Author Archives: The Crane Operator
To Stream a Video
Prime being what it is and what it’s become, let us now discuss other streaming options. I’ve been asked a number of times why I’m not on Netflix. Let’s talk about that.
Places like Netflix, iTunes, cable/satellite or whatever, aren’t interested in dealing with small fry distributors — at least, not directly. You’ll need to go through an aggregator like Quiver or Walla (or one of dozens of others, but they’re the ones I’m familiar with). Aggregators don’t work out of the kindness of their heart: Walla is $1,000 plus 15% of the gross revenue and Quiver is a flat $1,400. That’s per title, per platform, and there may be issues of exclusivity, with or without carve-out. In the book publishing world, people would tell you that all of this is backwards — that it’s the publisher who should be paying you, not t’other way ‘round, but that’s how it go with videos on the Internet.
It gets very expensive very quickly. Netflix is a little cheaper — about $800 to submit a film — and if they pick it up, they give you a substantial amount of money for distribution rights, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that they will pick it up. More likely than not, you’ll just find yourself out $800. Netflix is barely in the distribution game anymore. They see themselves as a two-bit production house now. They want original material. You might have noticed that their classic content has vanished almost entirely, but pull back a little and take a look — their selection of non-original content has constricted to almost nothing in general.
(Edit: Seriously, look at it. Their selection is about 5,000 titles. The average video rental store in the ‘90s carried 10,000-15,000 and larger stores in college towns could have as much as 40,000. Netflix carries nothing. It’s a serious problem in film schools because films that were once on the syllabus are simply unobtainable now for most students.)
Similarly, Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, premium TV channels like Starz, etc., are closed systems, meaning you can’t just throw enough money at them to take your content — you’ve got to pitch it. Of the closed system, they’re the most “open”, which is why I single them out. Pitching is not a great deal of money, but neither is it free ($150, plus whatever the person who writes your pitch charges — pitching yourself is a bit like representing yourself in court), and the likelihood that they’ll want 100+ year old content is slim.
Now there’s the issue of length. Most silents are shorts, but even silent features tend to be on the short side. Amazon defines a feature as a film 60 minutes or longer (four reels at a silent-ish speed) whereas iTunes make the cut at 45 minutes (three reels). Most others are a lot more demanding and don’t term a film feature-length until it hits the 90 minute mark (six reels), which excludes most silent content. There is remarkably little interest in non-serialized shorts.
You know, when the talkies arrived, it wasn’t very many years before the studios abandoned their silent catalogues and either left the films to disintegrate through neglect or purposefully destroyed them. There would be no more market for silents, they said. As much as fans of silent films lament it, the fact is, the studios were right. They were absolutely right. The films were and are worth less than the shelf space they take up. The market is so vanishingly small as to not exist and the demand for new releases outside of Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and Metropolis is so minuscule that there may as well not be one. There’s still very much a market for new releases of those three — and two of them are even in the public domain. The third may still have a case or two in court — I don’t think the legality of copyright restoration in the US will be decided until the point is entirely moot.
For obscure silent films (and by “obscure” read “every single title not enumerated above”), I say you’re targeting a market of about five thousand people worldwide. There are some that would say I’m being incredibly generous and that the market of actual buyers and not simply well-wishers is really only about a thousand strong. Regardless, even if you pegged it as something absurd like 20,000, that’s still smaller than even the most niche horror sub-sub-sub-genre of direct to streaming schlock. There is no money — no money at all — in silent film, and while we may have the luxury of running money-losing businesses, the big players expect to turn a profit.
And there’s the odd thing with Amazon: as much as they’re chasing creators away and as frequently as they’ve been purging non-mainstream content lately, we’re getting record viewership and engagement numbers on our Prime videos. December used to be big back when people still bought DVDs. Nowadays, October is the season. The run-up to Halloween is when everyone is streaming — horror films, sure, but people are just watching more in general. We see a big bump in October, generally about three-times normal, but it contracts back a week or so into November. There was no contraction this year. We’re still at October numbers in mid-February, even after all the purges.
