Category Archives: Off topic
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.
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.
(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.
It’s been two months and I can say a bit about how this has affected us:
As for search order and recommendations, I can’t see any difference. There’s been no change at all in viewership numbers, either in general or for specific titles.
As for royalties, I can’t say yet. At the same time Amazon rolled out their other changes, they also eliminated royalty estimates for Amazon US. Amazon UK and Germany still report them — presumably because they’re legally mandated to, I can’t imagine any other reason — but they make up a negligible number compared to Amazon US. For the US, you don’t know what you’re going to get until it shows up on your bank statement, and Prime payments are massively delayed. I’ve only just gotten my royalties for January. It will be another few months yet before I know what I made in April, but I think my prior estimate will be correct. We consistently get about 14,000 minutes streamed per month by Prime subscribers. With a 33% pay cut, that’ll work out to about $13.
As for the video removals and Amazon’s statement that they will not reconsider them… yeah. Just submit them again, unchanged. With only one exception — the 1911 version of Romeo and Juliet — that’s worked for me. One thing to say here: Prime has zero ability to distinguish one video from another if they have the same title. Amazon generally distinguishes products by UPC, which is not without its own problems. It’s a common scam to buy legitimate products and return counterfeits, which Amazon then freely mixes in their warehouses. That’s one of the reasons Amazon has become about as reliable as a sketchy flea market. Prime videos, though, have no UPC. You might think they’d go with a combined key — like title, date, and studio — but no, it’s just title. Now, that leads to conflicts, and conflicts seem to be resolved based on which side is bigger. If you’ve got a video that, say, shares a title with a Disney film, maybe clarify it by adding the date in parentheses. That should take care of most problems you’ll encounter.
Oh, and did I break this story? While Amazon’s intentions have been clear at least since February, there seemed to be nothing about this specific purge until Natalie Jarvey’s article in The Hollywood Reporter a couple weeks ago.
Pioneer Trails is fast on the way. It will also be available on Blu-Ray/DVD with a couple other Vitagraph western shorts as a bonus.
Amazon Instant, I mean Amazon Video, I mean Prime Video, I mean… whatever it’s called this month, has been gearing up for another retooling.
Their sorting and recommendation algorithm, which at the moment does not seem to exist — video are not ordered in any way that I can discern — is now going to be based on engagement. And we certainly know from Google that that’s never led to extremism. Amazon’s idea of “engagement”, though, seems to be less about reinforcing topics until you’ve created a dangerous echo chamber than it is pushing the mainstream. That’s not what engagement means, but what do I know? Specific examples they give include the film having an IMDb page and a recognizable star. Now, again, what do I know, but IMDb pages are user-created. It has a far lower barrier of entry than even Wikipedia. You’d think Amazon would be aware of that, what with them owning IMDb and all. I’m not terribly certain what qualifies a star but I’m sure Amazon isn’t being ambiguous on purpose.
Prime royalties, meanwhile, which started at 15 cents an hour, then dropped to 6 cents, will now be dropped to 4 cents. (Or raised to 10 cents, if your black-box-no-you-can’t-see-it engagement score is high enough. I’m going to go out on a limb and say roughly 100% of accounts will see their royalties drop, plus or minus 0%.)
None of that ordinarily would concern me. If the roughly $20 I make a month from Prime subscribers drops to $13, what of it? It’s already dropped from $50. That’s just Amazon being Amazon. As I’ve said before, I really only care about getting the films out there, and if I make a bit of money to get more films out there, all the better. Prime, its warts notwithstanding, was one of the best streaming services left for old films. I mean, Netflix has almost none left. And that’s the issue now: with its push for the mainstream, Amazon has begun purging non-mainstream content. Already five of our videos are deactivated, regardless of their ratings, reviews, or retention rates. I expect that number will climb.
Nothing I can do about it, I’m afraid. Amazon pointedly has no appeal process and will not disclose their reasons for doing anything. I was speaking recently to someone who lamented that we didn’t sell much physical media anymore. The simple reason I gave was that nobody wants it — DVD sales have fallen precipitously in the last few years and Blu-Ray was always dead in the water. People, by and large, prefer streaming, but that does put both the customer and the seller completely at the mercy of the streaming service, which might go out of business tomorrow or might decide it no longer wants to cater to you. So Amazon goes the way of Netflix.
Oh, hint for the next episode… ah… Cullin Landis… Alice Calhoun… runaway… stagecoach… you know, it’s Pioneer Trails.
