely Fabulous. In fact, I had a fellow write me a letter and say, "Are these the two characters who evolved into the characters on Absolutely Fabulous?" And I wonder if the people who did Absolutely Fabulous made that connection. And that excited me, but it won't help us sell any more. Smashing Time is almost a parody of a 60's film; but I love that, it's one of the reasons I love the Austin Powers thing. I'll Never Forget Old What's-is-name is a must-see because it's Oliver Reed at his best, but rock-and-roll cinema can be a movie that just has an attitude.
To me, maybe that's what Anchor Bay's about. It doesn't matter if it's Ilsa, or Repo Man, or a movie that's directed toward the small fry—in my opinion, they have an attitude. When I first saw Repo Man, in my mind, I said to myself, that movie's got an attitude and I love it! There had been movies like that but I hadn't connected with them. Alex Cox just made the movie he wanted to make—the fact it all worked out was just a big happy accident.
Movies and music are more inseparable—music didn't translate on TV except for the Ed Sullivan show. In a lot of ways, some of these movies ARE rock-and-roll. They are inseparable parts of the same thing. At least I tell myself that because that makes me think I'm in the music business.
On upcoming releases:
We're working on The Sword and the Sorceror—that film grossed over 40 million dollars in its day, and it holds up as well or better than the Conan films. It obviously didn't jumpstart Lee Horsley's career, but in a lot of ways it's one of those movies that people who were in their teens or pre-teens in the 80's fondly remember. I love to find those kinds of films.
One of the films I'm most excited about is Candy, because we're going to have a lot of fun with it—based on Terry Southern's book with all these big stars, the biggest stars in the world in this strange sex comedy that's basically preaching the glories of free love, and what better time to put that out than in the year 2000? It's got the music of the Byrds and Steppenwolf, all the bands of that time—that's rock-and-roll cinema if I ever saw it. I think the song Rock Me Baby by Steppenwolf was the sort of unofficial theme, and the Byrds had a song called Child of the Universe. And it's just such a trippy movie, and then here's Marlon Brando and James Coburn and Walter Matthau and Ringo Starr. This is shaping up to be like Casino Royale, and there's this beautiful Swedish model—no one remembers her name, but it doesn't matter anyway. It's almost like a "what were these people thinking?" film—and it plays, and it's funny and it's fun. You just couldn't do a movie like that now. They spent serious, serious money on this film—oh, my God—it was ironically almost easier to get an R rating on a film back then. The Kentucky Fried Movie today could not get an R rating. So you can imagine Candy, it was the stuff of legend that me and my friends had to sneak into.
On being in Detroit:
We're local here now, the pick-pack-and-ship was done in Tennessee, now it's done at Premiere, right here in Livonia, which is a throwback to Magnetic Home Video. People always go, 'what are you doing in Detroit?' In a lot of ways this is where home video was born—Magnetic Home Video was here in town, Thomas Video is the oldest video store in the country, they were in the business before there was even a VHS or Beta cassette. So Detroit is one of the cities where home video's roots are. I hate to say there's more reality here than in Los Angelesbut it's easier to work in Detroit because in Los Angeles I'm overwhelmed, I'm still nine years old—"was that Diane Keaton?" Being here, there's a little more normalcy. Next week, I've got a meeting with Cassandra Peterson to talk about doing something a little differentwhen I open my mouth I'll be nine years old.
On doing what he does:
I'm the luckiest guy in the world.
We were so busy talking, I forgot to ask our usual inane dOc Profile questions! And with everyone in Friday casual during my visit, I didn't want to intrude by taking personnel photos. But I did have the presence of mind to snap a couple of photos of Anchor Bay's offices -
Anchor Bay's Unassuming Exterior
Anchor Bay's Nerve Center and Screening Room