Arrow Films Special: An interview with Head of Arrow Video, Francesco Simeoni
It started as something small.
I was pretty thrilled to hear that Joe Dante's movie The Burbs was getting the Arrow Video treatment. I'm a big fan of Dante, and this movie in particular, which doesn't get the attention it deserves. So I pitched The Digital Fix on my doing a piece about the film, a little interview with Dante and the label.
As it went, well... things got out of hand. A few real world problems laid me low and strung things out past the date where it would work to help flag up the release. But more importantly, people just kept talking.
As much as anything - and my interviewees were hugely busy during this time, I can't thank them enough - we were having a good time. So, we just kept on chatting, and what was meant to be a little piece enthusing about an underrated film and its topflight Blu-ray release, became more a label profile, talking to the head of Arrow Film & Video, their Head Of Restoration - James White, and producer Michael Brooke.
What I got was a wonderful overview of what makes the people at Arrow tick. What drives them and how they work. I hope you have as much fun with it as I did.
First up, then: Francesco Simeoni...
He's the guy behind the guys. The man who put the team together and picks the titles.The man who oversees the label steers its general direction.
He's also the man with the plan. The man with the foresight to action the kind of five year plan that has seen Arrow Film & Video become more than just a contender to the Criterion throne, but a genuine threat.
Cineastes have got a lot to thank Francesco Simeoni for...
As I understand it, you assign individual titles/projects to different producers, trying to match up producers to their particular strengths/passions. Arrow has gone from strength to strength in the last few years, with an incredible line up for 2014 in particular. How does a title get selected in the first place? And in particular how did you come to chose The Burbs? It's a fantastic film - one of my favourite of Dante's movies - but it's not on everyone's radar, nor necessarily the first title one might think of for a Blu-ray reissue (in many ways that's why it was so exciting to see it was being released)...
That’s right, I acquire almost everything for Arrow Video/Academy but we have a wider team that works on new releases and sometimes they find projects/packages that are relevant and we work together.
Since our output is such that it requires a team I discuss titles with them and it becomes evident who will be best for what and projects are divided, but we’re a close team and everyone chips in with everything in planning stages.
As regards actual title selection there’s no strict method, sometimes we’ll discuss ideas or titles will become available and offered by agents and producers but for the most part we’re actively selecting titles and chasing them for acquisition based on our own ideas of what we want. This ensures there’s a good balance and the label always feels fresh and is delivering what various people want rather than only ever doing one thing which would be a bit dull. So every month we like to mix it up, a bit of horror with some Japanese stuff with some action and so on.
How those titles are chosen are based on what is working in previous release and how similar titles might work, for instance the Bava films spawned from A Bay of Blood, the De Palma films spawned from Obsession and so on. What are customers tell us on social media and via email is also very important (and closely monitored). But sales ultimately dictate, we would love to work on passion projects only a few people are interested in all the time but in order to survive most things need to work commercially too. So for every Big Trouble in Little China there’s a Pit Stop to put it in basic terms.
The passions of the team shine through the selections I think because ultimately we’ve got to like what we’re working on to some degree, otherwise it wouldn’t be the best release it can be. No one wants to trawl endlessly through a film they hate so we’re lucky our team has really broad and eclectic tastes.
Regarding The Burbs it’s funny how people responded to the title. I am personally a big fan of the film and after we’d worked with Joe Dante a few times for extras (he’s amazingly knowledgeable so has popped up a few times) I started wondering why we couldn’t do one of his own films. To my mind it fit the label perfectly.
Some people did raise their eyebrows that it was too much of a ‘blockbuster’, and sure it’s broad in the sense that it has Tom Hanks in it, but at the time of course he was just emerging as a star, he was not yet Hollywood royalty. Plus the film of course has many aspects which would appeal to our audience, it’s 80s, has horror elements, has pastiches genre fans would get and is an all-round excellent film!
A big consideration when acquiring titles that many people will think is plainly obvious but may not necessarily consider is – is this film going to get played more than once and therefore need to be owned? If something has a curiosity factor and that people may check out, they might rent it, or buy it and then sell it on. That’s no good for us obviously, people need to want to own films in order for us to keep doing what we’re doing and certain films don’t have the ‘ownable’ factor, they might be tough or just plain weird enough that people may not get on with – Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye is a good example.
Though it’s a brilliant film and critically lauded it’s not one everyone sees eye to eye with if you’ll pardon the pun! So we will take our cues from a variety of places but the sure fire way to get more of what you want is to buy what’s available – if you like Bava, buy it all and we’ll release more, if it’s Corman likewise, and so on. We do monitor our numbers carefully, being a small company with great ambitions. After all, the number of companies undertaking their own restorations with as many extras as we do can be counted on one hand with some fingers missing as far as the UK goes, so we do try to impress on people that support is important.
