Category Archives: Off topic

Breaking news in the missing Prime videos case

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 it’s 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.

Advertisements

The Case of the Disappearing Prime Videos

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.

John Griggs, etc.

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 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 were 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.

 

Edit:

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.

Delaying Playing

Delaying Playing

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

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.

A Delay

A Delay

The computer that I used to control the film scanner has finally given up the ghost. I don’t remember when I got it, but it’s old — eleven, twelve, maybe thirteen years. It was a very nice machine when new, and while it had been long supplanted as my daily driver, it fulfilled its reduced role as scanner controller quite well.

Its behavior had been getting increasingly more erratic and unpredictable this past year, but I’ve always been able to patch it up enough to keep it going. This last failure, though, was catastrophic. I’ve taken it apart and gone over it and diagnosed the likely issue, but fixing it would mean replacing the motherboard and that would cost more than the whole system is worth.

And so I’ve decided to replace it with a new or new-ish machine. No data was lost — the drives are fine, and even if they weren’t, everything to within the last 24 hours was backed-up. The loss is more psychological — I tend to become foolishly attached to things. I was sorely tempted to fix it even if it would wind up costing three times the price of replacement, but I just can’t justify that. Not for that machine, anyway — I would, have, and will do it for my first PC, which is still chugging along after 26 years. It’s really the Computer of Theseus at this point: the case is original, the RAM sticks are original, several cables are original — everything else has been replaced at least once from half a dozen different donor machines.

That’s partly the cause of the delay in output, but as for why work has stalled on the two films that had already finished being scanned and processed and only await being scored — remasters both, the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde and Ben Hur (1907) — I just chalk that up to my general laziness.

Station Content (Triangle, 1918)

Station Content (Triangle, 1918)
Directed by Arthur Hoyt
Starring Gloria Swanson

Wait a minute, you might be saying — I’ve already done a review of Station Content. Yes, I have, and I won’t be reviewing it again. This will be more of a textual reconstruction. The original, feature-length release of Station Content, as I’ve said before, is presumed to be lost. What survives is a roughly one-reel abridgment. So what is missing from the story? Not a lot, really. Station Content seems to have been a film that lent itself well to abridgment:

Kitty (Gloria Swanson) was originally from a large city (an eastern city, likely New York, but contemporary reviews are contradictory). She marries Jim Manning (Lee Hill), who’s the master of Cybar Station. Cybar is a remote, isolate place somewhere in the southwest. She’s too preoccupied to be culture shocked — she’s about to have a baby. The baby takes ill shortly after its birth and dies before the doctor arrives. Kitty is sure the baby would have lived if they weren’t so far out in the country.

Jim had promised her that he would soon be promoted to a more urban station, but months have passed and no promotion has materialized. Kitty’s resentment grows with each passing day. Her only friend is the conductor of the express that stops at the station. A train wreck ahead delays the express one day. Kitty and the conductor spend the time at the piano, where Kitty sings songs that remind her of happier days before she’d ever heard of Cybar. Aboard the delayed train was a theatrical manager (Ward Caulfield) who overhears Kitty singing and is impressed. He tells her that he’s casting a musical revue (or maybe an operetta — again, reviews are contradictory) and she’s got a place in it if she wants it. Kitty tries to discuss the matter with Jim, but he shoos her away, saying he’s too busy. That night he finds a letter on the table: Kitty has left him.

Some time later, Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett) attends Kitty’s show. After the curtain call, she finds him waiting for her backstage, come to ask her out to dinner. Morton is the president of the Pacific Railroad — Jim’s boss. Morton is also married, but he and his wife (Nellie Allen) are estranged. To quote one review, he proposes that Kitty might “fill the void”. Kitty is reluctant. No need to answer now — he’ll be at his ranch in San Francisco, he says. If Kitty decides in his favor, she need only knock at the door.

Kitty is tempted — very tempted — and goes so far as to book passage to San Francisco, but her train is delayed and she misses her connection at Lone Bridge. The station might as well be Cybar for how isolated it is, but the family there seem quite content with their lot (Fay McKenzie is the baby, I don’t know who the parents are). The husband, however, is ill from overwork. In the morning, the train to San Francisco pulls out of the station, but Kitty isn’t on it. She knows Morse code and has volunteered to take over for a few days so that he can recuperate.