I haven’t posted anything here in a long while, for reasons good and bad. To name one of the good ones, I’ve got my harpsichord back after it being in storage and dragged up and down the eastern seaboard for the last five years (and back up again — thank every god past, present, and future that I’m back home in Maine), and it’s been a great deal of fun getting back into playing it. I love the harpsichord above all other instruments. To name another, there’s Emma, my new cat. She’s the first pet I’ve had in, what, twelve years? Thirteen? Good little while, anyway. And I’ve been working on my first Blu-Ray. What else would it be but The Juggernaut?
It’s funny to imagine how much of the silent era survives because of one person, and it’s funny to imagine how little celebrated they are for it. The person I’m talking about now is John Griggs. Griggs was an actor, mostly on the radio but he featured in several TV series in the 1950s and ‘60s. Griggs was also a film collector, which wasn’t a terribly safe hobby in those days. Remember, the prints were only rented to exhibitors — they remained the property of the studio. The studio may not and usually did not care if they ever got them back once they’d finished their run, but if instead of destroying them someone were to take those prints home and watch them themselves — then the studio had a problem. Police raids of film collections were not infrequent. Griggs flirted even closer with disaster, as he not only collected the prints, he made copies of them onto safety film stock.
I believe he began collecting in the ‘30s — at a time when the majority of silent films still existed — but by the ‘60s, he’d started selling 16mm and 8mm reduction prints of the titles in his collection that had lapsed into the public domain, distributing them under the name Griggs-Moviedrome. I have several of those releases and they’re a lot of fun. TCM not long ago aired Salome and there was much rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth on the Internet that it wasn’t the five-reel restoration made from the George Eastman House print. What they showed was the three-reel Griggs-Moviedrome version, complete with his endearingly crude hand-drawn title cards. I’ve got a print of that Salome and I’ve always cherished it. Similarly, I have prints of both the original release of The Heart of Texas Ryan and the Griggs-Moviedrome version, and I greatly (and I mean greatly) prefer the latter.
On his death in 1967, John Griggs’s collection became the Yale Film Study Center archive.
The Juggernaut, or at least the two known surviving reels of it, survives because of John Griggs and only because of him. Griggs somehow obtained original nitrate positives of the two reels. From these he struck a 16mm reduction negative to preserve the film, which was already beginning to decompose and wouldn’t have lasted much longer — reel two, especially, is in rough shape. A handful of 16mm prints were made from this negative. One now rests at the Yale archive. One was bought by fellow film collector Karl Malkames. When Malkames died in 2010, at least parts of his collection was broken apart and sold piecemeal. His Juggernaut is now my Juggernaut.
(Edit: I originally had Bob Monkhouse here, as he died not so very long ago, his collection was broken apart as well, and I’ve got a few prints from it, but the Griggs Juggernaut came to me by way of Malkames. I’ve checked the info card I’ve got stuck in the can just now to make sure.)
If it’s not obvious why that acquisition was such a coup, let me step back and explain a bit. Film is spoken of in generations. The image imprinted on the film running through the camera — the camera negative — is the first generation. The release prints struck from the camera negative are the second generation. Griggs’s reduction negative duped-down from the release print is the third generation. Prints struck from Griggs’s negative, such as Yale’s or Malkames’s, are then the fourth generation. I’ve said before, the picture quality gets worse and worse with each successive generation. There are more common sources. Blackhawk, for example, released part of The Juggernaut in the late ‘60s on 16mm and Super 8mm for the home market, retitled A Plunge Through the Trestle, but those were at least eighth and more probably tenth generation prints. To get a fourth generation — of which there are likely fewer than ten in existence — that’s something.
So what was I saying? Oh yeah, John Griggs, great guy — it’s a shame he isn’t better appreciated. Also, watch out for The Juggernaut on Blu-Ray soon.
Our 2017 reconstruction of The Juggernaut is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD. Amazon only at the moment, until the website is reconfigured to handle Blu-Rays. We’re the 63,798th best seller! Can we crack the 63,797th place? Tune in next week to find out that we probably haven’t, no.
You may have noticed the “now playing” video didn’t change when it should. Well, those watching on YouTube. The website is all automated and can get around all on its lonesome but YouTube, I actually have to put up and take down now playings.
The short answer is that I was in the Intensive Care Unit on Saturday, and the long answer is that I was discharged today. So that’s nice. Miss Rovel (1921) is mostly scanned, too. That’s also nice.
A Further Delay
I’m sure you’ve already noticed the meager number of posts as well as the slowed number of videos released as of late. I’ve been a bit ill and am rather a bit more ill now. Not to sound too dramatic, but what the immediate future is I really can’t say and the delay may last quite some time longer.