I'm thrilled to hear there was such a great response to the Bava and De Palma discs. I'm never quite sure how much someone like De Palma registers for new fans, I don't see his name coming up so often, nor get the sense that he's being discovered and embraced as new generations come through, so it's heartening to hear. I'm a big fan, and The Fury disc in particular was just beautiful.
Thanks! I am really proud of all the De Palma titles, some of them were difficult to pull off but we got there in the end. I know what you mean about De Palma, he isn’t discussed much in arthouse circles or horror/cult/exploitation either so there was a risk of him falling in between but luckily I think he manages to straddle both camps a little going by the feedback we’ve seen.
With regard to The Burbs, it's interesting to hear that you got a mixed initial feedback, and I can SORT of understand why... but I think it's really going to surprise people. Especially if they haven't seen it in a while. It's incredibly well crafted. Stylised to just the right degree of heightened realism. It has an astonishing ensemble, who play off each other beautifully, and it really rewards repeat viewings. There are so many details, so many little touches that make you howl once you notice them. It's really an incredible kind of screwball horror movie; Preston Sturges meets Charles Addams or Gahan Wilson...
I'd love to think that Arrow might be able to put out more of Dante's work. The Howling or Matinee perhaps...
Absolutely, my guess is people may have forgotten how good the film is. And as I was saying it has that ideal repeat value so it’s definitely a keeper. The great thing about our extras too is that it really helps to enhance your appreciation of the film and when that happens you now you’ve done a good job. On this we were lucky to have a perfect balance of extras as well which really cover all bases so that’s the icing on the cake for me.
We looked in to Matinee a while back but there seems to be some sort of rights issue in the UK, but we may try pursuing it again if there appears to be enough demand for it. It’d certainly fit alongside The Burbs very well.
As for Dante being so knowledgeable, I for one have always said that I would much rather have followed his personal journey through cinema than Martin Scorsese's!
Oh absolutely, I think you could say that for a lot of filmmakers, I mean I enjoyed Scorsese’s film though it covered a lot I already knew which was frustrating but it’s great to listen to him talk. But you just know that if Dante did one it’d be wildly different and he too is a great speaker about cinema. And then I’d want a Cronenberg one – Canadian cinema isn’t one I know much about but I’d love to hear about his influences. And then a Jodorowsky one and then someone else and so on. There were loads of films made about national cinemas of which Scorsese’s was a part for the centenary of cinema but I only saw that and the Oshima one about Japanese cinema history which was good if memory serves but unfortunately they aren’t available to my knowledge. I’d love to see more stuff like that.
If Arrow ever goes into production, all of those might be interesting routes to take!
If only things like this were more commercial…!
Something that strikes me very clearly about Arrow Video and Arrow Academy is the way that everything the label does just radiates an intense love of film. My sense as I talk to everyone there, is that Arrow is a label run, first and foremost, by fans... informed, empowered, creative fans, whose passion for film informs every decision they make, in every detail involved in the production of every disc. The excitement of sharing great work - something I think is fundamental to being a film lover, our need to share great films with others - just crackles around the Arrow discs. It's one of the things I respond to most strongly, especially now that the rep houses (as they used to exist) are largely gone, especially outside the capital. There's a lot of energy going into pop-up cinema, and exciting things are happening there, but it seems to me that the eclecticism and excitement of seeing what Arrow does next, is closely connected to the experience of attending the repertory cinemas of old. The Scala, The Academy etc... where did your own love of film being? Is that repertory experience part of your background? How did you move from being simply a film lover to where you are now?
Thank you, that’s quite a compliment! We certainly are all devoted film fans and as I’ve explained one of the big benefits of our team is we have broad and eclectic tastes so there’s always someone to shower a release with love. The rep houses are really lamented by us all as I think we’ve all internally discussed films, where we first saw them and often that was a quality rep house or in the days when cinema programming was such that it was more able to show adventurous or older films.
Sadly the market has shifted, as you say, into the living room so whilst we’ve lost that element of communal experience there are certainly other avenues to consume and discuss films. In fact, whilst I was too young to visit, it I did see the ads on old Sight and Sound issues and of course those iconic posters, I did name Arrow Academy after the Academy cinema, a great cinema just based on that information I had. Wouldn’t any cinephile want to go to a venue that would show everything from Badlands to Charulata… EVERY DAY!
My own background isn’t in rep per se but I started out at a cinema chain that did regularly play rep as well as new arthouse so my initial exposure to that, at a time when I was starting to explore a lot besides the more obvious names – old and new - certainly had a big impact on me.