Jim, meanwhile, has at last got his promotion — too late for it to make any difference. He boards the train for his new job in San Francisco. Also on the train is Stephen Morton on the way to his ranch. A great storm breaks out that night. The track-walker rushes to Lone Bridge Station with news that the bridge has been struck by lightning and destroyed. He tells them to telegraph Victorville to stop the train, but the train — Jim and Morton’s train — has already left. Kitty pleads with him to go out, cross the canyon, and warn the train, but he refuses — it would be certain death in this storm, he says. Kitty takes it on herself to do so.

Braving all the dangers, Kitty at last makes it across the canyon and flags down the train in time before collapsing from exhaustion. She’s carried on board. When she wakes, Jim is the first man she sees. She asks forgiveness, but Jim insists there’s nothing to forgive — the fault was his for ignoring her. Morton, realizing that he has his answer, feigns ignorance and Jim never knows what might have happened if Kitty hadn’t missed her connection.

Really, aside the opening sequence with the death of Kitty’s baby and Jim’s failed promise of promotion, the abridgment conveys the entire story at a fifth of the length of the original. Even the adultery subplot, which it never directly mentions, is pretty heavily implied, despite the addition of the “I know a director in California” business. The most curious change is shifting the Lone Bridge illness from the husband to the sister-in-law, although that does provide an easier and quicker excuse for why he disappears from the film.

There are a number of contemporary reviews, all favorable. Several report that the working title of the film was The Prodigal Wife and that it better suited the story than Station Content, but curiously, the review in Variety says it went the other way: that the working title was Station Content, but it was released as The Prodigal Wife. I would say the majority opinion is probably right, but the Variety review is very detailed in its plot summary, and at least for the footage that survives, it’s more accurate than any of the others. It’s obvious that the reviewer actually saw the film, which may seem like an odd thing to say, but many reviewers didn’t — they just went off the publicity information provided by the studios. So who knows?

Another big question is Diana Carrillo. Carrillo played a Native American woman. It’s a big enough role to make the cast list (the couple Kitty meets at the other station seem like major characters and they don’t make it), but not a single review mentions her and I don’t have any idea where she fits into the story. She’s briefly visible at the start of the abridgment, sitting in front of the station weaving a basket. She’s also featured on one of the film’s lobby cards doing the same.

The Tale of Amazon Direct

Amazon Instant is dead. Long live Amazon Direct.

This is a long tale of intrigue and woe that has nothing to do with film reviewing and probably isn’t of interest to anyone, so I’ve hidden it behind a “read more” link.

Read the rest of this entry

J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)

Jaccuse screenshot 1J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)
Directed by Abel Gance
Starring Romuald Joubé

This isn’t a review, but I know I haven’t posted much recently (for various reasons neither here nor there) so I thought I’d just comment on something exciting to me.

Around nine years ago, I bought four bobbins of the 9.5mm Pathé Baby version of J’accuse (1919). Since then, I’ve been picking up more when and where ever I could find them. At last, I’ve assembled the entire film. Actually, with the duplicates resulting from buying so many incomplete sets, I’ve got nearly two copies.

At 840 feet, it’s considerably abridged from the theatrical release (which wasn’t even available on video when I started the collection). If it was run straight, 840 feet works out to around 28 minutes, but J’accuse has notched titles so it’s actually a bit longer than that. The original Pathé Baby projector could only handle a 30 foot film bobbin, which is just a minute of footage. Even if a film only Jaccuse screenshot 2has two or three intertitles, text would quickly eat up almost all the runtime. To save film, the Baby had a unique system whereby a little arm feels along the edge of the film as it passes through the projector. When it encounters a notch, it stops advancing the film for a few seconds — holding the picture on the screen. This way, titles could be reduced from several feet down to just a couple frames. Later Babies doubled the max capacity to 60 feet, and at last Pathé ditched bobbins for conventional reels that could handle several hundred feet of film, but J’accuse is an early release. 30 feet with notched titles generally becomes 50 feet with running titles, so it’s probably closer to 45 minutes long.