What am I leading up to? Not a thing. Just throwing all that out there. I could very well set up a DASH server and going into streaming myself — it’s not in the tiniest bit complicated, but I’d really rather not. There’s a reason my conception of an ideal digital market is one where you pay a one-time fee to download a DRM-free MP4 to do with as you feel fit. I don’t like being beholden to a service — any service — for access to content I’ve paid for, and I really don’t want anyone beholden to me. Suppose I die a year from now. It could happen. What then? No, I don’t like that.
Crowdsourcing is an option, but on the one hand, I don’t like being accountable to anybody, and on the other, I don’t know that there’s enough of a crowd to source from. If I did raise a couple thousand dollars, I wouldn’t spend it on streaming. There’s a project — a bit of a dream project — that I’ve had in mind for a long time that will cost about $2,000. I’ll do it at some point… at some point. That’s straying from the point, though, which is that Netflix ain’t gonna happen.
Oh, hint for next time, it’s an HD remaster of Heaven will Protect a Woiking Goil. What do you mean that wasn’t a hint? Anyway, I’d like to do a collection of tied-to-railroad-track parodies — there are a few of them.
Oh. I’ve said before, we normally get about 14,000 minutes streamed by Prime subscribers a month. That’s shot up to about 25,000 since last October. Remember how I said Prime royalty rates were now one fifteenth of what they had been? What are were making for those 25,000 minutes? Is it a dollar and sixty-two cents? Yes it is. I really, really hate to do it, but I’m going to have to disable the include with Prime option and just rent and sell through Amazon. I really hate to do it because I want people to watch the films, but a penny an hour is just an insult, Jeff. You’re worth billions, Jeff, give me my 15¢.
I finally got an answer for why Romeo and Juliet keeps getting disabled (and, incidentally, if you ever see one of our videos that Amazon says they can’t show due to rights issues with the creator or whatever — no, that means Amazon chooses not to show it — I have never disabled anything ever). It’s because IMDb doesn’t list us as a distributor of it. Except it does and has for almost as long as Prime Video has existed. Amazon is pondering that now and has been for about two weeks. Perhaps it will be reinstated.
The delay with the Amazon release of When the Tables Turned comes down to its rating. Most of the films I deal with aren’t rated (well, a good many are, but Amazon doesn’t recognize the National Board of Review as a ratings board), so you’ve got to self-rate, and by that, I mean you’ve got to guess what Amazon wants it rated. There are very few films I’d personally rate higher than all ages, but Amazon is conservative in the extreme. If there’s a hint of violence, however cartoonish, you’d best err on the side of 13+. If there’s any smoking shown, oh boy, that’s a 13+. Never had to do an 18+ yet, but I remember one video is 16+ — can’t remember which at the moment. When the Tables Turned has a mock kidnapping in it and that’s causing a lot of ruffled feathers. After some back and forth, I finally got an answer from Amazon that they want it rated 13, so it’s a waiting game now.
In the past, I’ve briefly touched on 9.5mm home movie abridgments sometimes representing all that’s known to survive of a film and how these abridgments are by and large ignored. It was the policy of some archives until rather recently to dispose of all their holdings of a film if any part of it showed decomposition — it’s little wonder these abridgments that are, by nature, incomplete would be beneath notice.
Some films are represented in an even more slight degree. Expensive crowd scenes may have been cannibalized in the sound era for stock footage — a bit of The Battle Cry of Peace survives for that reason — or they may have been lampooned in shorts like the Fractured Flickers series. To the transitional generation, who lived through the talkie revolution, silents were not only old hat — they were embarrassments — things that were only suffered to exist that they might be mocked.
About two and a half minutes of The Dust of Egypt survives by way of The Movie Album, a 1931 Vitaphone short. The Movie Album wasn’t as entirely derisive of its subject material as Fractured Flickers — not entirely. The clip actually represents a few fragments as the excerpt snips out quite a bit of material within itself, but all are from the climax, just before the ‘it was all a dream’ reveal.
Geoffrey Lascelles (Antonio Moreno) has just proposed to Violet Manning (Naomi Childers) and she’s accepted. After a night of celebration, Geoffrey stumbles back home to sleep off his intoxication. Enter Simpson (Charles Brown), Professor Johnson’s assistant. The Professor is on a dig in Egypt and sends back a mummy, but the museum is closed and Simpson wants to leave it with Geoffrey until morning.
