SILENTS ARE GOLDEN: INTERVIEW WITH JEFF MASINO Image

For many DVD addicts, the most desired titles are the films that were in theaters eight weeks ago – not eight decades ago. However, an indefatigable indie distributor is dedicated to bringing forth a wealth of long-lost silent classics to DVD. The results have been an extraordinary celebration of classics and curios from the early years of cinema.

Jeff Masino, through his company Flicker Alley, is in the forefront in presenting the finest of the silent screen to today’s DVD viewers. And if you’re expecting another scratchy 16mm dupe of “The Phantom of the Opera” or “Metropolis” playing at the wrong speed, you’re in luck – Masino’s releases are true rarities that have brought raves from movie lovers who’ve been searching for years to locate these elusive titles.

Founded in 2002 and working in partnership with such diverse sources as Blackhawk Films, Turner Classic Movies and the French company Lobster Films, Masino’s Flicker Alley has already presented three silent films produced by Howard Hughes that were not seen since their initial release in the late 1920s – “The Mating Call,” “The Racket” and the Academy Award-winning “Two Arabian Knights.” Masino has also released F.W.Murnau’s rarely-seen “Phantom” (1922), the landmark 1917 serial “Judex,” Lewis Milestone’s 1928 “The Garden of Eden” starring 1920s icon Corinne Griffith, and a two-disc collection of Rudolph Valentino’s features including reconstructions of the long-lost “The Young Rajah” (1922) and “Stolen Moments” (1920).

The latest offering from Masino is “Discovering Cinema,” a two-disc DVD tracing the wild and often weird technological experiments that brought color cinematography and sound recording to motion pictures. The discs include a wealth of marvelous special features, with rare early sound films of operatic icon Enrico Caruso and the groundbreaking 1934 Oscar-winning Technicolor short “La Cucaracha,” presented in its hilarious entirety.

Film Threat caught up with Masino at his Los Angeles office to discuss his pursuit of silent cinema.

What inspired you to start Flicker Alley?
I have always loved and have been fascinated by films and film history. As a kid, I loved those large-format learning/activity books in which you could cut out and construct poster board replicas of a Phenakistoscope and a Zoetrope (it all seems very ‘70s now, before video games and before the Internet).

As a teenager, I made Super 8 films with friends and started collecting silent 8 mm shorts from Blackhawk Films in Davenport, Iowa. Later, in college, I interned at Film Technology Company in Hollywood, which has long specialized in preservation work. I knew at some point that I would want to do something more entrepreneurial with old films, but didn’t know what.

Prior to my company’s launch, I was an L.A.-based managing director for the California AIDS Ride, an annual week-long San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bicycling fundraising event. Our offices in Hollywood were near those of film collector Michael Yakaitis, and it was through his Library of Moving Images (and another film collector, Alan Boyd) that I licensed the film materials for the first Flicker Alley DVD, “The Garden of Eden,” in 2002, the same year that I started the company. Fortuitously, a frequent collaborator whose work I had admired, Robert Israel, was also based in Los Angeles, and we became friends around that time as well.

Is there a market in today’s DVD world for silent movies? And what have been the challenges and strategies you’ve faced in getting the word out on your titles?
Absolutely! It is the lesson of “The Long Tail,” the theory popularized by Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson, that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream studio-produced DVDs and mass retail distribution) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of “specialty market” niches in the tail, driven in part by the Internet, which has allowed the costs of distribution to become cheaper and has provided a means by which more people can become educated about film history. I’ve tried to use this (and low overhead) to my advantage with Flicker Alley – since I am not entrenched in the traditional “bricks and mortar” retail store route, I rely on online promotion and sales.

Early on, I realized that since I do not own or produce original content, but I am in fact competing for resources available to others (e.g. digitally re-mastering films in the public domain), I had be strategic in picking projects that were historically and artistically interesting, not already represented in the broadcast/home video marketplace, and available. Beyond that, the other important way to try to differentiate my work was to focus on quality as much as possible, taking cues from other successful producers before me, such as David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates, Kino on Video, and Milestone Film & Video.

Still, in such a crowded marketplace, it continues to be a challenge to get the word out and home video (like any industry) is constantly faced with looming technology shifts. I’m watching and weighing other forms of content distribution such as electronic sell-through, content streaming, and even wireless delivery, but those changes might take awhile with the type of specialty product we produce.

The release of the Howard Hughes films, particularly the “Two Arabian Knights” – the sole film to win the one-time-only Oscar category for Best Comedy Direction – was quite a coup. How were you able to bring back those long-missing films?
I was really only able to do it through the passion, and support of my partners on that project, Turner Classic Movies and the Department of Film at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

At UNLV, Prof. Hart Wegner worked for several years to bring the Hughes collection to UNLV, as he saw it as the cornerstone for a serious film research facility. I made several trips to meet with Hart and Film Dept chairman Francisco Menendez during the spring and summer of 2003 (and with the urging and support of film historian Kevin Brownlow). Finally, by early 2004, Charlie Tabesh at Turner Classic Movies was fully committed to making new digital broadcast editions of these films a reality. A highlight for me from this project was to be able to introduce them at the festival Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, Italy.

What can contemporary audiences learn and appreciate from “Discovering Cinema”?
I hope that a contemporary audience would appreciate how vibrant the era of early cinema was and how new technologies were used to bring color and sound to fruition in filmmaking almost from the very beginning. It really was a creative period as I think the filmmakers and historians connected with these documentaries demonstrate.

One can learn that, in a way, people still strive to creatively harness technology the same way. I thought it very appropriate that DTS CDs were shown at the end of Learning to Talk, to bring full circle the development and use of much earlier, mechanical sound-on-disc synchronous record systems, such as Vitaphone.

What are the next titles coming from Flicker Alley?
I am excited and honored to be working with David Shepard (along with film historians Eric Lange and Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films, Paris) on a slate of home video titles from the Blackhawk Films Collection for release in 2008 and 2009. The next title in January 2008 will be a three-disc compilation, “Saved from the Flames,” based in part upon the DVD series “Retour de Flamme” from Lobster Films and upon films from The Blackhawk Collection.

Following that will be “George Melies: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913),” which will be an unprecented and definitive multi-disc collection, several years in the making, of nearly 150 rare, rediscovered, and restored Melies films, plus a tribute called “Le Grand Melies” by Georges Franju, and essays by filmmaker Norman McLaren and film historian John Frazer.

Following that will be completely new digital editions of two Abel Gance films made before “Napoleon”: “J’Accuse” (1919) and “La Roue” (1922), again done with the enthusiastic support and partnership of Turner Classic Movies, with new restoration work being carried out by the Netherlands Filmmuseum, Lobster Films in Paris, Film Preservation Associates, and many others, and containing new orchestral scores composed, arranged, and recorded by Robert Israel. In short, I think that it will be a great time.

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