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Public-Domain Content: Quality vs. Quantity

22 Apr, 2013 By: Chris Tribbey

While home entertainment formats change, selling public domain content to consumers has remained a constant.

With public domain content, intellectual property rights aren’t relevant — there’s nothing to worry about in terms of licensing, royalties or acquisition costs. And from VHS to VOD, selling content that falls in the public domain has yet to go out of style.

Almost every well-loved public-domain title has seen multiple releases. The 1964 Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth? Available on DVD from Legend Films (twice), American International Pictures, TGG Direct and Desert Island Films, among others. Nosferatu from Kino Lorber has put it out on disc more than once, with Synergy Entertainment, Cobra Entertainment, Triad Productions Corp., MVD Visual and others offering a DVD version. Plan 9 From Outer Space, House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Reefer Madness … all public-domain titles that have been released by multiple distributors.

Likely the best example of a public-domain title run through the wringer by the home entertainment industry is George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. While previously available on VHS (from distributors both well known and mysterious), in 1999 Anchor Bay released the film on DVD, followed by more than a dozen other companies (ranging from 20th Century Fox to Gaiam) putting the film on disc. On March 5 this year, TGG Direct offered up its third DVD version of Night of the Living Dead.

Today, online retailers also are cashing in on well-known public-domain content. Nosferatu is technically free … but that doesn’t stop iTunes from charging $9.99 to “own” a copy or $2.99 to rent it. For Night of the Living Dead, iTunes charges $4.99 for a download. Buy it from Walmart’s Vudu or Best Buy’s CinemaNow services, and you can have this otherwise-free classic UltraViolet-enabled.

But while the stream of public-domain titles for home entertainment has never let up, several companies specializing in public domain say one important thing has changed in recent years: quality.

“You just can’t put out a really crummy version of Night of the Living Dead on Blu-ray today,” said Film Chest president Phil Hopkins, whose Bridgeport, Conn., company sells high-quality digital versions of public-domain films to DVD distributors (such as Mill Creek and VCI Entertainment) as well as iTunes, Amazon and Hulu. “People expect it to be pristine and beautiful. And this is the change in the industry.”

Barry Sandrew, founder of Legend Films (which has released versions of Night of the Living Dead, The Last Man on Earth, House on Haunted Hill and more), couldn’t agree more. He looks at the colorized versions of the public-domain films and TV shows his company has put out on disc in recent years — especially 3D Blu-ray versions of “The Little Rascals” and “The Three Stooges” — and stresses that it’s the quality of the product that’s attracted buyers.

“Quality is paramount, especially with public-domain films, because the range with quality can be so wide,” Sandrew said. “There are no advocates for public-domain feature films. No one is going to go out on their own and altruistically restore public-domain films.”

Dollar-bin, high-quantity, low-quality DVD sets of public-domain films and cartoons may still linger here or there, but there’s simply no longer any money in it for distributors, Hopkins said. However, Blu-ray collectors and discerning digital customers will pay handsomely for public-domain content done right, he added. He pointed to the high-def public-domain work done by both Criterion Collection (Fritz Lang’s 1931 M) and Kino Lorber (Lang’s 1927 Metropolis), as perfect examples.

“A lot of these films that have been kicking around in the public domain over the years have never seen a good transfer,” Hopkins said. “They’ve always come from video-sourced masters, [made] for these low-powered TV stations. That’s how a lot of these films were originally distributed.”

That’s a point echoed by Tom Moore, CEO and president of Plano, Texas-based Reel Media International — which dubs itself the world’s largest distributor of public-domain content. Films in the public domain used to be nothing but cheap fill-in for broadcasters, and before DVD nobody much cared about the quality of public-domain releases, he said.

Quality for public-domain content is important, but nostalgia can’t be dismissed, argues Ron Hall, president and founder of Festival Films — which offers public-domain masters for DVD authoring, TV broadcast and online distribution.

Exposing people to something they otherwise never would have seen is still important when it comes to public-domain releases, he said.

“Many public-domain films are lost, unknown or not yet released to the public,” Hall said. “Watching films no one has seen in recent years, ones without reviews or synopses on IMDb.com, is the most fun I have.”

Festival Films has supplied Mill Creek Entertainment, Alpha Video, Timeless Video and others with public-domain content for DVD releases; sold collections of public-domain cartoons, comedy shorts and serial chapters to theaters; and recently supplied Perth, Australia’s West TV with approximately 100 public-domain titles for broadcast.

“When vintage films and 1950s TV shows are broadcast free, the audience swells among seniors and those discovering the films for the first time,” Hall said. “This audience does not know the films are public domain and would never think to watch them on YouTube.”

Bill Clark, president of Anchor Bay Entertainment, said his company hasn’t released a public-domain title in a while, but has picked up independent films based on public-domain films, the most recent being Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead.

“From our point of view, it’s the use of public-domain titles within the independent film community that offers the largest area of growth,” Clark said.

Cartoons are another public-domain beast altogether.

Short-form animations of everything from “Casper” and “Popeye” to “Woody Woodpecker” and “Betty Boop” are out there for the taking (Mill Creek has released several public-domain cartoon collections, culminating with a massive collection of 600 public-domain cartoons in 2008; the company did not return requests for comment).

However, animation industry vets Manny Galán and Pat Giles are trying something new in the public-domain cartoon space: their “Captain Cornelius’ Cartoon Lagoon” project, an animated and puppet series, riffs on cartoons in the public domain.

Galán — a former animation director for Nickelodeon — said a partial impetus for the series was the poor treatment of public-domain cartoons, especially on DVD.

“You see all these old cartoons repackaged and reissued every quarter by multiple distributors, but it’s valuable material just waiting to be mined in the right way,” he said. “Hundreds of cartoons [for a few dollars] on DVD is an incredible value, but it’s such low value.

“Nobody curates it well. Nobody preserves the entertainment integrity.”

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