In his dreams, Geoffrey envisions Ameuset (Edith Storey), a princess of Egypt. She’s bored with life. Her magician, Ani (Edward Elkas), offers her a love potion that cannot fail, but the Princess demands something new. He instead presents a potion that will transmit her through time — thousands of years into the future — to an age entirely unlike their own. She’ll find love there, he promises, and kiss but once, for the second kiss will make her “as the dust of Egypt”.
Startled awake by a sound in the sitting room, Geoffrey goes to investigate. He finds the mummy quite alive and it is the very princess of his dreams. She at first believes he is a magician like her own Ani, in that he commands light at the flick of his finger, but she soon finds amusement with modern technology — the seltzer bottle, especially, entertains her to no end.
Afraid of what it would look like to be found alone with a strange woman late at night, Geoffrey does the first thing that comes to mind and calls the Mannings. Violet is put out. Geoffrey’s tale of five thousand year old Egyptian princesses does not strike her as terribly credible, and as he has no other explanation for Ameuset, she returns his ring.
Violet provokes a rather extreme degree of jealousy in Ameuset. Geoffrey might not love her, but she’s surely taken to him. Suddenly she recalls Ani’s love potion and dumps it in Geoffrey’s glass. True to the sorcerer’s word, Geoffrey at once falls passionately in love with the Egyptian princess. The second kiss — —
Benson (Jack Brawn), Geoffrey’s butler, startles his master. He’s sorry to wake him so early, but a gust of wind tipped over the sarcophagus (or “the blooming mummy case”). Geoffrey inspects it to find it contains nothing but a desiccated mummy quickly turning to dust.
I have so much fun with reconstructions. I didn’t do a full one with The Dust of Egypt partly because there’s so little surviving footage and partly because I was working from an extremely limited number of stills. Most came from the novelization in Motion Picture Magazine, a couple from trade magazines, and a couple more from lobby cards I have. They were just about enough to present the story in a condensed form not much more elaborate than the summary above — to provide context to the surviving fragments and not strive far beyond that.
I can’t in good conscience give a rating. I can hardly tell what sort of a film it was from two and a half minutes of footage and a handful of stills. As it reads, the plot is pretty well bog standard for a mummy come to life comedy, but a well tread plot doesn’t mean the film couldn’t have tread it well. I like Edith Storey — I’ll say that.
Available from Harpodeon.
So, Amazon just announced their new Prime royalties rates, effective next year, will be one cent per hour. One shiny penny. For those just tuning in, Prime started at 15¢ per hour, then dropped to 6¢, then 4¢, and now it’s 1¢.
You know, this is probably it for me as far as Prime goes. Rent and buy, sure, but stream free with Prime? I think that’s going bye-bye very soon.
I believe I have referenced The Timber Queen (1922) before when speaking of Smashing Barriers (1919) in that the two serials share rather similar plots.
Ruth Reading (Ruth Roland) has just inherited the Reading Timber Tract, a valuable forest in the Far West, subsequent to her father’s death. Her cousin, James Cluxton (Val Paul), is in need of funds and wants to claim the forest for himself. His “evil genius”, Bull Joyce (Leo Willis), is instrumental in the plot, in that it’s him who attempts to murder Ruth several times. Don Mackay (Bruce Gordon), a wealthy young man who’s taken a job in the timberlands for the adventure of it, has fallen in love with Ruth and it’s crucial that she die before they marry, when the will declares that Ruth has inherited the forest for good.
Like Smashing Barriers, The Timber Queen is largely lost, but not so largely. UCLA has a handful of intact or intact-ish episodes, and another was abridged for home release — our video, episode twelve, “The Abyss”.
I have four 9.5mm releases of “The Abyss”. The first I obtained was a Spanish Pathé Baby release from 1926. The old SD video was sourced solely from this print. Next I obtained a British Pathescope release from 1927, a French Pathé Baby release from 1926, and an American Pathex release from 1929. All of them are different. The differences are slight between the Spanish and French prints — a frame or two more or less, but the exact same series of shots. The Pathescope is cut more noticeably different, but again, it’s the same shots. The Pathex occasionally has overlapping footage, but for the most part, it diverges entirely from all those that came before. Some shots are shorter than their corresponding Pathé Baby versions, but others are longer, and many are alternate takes altogether.