Going from being a film lover to where I am now was quite by chance, for the cinema company I was actually working in finance but soon made the decision to switch to a more creative role and fortunately got my opportunity through my knowledge of film.
What’s nice about working on Arrow Video is I am still learning and I think anyone in this industry would admit it’s a constant learning curve since we’re no longer in a position that we can continually churn out the same things over and over, so we need to delve into new areas of cinema. Certainly our Stray Cat Rock collection was unknown to me before I began researching it but now we’re bringing it to a new audience (apart from a few special screenings the films have never been seen subtitled) so that so many people are excited about it is really heartening.
It's hugely encouraging - a thrill even! - to hear you say that 'anyone in the industry would admit that it's a constant learning curve'. That it's no longer possible for the industry to work churning out the same thing over and over, but HAS to delve in to new areas of cinema, means that the DEMAND is there, that there's a strong (and growing?) audience whose key cinema interest/impulse, is in seeing something different. That's incredibly heartening news. It almost makes me wonder if there isn't a way to rebuild some aspect of the old big screen rep experience by having labels like yourself, taking their movies on tour, or creating pop-up versions perhaps... there's certainly a groundswell in that kind of exhibition these days. Arrow already distributes theatrically as well, would you ever consider something like that? Building outwards, the way the likes of Drafthouse Films in the US for instance?
Well a constant learning curve with regards to how to package films that have been successful before but also in learning how films which have been successful may not be again and again. So there are lessons there. But also as you mention for new and exciting films which people have never seen before. Certainly with regards to Borowczyk and Stray Cat Rock people are very excited so that’s encouraging that similar projects could take flight off the back of these. But it’s early days yet so I can’t promise that we would take on similar projects right away!
Yes, Drafthouse is a great example but they have their own cinemas so they have that exciting platform in built. That’s not to underplay their great work in marketing and publicising these films or their absolutely brilliant selections which are very inspiring. We only did The Visitor off the back of their work and they are a great partner, so UK fans are certainly benefiting from Drafthouse’s good work!
But theatrically we are doing similar things, Stray Cat Rock played at a number of venues before being made public as a video release because so few people had heard of let alone seen the films so we tried to build a platform first to get these films out there more. We were fortunate that many were interested and the films played at The Prince Charles and Barbican in London among other venues.
We also re-issued Branded to Kill theatrically and it was heartening to see many venues keen to play it, though it’s a much more well-known film and established classic so that always helps.
Looking forward we have The Visitor and Nekromantik playing theatrically as part of the Scala season and genre fans owe it to themselves to catch these on the big screen while they can. Nekromantik is actually playing at FrightFest and in Glasgow with writer-director Jörg Buttgereit in attendance for Q&As so that’s really exciting.
It's been a big year for Arrow, with some remarkable achievements - reflected by the appearance of Arrow projects in so many 'Best Of The Year' lists. None more so than Camera Obscura, the Boro Box Set. How much of a risk was that? I really feel that it has broken new ground and set a new standard for this kind of retrospective box set. Did it feel as important a project while you were doing it? It was effectively a rescue mission, in terms of Boro's critical reputation, and the films themselves.
It was probably the riskiest project we’ve ever done, but then that’s largely down to its scale – so many restorations, all at once, in a big box, by a film maker who was unjustly derided and completely misunderstood. We didn’t pin him on the more successful Arrow Video, though the films could merit the cult status at a push. So we really went all in and it was worrying at times, especially as the costs built up but the Kickstarter really helped not in terms of the funding but the awareness I think that was a key thing. The icing on the cake of course was that the Kickstarter was a success and everything got restored rather than having a lame duck SD master so that just made the whole project that much sweeter.
As regards its importance, yes absolutely, we knew that it was a big mission and we were all really hopeful that many people would stand up and say ‘yes, he IS a master’! I think to a point many people did. there wasn’t quite a revolution but a quiet revolution maybe. My own appreciation of Boro has intensified ten-fold. My fascination with him started after the BFI boxsets of Svankmajer and Quay and the Quays had said of their big influences was Boro, especially Goto so I re-watched The Beast and Goto for the first time and I wasn’t wowed. But I knew there was more there and has to explore further and I was chasing the rights, then I started working with Daniel Bird on the HandMade films and it all clicked.
When I watched the films I really started to get what the Quays were seeing. In fact I have a theory that any newbies favourite Boro film is the last one they saw. I was discussing it with a critic and he’d just watched Blanche and I’d just watched Goto on our 2K DCP and that was mine. I think when I watch Blanche again that one will jump to the top and that I think is the great thing about his work, first time around you don’t see the whole picture, his films are so clever and layered that they keep giving with every viewing.