The whole notch system was a trade-off. With notched titles, the projector by necessity could only use weak lamps that threw small, dim pictures. More powerful lamps burned too hot and would melt the film if it was held in the gate for longer than a fraction of a second. The Baby’s lamphouse is really not much more than a flashlight.

Jaccuse screenshot 3There is an edit of the film that cuts out the whole ghost sequence at the end (before the 2008 DVD was released, I believe it was the most commonly available version on video), but the Baby edition retains it. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but it seems like most of the Baby’s severest abridging is towards the start of the film.

Abel Gance and George Lucas have a bit in common — both being rather notorious for continually revising their films. It’s difficult to say what the “definitive” version of J’accuse would even look like. It’s certainly not the Baby release, but even the DVD is still missing as much as six reels’ worth of footage if by “original” you mean Gance’s earliest cuts of the film. The Baby version at least retains the three-epoch structure of the theatrical release, which the pre-2008 video didn’t.

Of all the Gance films I’ve seen, J’accuse remains my favorite. It may be heresy for me to say so, but Napoleon requires rather more patience than I’m willing to give. It has some spectacular and expertly constructed sequences, Napoleon does, but the road between them is a slog.

 

Jaccuse screenshot 4As for the delay in releasing a new video: the film scanner broke after transferring An Old Man’s Love Story. It was an easy fix, but I had to wait for a replacement part to arrive from Singapore, which took over a month. The primary scanner broke, I should say — I have four. The print I’m scanning now is a bit too shrunken to run through a standard movement, and the machine I’m talking about is one I built myself specifically to handle shrunken and badly damaged film. Here’s a hint for what’s coming out next. It’s an HD remaster of a very old title in the catalogue involving a washerwoman who gets stiffed by one of her customers.

 

Other news that may or may not be of interest: we’re trial-running putting the “now playing” video on YouTube as well on the homepage of our website. If it goes well, we’ll keep doing it. If it goes really well (viz., if the ad revenue matches the sale price), then maybe the now playing videos will cease to be a limited, one-at-a-time thing and the entire now playing catalogue will be made available.

New Website Launched

The new Harpodeon website is live. I think it was announced as “coming soon” something like two years ago, but it’s finally here.

The old site was getting difficult to maintain. It had really been designed to sell DVDs and nothing else. Downloads and streaming videos were a bolted-on feature that were awkward to use on the customer-facing side of the site and a hot mess on the back end. As physical media grows less and less relevant with each passing day, it badly needed a make-over.

The new site was written from the ground up — not one line of old code was retained — and although DVDs are still available, the focus is now squarely on the online content. It was also designed with high definition in mind. Much of the back catalogue will have to be remastered, but the last few transfers were actually done in HD already, it’s just that the old site had no means of handling anything beyond standard 480p video. And there are also some big changes that are invisible to visitors but significant to us. A lot of small things had previously been outsourced (email was handled by Gmail, for example), but all of that’s in-house now.

In terms of layout, it looks and functions pretty similar to the old site and shouldn’t take much getting used to. All the old accounts have been migrated over and should work fine. I don’t say there won’t be any bugs to be ironed out in the coming weeks, but so far so good.

And that’s why there hasn’t been a new release in two months. But rest assured, July will not be so dry. Chugging away in the scanner even as I type is What a Change of Clothes Did (Vitagraph, 1913). (And as I type now, it is available. – 7/16)

Bugs fixed (as of 7/8):

  • Standard video player now works on mobile Safari. (Before it would just buffer endlessly as mobile Safari refuses to load video metadata without actually playing the video first, which is asinine but whatever.)
  • “Any:” search will now return films without a known cast. (Before, a labeled search like “title:” would return them, but not an unlabeled or “any:” search, as the cast is one of the “any” fields it looks in.)
  • Fixed the issue where IE would load pages twice for signed-in users with cookies disabled. (In these cases, JavaScript is used to intercept links between pages and turns them into forms with hidden elements to pass the session variable through — IE was submitting the form then following the link, now it behaves as intended and only submits the form.)
  • Super minor, but fixed the issue where the “More info” button was slightly out of horizontal alignment with the “Alternate” button on the video player. (It was a few pixels too far to the right.)

 

Incidentally, enter 10PEROFF for 10% off all orders totaling $4.00 or more.