The Spanish and British titles are plainly translated from the French translation, excepting the character names, which are all over the place. The only commonality there is that the main character is called Ruth. I don’t know Spanish and can’t comment on how well it reads, but the English text sounds like a French person who isn’t entirely fluent in English wrote it. I understand French okay enough to see that it’s written like French, just using English words. The American titles do not come from the French. If they’re not original, they at least read more like a native English speaker wrote them. There are some discrepancies in re the character names — James Cluxton is named James Claxton, for instance — but they are, for the most part, correct.
The Pathescope’s image quality is rather poor. The French and Spanish Baby’s are about equal and I would say are good to very good, if a little soft. The Pathex I think edges out all of them in terms of sharpness and contrast, but it is badly cropped.
All of the abridgments are in two sixty foot bobbins — running about six minutes, give or take for projection speed and how long you linger on the titles, but taking all the unique footage and joining it together, it comes out to more than ten minutes. That’s still about half the length of the original episode, but that’s not bad as abridgments go.
The opening title sequence is based on The Haunted Valley, another Ruth Roland serial from the same period. I also modeled the font on The Haunted Valley’s. “Patheserial”, I call it. Pathé latterly used Pastel, which there’s no need to re-create when Silentina’s already available, but Pastel was created in 1924. Fonts are often an instant give-away that the titles are replacements from a later release — that’s how I knew the titles in the surviving print of The Inside of the White Slave Traffic could not very well have been made in 1913 when the font they use is a decade younger than that. I don’t think the original “Patheserial” was an actual font — I think it was hand drawn like Vitagraph’s lettering — but it’s more or less consistent in The Haunted Valley. Gaudy, but consistent. I suppose Vitagraph’s is gaudy, too, but I’m just so used to it, I don’t notice. With the contrast boosted, you can actually see the faint pencil lines drawn on Vitagraph title cards to keep the text straight. (And read “typeface” where I say “font” if you want to be pedantic, but I don’t care — it’s a font so far as I’m concerned.)
You know, it’s funny how, until quite recently, these 9.5mm abridgments were wholly disregarded. it was just me and a couple others who acknowledged that they were a thing and actually do represent surviving footage, which is weird given how fragmentary even “intact” films are — most are missing a more or less significant amount of footage — and the fact that there is no definitive version of any silent film. Multiple negatives were assembled from different takes to strike prints to be sent hither and yon, and those were all cut severely by every censor whose hands they crossed. I really don’t think it was until the Cagliostro (1929) release that abridgments hit the mainstream — if there is such a thing as mainstream in the silent film world. Cagliostro was a bit forward in its claims of being a rediscovered film. The home movie abridgment it was 95% sourced from has never been unavailable since its release in ‘31.
I like it. Ruth isn’t as strong or as satisfying a character as Helen in Smashing Barriers, but the stunt work on the runaway boxcar is top notch and the finale — Don swinging on the lasso and catching Ruth just before the car goes off the edge of the cliff — had to have taken a lot of preparation and planning.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Let’s have a post for the mere sake of posting and to let you know I’m alive and still in business — although Amazon has had another round of random purges.
Here’re a couple views of Daggett Rock taken in 2008 or a bit earlier. The more that I think on it, the more I’m convinced it was 2007, but I’ll not be bothered to change a YouTube description.
Daggett Rock is a local-ish natural attraction that, like most Maine attractions, does its best to keep tourists away. It’s down a long single-lane dirt road winding around a mountain followed by a half-mile trek up a ravine until you hit a clearing in the woods. There you’ll find a big rock historically called “The Big Rock” until the Daggett’s bought the land it sits on. It’s the largest glacial erratic in New England, although it split in three pieces under its own weight as the glacier receded. There’s a person in a light-colored shirt milling around both views for scale. You can walk around it, walk through the cracks, and there are usually some logs propped-up on it if you’re game enough to shimmy up them and reach the top. There’s a Victorian-era brickwork bench if you’d like your picture taken in front of it, as travelers have done for some 150 years.