Since then, you've also moved into US distribution as well. What was the thinking behind that? I'm guessing it was always on the cards, but does it help open avenues for new aquisitions as well as providing wider availability for all your releases?
It’s been on the cards for well over a year. We had restored some films and had wanted to restore others and in both arrangements it was hard to make the most out of that work. You’re either selling on an opportunity to someone else or losing out on one because of the way film licensing works.
Since no one in the US was really doing what we were doing – a broad selection of cult films in deluxe editions – we thought we might fit a small niche in between the existing people out there. Of course a year later things have changed, Synapse is doing more, Kino especially and many others. But still I think there’s more room for Blaxploitation, euro cult, Japanese genre films and most of all, the Arrow treatment.
Unfortunately for people in the US not many people go down the deluxe packaging route with extensive booklets, or in some of our cases, books. So I think we’ll have something very interesting and different to offer the US.
As regards opening avenues and new acquisitions, yes certainly I think being able to acquire two territories is attractive to some producers, licensors and agents. We have established relationships with many people around the world so it been plain sailing so far and along the way we’ve made some new contacts.
The really exciting thing is that with two territories and the larger budgets we can now work with because of the larger audience, we can restore many more films, meaning we can say yes to projects that were previously not viable. So we have a huge amount of exciting titles coming up!
Both of these milestones were achieved with the help of crowdsourcing campaigns via kickstarter. Arrow seem to be leading the way with this approach, breaking new ground. What lead to you approaching both projects this way?
Well the first kickstarter was a genuine need for actual funding, since no one in the world wanted to restore Goto and it had been such a commercial failure the licensor did not want to do it but with the project the way it was we realised this was the only way. As I say it was great exposure for the project as well. It was the exposure element that was the need for the second Indiegogo campaign. The amount of money raised didn’t really cover much at all, in the grand scheme of things licensing films, manufacturing and producing them is very expensive. The need really was to have a platform where we could communicate with a lot of people rather than just doing a press release and unveiling a website with very little content.
This allowed us to say to people, we’re coming, this is what we do and we’re releasing these films. If you think that’s cool show you’re support and that’ll tell us what the appetite is like for us to go in carefully with one release a month and see how things go, or three releases a month and acquire a year’s worth of product – which is what we have done now. Plenty of people can click yes on a survey and it doesn’t mean much and they’re not really engaged, so this felt like a good alternative.
So, as Arrow goes from strength to strengh, are there plans for further expansion on the horizon? You mentioned the Arrow 'Deluxe' treatment, in terms of the booklets (and books!) that Arrow include with their discs. I know there are still some people who don't quite view these as 'extras' in the traditional sense, but there's a lot work goes into them - vintage reviews and interviews, as well as new critical writings. They really function like an expanded version of the kind of film notes that used to be a common part of the rep cinema experience, providing context for the film historically, as well as critical insight. The 300+ page book that came with the Boro box set a new standard really, I wondered if publishing might be something Arrow would be looking at - even if for no other reason than to get the Boro book out there more widely?
indeed, I think our booklets, or when we do them, books, have a great many functions and influences, whether they be specific studies like the BFI Film Classics series, general criticism, archive curation and fanzines as well as just being a great place for images which aren’t necessarily always suitable for a gallery or within a documentary.
As you say I think they have a great value in terms of ‘extras’ and often what is in print simply cannot go on a disc, like an archive interview, it’s often very interesting to see how a filmmaker may have spoken about a film at the time of release to how they might feel thirty years later or indeed if a cast or crew member is no longer with us the next best thing is looking in archives, and that may just be limited to being in print and not easily accessible. Indeed this has been the case for many of our booklets like our Reggie Nalder, Mario Bava and Sam Arkoff interviews to name a few.
But there’s also much more, like production information which can’t easily be discussed in video content - our current Long Good Friday / Mona Lisa book does this amazingly well as we’ve managed to clear some excellent extracts from the book by Robert Sellers on HandMade, of which the detail is as good as any ‘making of’ documentary. I am also working on a book for an upcoming Cronenberg release which has been a joy to put together, I hope many people get as much pleasure out of them as we do putting them together.
As regards other expansion plans – we’re just sticking with North America right now… but who knows, we’re nothing if not ambitious so we’ll see where things go! Publishing is great but we’re limited with the Boro book being an exclusive item and that was always the plan to be exclusive to buyers of the box and backers of the project. I can’t imagine publishing would ever be a major concern, we’re primarily focused on releasing films. However, I can say there is at least one book idea being worked on in the background..!