The views were taken with my silent-era camera on a couple 36-exposure cartridges of Tri-X film bought at the local pharmacy — the film pulled out and wound onto spools in a changing bag in the trunk of the car. It was developed in much the same way, bucket-style, with the processing stripped down to just a developer bath and then fixer. The transfer, I’m sure, was just videotaping the view port of my upright Movieola that I watch all my 35mm film on.
I mostly remember hauling the camera and tripod, which have to weigh 30 pounds combined, up the ravine, which is not the easiest hike in the world. It was barely Spring and the rocks were still coated in ice. Going back downhill was much worse than the ascent.
Every video has been relisted except Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (1918) because I think Amazon thinks it’s porn — it’s not, it’s using “boob” in the sense of “foolish person”; and Romeo and Juliet (1911) for reasons that are beyond me. Nearest I can tell is that it’s only part two, and that’s for the very good reason that part two is the only part that exists, but then again, they’ve got no issue with The Timber Queen and that’s only part twelve.
Cinderella (1911) they initially rejected because they said the title wasn’t visible in the key art. It’s literally written in a highway sign font — DIN 1451 very closely matches the Thanhouser house typeface — bold, white, with a thick black outline, sized to cover as much of the image as possible. I fail to imagine how more visible it could be. I submitted it again and it went through the second time.
Amazon’s ways are not our ways.
Quick note to those who follow this blog for news on Harpodeon. We’re temporarily closed due to a personal health issue. Hopefully we’ll return quickly.
Digital sales are back. Physical sales will be halted for another few weeks yet.
Some of the physical products (the ones we actually keep stock of and don’t just make on demand) are back online, both on the website and on eBay.
Just watched Be Natural, the recent documentary on Alice Guy-Blaché. My mother was hounding me to find out if we were credited for the footage we supplied and we were. She’s so much more caught up in that sort of thing than I am. Me, I don’t care, and plus, I rather trusted we would be. We’ve supplied footage to any number of documentaries and always have been without asking. There was a lovely documentary about some theatre in England that had a poster of The Juggernaut out front and we supplied footage of the train wreck. I watched that but I’ve forgotten what the title was, sorry. Also that William S. Hart thing that wanted footage of The Gun Fighter. Never saw that one, I’m not even certain what exactly it was, but the producer was quite polite. No budget affair so we didn’t charge anything. Standard fee is a flat $100 per title, but only budget allowing. Something to do with Ruth Roland wanted our episode of The Timber Queen, which is the only one available on video. They were in Florida — I remember that. I really don’t keep track of this sort of thing, if you couldn’t tell, and it all gets rather misty. Pamela Green licensed both Across the Mexican Line and A Severe Test — our copies being the only known extant of both — but they only used the former. I can’t say I’m surprised, as an objectively bad blackface suicide comedy doesn’t show Guy in a terribly good light. When they brought up Vinnie Burns and Marian Swayne and didn’t show a clip of Severe Test then, I knew they weren’t going to at all.
They should have got our copy of La Vie et la Passion de Christ (1906). We’ve got an excellent print of that — far better than the one they used. At some point I’ve a mind to scan it, clean it up, score it, and release it on DVD/Blu-Ray with the three Henri Andréani films. That would be longer than an hour — I’ve got a bit of a bugaboo there: I hate discs shorter than an hour. But I’ve a mind to do so many things at some point.
I didn’t know if the phone call recording would be used. It wasn’t and I’m rather glad it wasn’t — I’m not a public person. It was just rambling talk about film collecting. Snips of it were included in one of the Kickstarter videos, which I have to say nettled me a little, but I’ve quite gotten over it. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how she found my number.
Was it an untold story? No, not really — not to those familiar with silent cinema, and it had been mostly covered already — but I’m quite ready to assume the general public have never heard of her. I’m sure their knowledge of pre-1920 cinema begins and ends with Chaplin and maybe, maybe Griffith among some of the more well informed laymen. A fine effort. I don’t belittle anyone who wants to extend silent cinema to a new generation. I think I’ve told this anecdote before, but I was once at a film screening of a Victor Sjöström drama and a man behind me that I wasn’t familiar with (it’s not a big town — everyone is going to notice a stranger) made a comment after the show that he wasn’t aware they made serious films in the silent era — thought it was all slapstick, he did.
So here’s a film that I wasn’t entirely aware that I had. I was looking through some early Vitagraph shorts to see if any included Edith Storey in an uncredited role and stumbled upon The Men Haters Club (1910). I’m not sure she’s in it — certainly not in any major capacity and I’m not convinced she’s in the background either — but it’s an interesting short nonetheless.
A man and a woman are out walking. The man pulls out his handkerchief and letter falls out with it. Seeing that it’s from another girl, the woman takes off her engagement ring and storms away. She runs into her friends — eight or ten of them — and tells all. Thus the foundation of the Men Haters Club is laid.
The M.H.C. plan an island camping trip. On the dock, they’re overheard by their various spurned beaux. The boys form the F.G.C. — the Follow the Girls Club — and set up camp about a mile further down the coast. That night, while the M.H.C. sleeps, the F.G.C. infiltrates their camp, pokes a hole in their tent, and dangles in a rubber spider. In the confusion that follows, the M.H.C. tent is knocked down and the women have to spend the night outside, where they’re beset by negative scratches that I at first thought was a highly localized and out of season snow storm, but on second thought are probably supposed to be mosquitoes.
In the morning, the F.G.C. comes to render aid, but are disappointed. The M.H.C. have already paid an old coot (a random fisherman, maybe? I seriously have no idea who this guy is) to re-establish their camp. The F.G.C. wanders off with its tails between its legs.
That evening, while the M.H.C. is eating their dinner, a couple of tramps appear. The women duck into the tent while the tramps eat their food. When they’ve had their fill, they start to approach the tent. “Help! Help!” The F.G.C., never very far away, rushes to the scene, grab the offending hobos, and chuck them into the sea. In the morning, the two clubs decide to merge into the M.A. — the Matrimonial Alliance.
I suppose that moral of the story is that infidelity followed by stalking and juvenile pranks don’t matter at all if you’re on hand to dunk a random menacing bum. I don’t remember that one from Aesop. I said the film was interesting, not good. Despite the entire film being set outdoors, every scene feels claustrophobic. It’s all medium shots and the actors have to stand shoulder to shoulder to fit in. Zero use of depth — whoever directed this must have simply told the actors to stand in a line and gesticulate. I’ve no idea who directed it or who the actors are. One of the ladies is perhaps Florence Turner, but I won’t be sure of that until I scan it at a high resolution and can really see her face clearly. I’m even holding out hope that one of the several friends — the one in the big, flat topped hat with a black feather — could be Edith Storey.
My rating: I don’t like it.
(Read the title in a spooky voice. Maybe imagine lightning booming in the background.)
Now let us bring up the specter of the gray market. A print of a film is in the public domain or it isn’t. There are no shades of gray there. We’re not involving donor restrictions if you’re sourcing from an archive print — that’s another matter entirely — but if you possess a print of a film unencumbered by copyright, that print is yours to do with as you see fit. The film belongs to everyone and that includes you — that’s the very concept of the public domain.
The “gray market” does not exist. It’s a term invented by publishers to discredit resellers, especially those legitimately buying items cheaply in one market and reselling them in another market that the publisher is trying to price-gouge. Think buying a textbook in East Asia and reselling it in the US, where the same book retails for a hundred times more. This is perfectly legal as the courts have ruled numerous times. It is the right of first sale, as expressly defined by section 109 of title 17 of the US Code. All the publisher can do to legitimize their price inflation is to try and tarnish the resellers by linking them to black market bootleggers and counterfeiters in the minds of potential buyers. That’s what the “gray market” is.
Now there are orphan works where the trail of ownership has been lost and nobody is quite sure who the film might belong to. Releasing these films is sometimes referred to as “gray market” but it isn’t. It’s simply piracy — black market — but it’s banking on the fairly safe bet that whoever does own the film has no idea that they do and will not pursue the infringement. Harpodeon does not deal in orphan works, but I personally have no issue with pirating films in this case — there’s zero chance you’ll see them otherwise.
There are those who won’t watch releases from Grapevine, Alpha, etc. — including Harpodeon, of course — because they’re “gray market” distributors, and frankly, that’s idiotic. Their videos are no less legitimate than those from Kino and a great deal more legitimate those from Edition Filmmuseum. Now, Alpha’s image quality ranges from passable to you’re not even sure if there’s a picture beneath the murk and avoiding them in that case is understandable. Granted, several of our videos are sourced from very poor prints — that’s why we try to be upfront about the quality and why we provide screenshots and video clips to give an unvarnished idea what the print looks like. There are those that want perfection and would rather have nothing than fall short of it. They usually get nothing. Far be it from me to call them wrong, but when it comes to rare films, I’ll take what I can get and be happy it’s available at all.
You’ll see this idea frequently in old Usenet discussions but there are those that cling desperately to it still that one who restores a film then has some copyright claim on it. To begin with, there’s a question of what “restoration” means. In some cases, it means a great deal of work assembling disparate elements and working backwards to find what the original release must have looked like. It can mean nothing more than cleaning and transferring the film, with the cleaning either done chemically/mechanically to the film before the transfer or digitally after. Some “restorations” don’t even bother with the cleaning bit: restoration can simply refer to finding a definitive print and copying it. And let’s not pretend, “definitive” in this case often means “the one we have”.
For all our post-HD releases and the later SD releases as well, we chemically clean the film itself, transfer it, disassemble it into its individual shots, stabilize the image of each shot, diminish or remove the flickering, adjust the levels, diminish the grain where it’s become excessive from multiple generations of copying, sharpen it, tint it where the tints are known or can be confidently guessed, and then reassemble the film. Particularly distracting damage (e.g., a torn sprocket hole on 9.5mm, which leaves a heavy scratch up the center of the film) is painted out frame by frame. If the titles in the master are replacements (all Excel prints from the 1930s, for example — they didn’t use the original Selig titles) or if they’re badly cropped (example of what I’m talking about from The Juggernaut) or illegible, then the titles are re-created to more resemble the originals. When we have several prints of a film, all of them are transferred and combined in the chance that one print has more or longer scenes than another. When you’re dealing with old film, absolutely no two prints are identical.
Of course, the more slavish your restoration work is to bring the film back to its original release form, the less eligible for copyright protection it becomes. That’s where the old Usenet argument falls flat on its face. There may be a great deal of labor involved in restoring a film but no creativity at all. Copyright protection is about promoting creativity. If your goal is a copyrightable work, then you don’t want to restore anything, you want to transform it into something new. For silent films in the past, that was commonly done by replacing the titles with your own or by Raymond Rohauer’s old trick of rearranging the scenes to tell a slightly different story, but that’s mostly fallen out of favor nowadays. The “special content” copyrights you see claimed on public domain titles refer only to original content, i.e. the score.
The definitive case on photographic copyright law in the US is Bridgeman v. Corel (1999), which found that “a photograph which is no more than a copy of a work of another as exact as science and technology permits lacks originality. That is not to say that such a feat is trivial, simply not original.” The last line is a reference to Feist v. Rural (1991), which established that labor and skill are immaterial to copyright and a collection of uncopyrightable material remains uncopyrightable no matter how much work went into it. Simply put, “the sine qua non of copyright is originality.” This was expanded upon in Assessment Technologies v. Wiredata (2003), which found that a work based on public domain material that nevertheless meets the threshold of originality for copyright protection still has no claim on the underlying public domain material itself. Further, any attempt to assert such a claim is considered an abuse of process, forfeiting whatever intellectual property case they might have had and simultaneously opening themselves to countersuit. They cannot prevent anyone from extracting the underlying public domain material for their own use, or for undoing whatever transformative process made the work original in order to access the public domain material. Cases like Bridgeman v. Corel have been brought several times since with the exact same outcome, as in Meshwerks v. Toyota (2008), which found again that “reproductions do nothing more than accurately convey the underlying image” and are ineligible for copyright.
This is for the US copyright law, elsewhere may vary. Canada is more or less the same with regard to creativity (see Tele-Direct v. American Business Information (1997)). From my little familiarity with EU law, I know that whatever their objective for copyright is, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense and isn’t at all consistent. I wouldn’t be surprised if labor is considered there, even if it isn’t transformative, particularly if such a ruling would be protectionist to a member country.
As for what is transformative, the bar is rather high. Bugs alone may deter copying but are not transformative enough to qualify for protection. That’s doubly true if the bug is blurred or blacked-out in the copy. But really, you stop caring so much about your films being “stolen” when you accept that they were never yours to steal. Rohauer didn’t give a damn about film beyond his ability to monetize and litigate it. Don’t be Rohauer. If you want to get into releasing silent films, get into it because you want to release silent films, and don’t expect to make a dime.
Jack (William Duncan) is in college on an economics degree. He evidently isn’t studying too hard since he’s blown all his cash going out with his friends, singing college songs badly out of tune. He writes to his father for more. It’s the high cost of living, he says, but dear old dad knows it’s really the cost of high living.
Dad writes to Jack’s sister Grace (Corinne Griffith), who lives near the college, and tells her it’s high time Jack settled down. Introduce him to some girl, he says. Corinne calls up her friend Helen (Carmen Phillips) and invites Jack over. He ditches the instant he figures out what’s up to go party with his friends.
At the restaurant, after downing bottle after bottle of liquor, they get to singing. One of Jack’s friends, infuriated that Jack’s ruining their harmony, rips up the tablecloth and wraps it around Jack’s head. “Help — help!” he cries. The new cop on the beat hears the commotion and comes to investigate. Too inebriated to deal with the law, the gang scatters. Jack ducks into a swanky mansion. “Are you the new butler?”
He is now. The cop is still prowling around outside, precluding any escape for our unmusical drunkard. Jack’s not a very good butler, what with spilling the food tray, trampling on feet, and openly flirting with his employer’s attractive daughter. The cook (Anne Schaefer) is sweet on the new cop and invites him into the kitchen. A brief but spirited tussle ensues when he spots Jack. Grace, who’s come to visit her friend Helen — for, of course, Jack had to duck into Helen’s house — intervenes: Jack is there for some real-world experience in his study of kitchen economies. That’s pretty much the end, but it doesn’t seem like Jack will flee from Helen this time.
Another boozy Vitagraph short, but unlike Bingles Mends the Clock, it doesn’t try to mine comedy from child abuse. Jack singing off-key when in his cups is rather less off-putting. The humor certainly goes down easier.
Duncan had been a contract player at Selig and featured in quite a few western shorts before making the move to Vitagraph. The Cost of High Living comes from his somewhat awkward transitory period before A Fight for Millions established him as a serial superstar. In the long run, that really worked against him as the serial format shifted away from serious drama and more into kiddy fare in the late ‘20s and into the talkie era. It was character roles of diminishing prominence for Duncan from then on out.
My rating: I like it.
Pioneer Trails has been available online for a couple weeks. The Blu-Ray and DVD are now available on Amazon. We’ll sell the DVD directly at some indefinite future date, but if you want a Blu-Ray, go ahead and get it from Amazon — we probably won’t ever sell it. The smallest number of Blu-Rays I can economically have made is 25, and like I was telling someone about the Juggernaut disc, I’ll probably still be working through those 25 for the next five years. Outside of collectors, DVD as a medium is dying fast and Blu-Ray never even lived. We don’t move much physical inventory anymore. DVD is a lot cheaper and I can get smaller quantifies, so we’ll probably only ever stock Pioneer Trails on that. We usually keep five discs on hand, although the recent J. Warren Kerrigan set sold better than was anticipated and I had to get another ten to keep pace with orders.
What’s the next video out? I don’t know — it will be an HD remaster of something. What’s on the horizon, though, is something I announced, like, five years ago, but then we switched to HD and my old source wasn’t good enough. It’s coming straight from 35mm now. On an entirely, entirely unrelated note, I pulled a magic lantern slide out of my collection. This one shows the construction of a building in Boston in 1914 and there’s nothing at all phantasic about it: