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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

A Robert A. Harris Interview:
Warner Home Video's George Feltenstein

Although almost a household name to the minions of laserdisc aficionados during their reign, George Feltenstein's work is just becoming known to the newer and much larger DVD audience, who will shortly be viewing him as the laserdisc audience has in the past, as one of the heroes of the home video world.

With the release of one of Mr. Feltenstein's pet projects, That's Entertainment: The Complete Collection, I thought the time had come to do a Digital Bits chat with him.

We had a telephonic chat on Friday October 15, and the edited transcript is below:

[Editor's Note: Feltenstein's official title at Warner Home Video is Sr. VP of Marketing for Classic Catalog.]

Robert A. Harris (The Digital Bits): George, let's do a bit of background. How long have you been in the home video industry?

George Feltenstein (Warner Home Video): It's been eighteen years.

RAH: You really gained a reputation during the laserdisc days for putting out some of the finest classic related special editions that were done. It really came down to Criterion and Feltenstein, and that was it.

Having editions that were literally crammed with additional audio tracks and things that you could find in the vaults. I have a copy of the Judy Garland boxed set sitting in front of me.

GF: That was a monumental achievement, of which we were very proud.

RAH: There were so many. There was That's Entertainment. Which are those of which you are most proud?

George Feltenstein, Sr. VP of Marketing for Classic Catalog - Warner Home Video

GF: It's hard to select one favorite. My first thought goes back to 1988 when I had the audacity to suggest we release letterboxed laserdiscs of Ben-Hur and Dr. Zhivago. Nothing like that had ever been done before. Sure there had been a few letterboxed LDs. MGM actually issued the first one ever, Manhattan. The Voyager press released one or two, but no studio had embraced the concept of OAR in the U.S., I had to get MGM/UA's Japanese licensee to pitch in on the costs, and when those 2 discs came out, it was a mini-explosion in the mini-laser world. Sales were relatively huge, and people got to see what I had always wanted to:. the original aspect ratio as seen in theatres, and with Dolby Surround sound. Even though I will never watch them again, I treasure both of those releases as hallmarks of what was to come. Soon thereafter came Seven Brides and James Bond films and Victor/Victoria and we were leading the industry with letterboxed releases. Then came things like the 50th anniversary OZ disc and then the big collections which were very popular and seduced die hard film buffs to embrace laserdisc. One of my personal favorites was the first of two collections of Vitaphone Shorts, called Swing Swing Swing.Then I think of the first Golden Age of Looney Tunes box, which everyone thought I was nuts to do (and we did 4 more!)… the Tex Avery boxed set, the Dawn of Sound boxes, the list goes on and on…

Of course, I was most proud of The Ultimate Oz, which in 1993 was a staggering laserdisc. The sheer volume of it. The multiple layers of special features and the qualitative presentation. When re-combined with an even better new transfer by WB, everything on it became the DVD that came out in 1999 and blew everyone away.

RAH: For a quarter of the price?

GF: A fifth of the price, actually.

RAH: The selling price on those was high, but commensurate with the production cost. What did it cost to press a disc back…

GF: $8.55 for a two-sided disc… not counting the jacket or other costs. It was extraordinarily expensive.

RAH: So if you had a four disc set with a box, you were easily into $40 production cost before anything else.

GF: One of the things that made the laserdisc business so difficult was the ability to make a product that was reasonably priced on which you could be profitable. It was nearly impossible. The margins were terribly small, and of course, the universe of consumers was small. Laserdisc never got beyond the "niche" market, and terrible mistakes were made by the industry by not getting behind it. Many studios just didn't care about it and licensed out their product to third parties. Other companies like MGM, Warner, and Universal really got behind it, and tried to make a go of it. After a while it became obvious that it was never going to become as broadly popular as it deserved to be. It was heartbreaking to put so much work into something that so few people took advantage of and now, sadly has gone the way of the 8 track tape.

RAH: As you know, a lot of people still collect them. What were the average pressings on some of those things?

GF: On the box sets, anywhere from three to five thousand units.

RAH: Which today would be considered a failure in DVD terms.

GF: It would be a disaster.

RAH: As a kind of introduction to those who don't know you, you are probably one of the few people in the industry that I'm aware of who might well show up at their desk if told they weren't being paid.

GF: Absolutely. And in a way, that actually did happen… because in October of 1990, MGM/UA Home Video was ostensibly dismantled. We were all gathered in a small screening room at the studio and told we were fired. The company would be shut down in 60 days, and we could leave on that day and still get paid for the next two months or we could still come in to the office until they officially locked the doors. We were all stunned, and in a state of shock. This happened on a Friday afternoon, but the following Monday I was at my desk, still watching over my laserdisc business. Warner Home Video was taking over MGM/UA's worldwide home video distribution. MGM was still responsible for the marketing of the product under this new deal, but the people who had bought MGM and made the Warner video distribution deal hadn't really thought it out very well, and they hadn't considered that they did need a staff even if it was skeletal. So technically I was fired, without a job… but I still came to work.

And it turned out at the last minute they decided to un-fire me. They kept me and I was the only person left after 260 people had been let go, and it was my job to work with Warner Home Video, (who had assumed all sales, operational and distribution functions) to deal with this huge library, and it was my responsibility to maintain MGM's marketing functions within the deal, working with the folks at Warner.

The people who had purchased MGM had the French bank that financed the deal call in their loan, and Alan Ladd, Jr. soon became head of the studio again (he had been running it from '86-'88, but returned in '91) and incredibly we ran a very small, but efficient home video company, aided by the expertise and outreach of Warner HomeVideo's fine sales and distribution organization. I tried to continue to do on laserdisc, and of course on VHS, what I had been doing ever since I had joined MGM Home Video in 1986 to start marketing the library on videotape.

When I first came to MGM, it was to excavate the great classics in their library, really for the first time, on videocassette. As a film fan, and avid video collector, it was obvious to me that the company didn't have a clue with this great goldmine of films they owned. Instead of putting out films like Father of the Bride or Camille, they were acquiring pictures from companies like Cannon and releasing movies like Hospital Massacre and Hot Chile.

So someone got the idea in the late '80s that you could price a movie at $29.98 and make it affordable as opposed to $59.98 or $79.98. Thus "sell-through" was born, and I began putting together videocassette promotions from the enormous MGM/UA library. The laserdisc journey followed soon thereafter.

My background up to that point had been primarily selling the Fox and Paramount libraries to repertory theatres in 35mm prints…

RAH: That was the Films, Incorporated days?

GF: Yes. They hired me out of college. It was a great job and really was my 'grad school'. I made sure that new 35mm prints were struck on dozens and dozens of films. Not just classic American cinema, I was handling a lot of other product, too… the Truffault films and Jacques Tati films. I even made a deal with Warner Bros. for the Looney Tunes. I put together programs of 35mm Looney Tunes and sent them out to rep houses where they made a fortune, being marketed to adults. A forerunner of things to come!

I was their national sales manager, and it was a wonderful business and I started right out of SUNY Purchase at age 20. Everything was going great until literally one day the phone stopped ringing around 1985 because the revival theatres were all closing because of home video and pay television.

So in 1986 I sent a resume over to MGM, and they told me the next day that they wanted to hire me… yet it took eight months before my first starting day. The reason there was such a delay was that Ted Turner had bought the company, and then sold back the company, but the video company had retained a license for several years to continue to distribute the classic MGM library that Ted had purchased.

RAH: Well, the message here to the folks who are buying DVDs is that you're passionate about your job… and you're passionate about what's coming out on DVD, which really shows itself in the market place. You can see it, and I think what's going to happen is that as time goes by, and more of the classics start coming out from Warners on the MGM titles, is that the audience is going to know what the signature "Feltenstein Editions" are.

GF: Well thank you, on behalf of not just myself, but all my colleagues as well. I hope we will continue to make people happy with our releases. For me personally, it's great to have a larger candy box because it isn't just the MGM films or the pre-49 Warner films that I worked with for so many years, now it's also the WHOLE Warner library, it's virtually all the RKO films and all the MGM films up through 1986…

and then little jewels of independents that we own such as Gun Crazy which just came out…

RAH: Which I love…

GF: I love it too, but it had even been largely ignored on VHS. It was one of those films which just slipped under the radar…

The key to what I do is that I am not only a studio executive, but as well I am a DVD consumer. I buy the product of other studios, and get excited about the new releases, just as I did when I was a laserdisc and a tape consumer. I'd like to think that I know what the consumer wants, because I am one of them. I feel one of the reasons that I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunities in this industry that I have, is because I rose through the ranks at MGM and eventually ran the company and now have a very nice position here at Warner Home Video as a Sr. VP of Marketing for Classic Catalog. I have the passion and the knowledge, but I also have the ability to balance it with a business sense, and it breaks my heart sometimes when I get around other film fans and they say "Why aren't you doing another DVD boxed set like "such and such" like you did on laserdisc", and I have to tell them the truth. The reason is we'll sell 2,000 copies (we didn't even sell that many on LD!) and WHV would lose a ton of money, and that my job here is to contribute to WHV's continued success as an organization.

What I'm trying to do is find a way via which we can get things out there and make it profitable, and we're doing things now that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Two examples of this can be found as part of our new marketing initiative with Turner Classic Movies. TCM Archives releases. We present high quality presentations worthy of TCM's fine name, with loads of extras for a reasonable price. I'm very proud of the line and the potential future we have with it. Quite a change from where things were at Warner about 3 years ago.

No one here would have considered doing a film noir collection three years ago… No one here would have thought of going near the Tarzan films… just to give two examples. They were totally off the radar screen. And no one here was doing what needed to be done in terms of saying "Okay, we want to release Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Well, in order to do it they had to commit to it at least eighteen months in advance, because they needed a year to restore from the original nitrate negative to make a new fine grain, and then to do telecine. That all takes advance planning and a great deal of money and no one was willing to set up a business plan that looked out to the future.

Right now we are tentatively programmed and scheduled… we're working now on titles for 2006 and 2007.

That's always the way that I ran the business at MGM, programmed at least 2 years out for library promotions, and it's the way that we're doing things here now. We have a great team of talented folks here at WHV who are very dedicated, and we all agree that it is imperative to carefully plan, analyze the marketplace, and make those significant up- front cash advancements to provide a quality product and satiate the collectors. There are enough people that want these really, really great films…

We're not talking about an obscure Warner film like Broadway Hostess, we're talking about films like White Heat and Public Enemy

RAH: Which are not obscure…

GF: Which are not obscure and which are coming… really soon! They would have sat on the shelf if someone hadn't come along and said "Okay, let's get moving on this." So we have literally 150 - 200 titles in some form of production going out towards 2007 right now. I also have to add that Warner Bros. as a company, has a large financial commitment to film preservation, with a hefty annual budget committed to nitrate conversion to safety. At this point it may be shorts or cartoons or trailers, but we want everything protected.

RAH: So what's actually occurring is that the studio is being forced, and I don't mean that in a negative way, to go back to original materials and create new safety preservation elements because of home video.

GF: Exactly. Or in some cases, if pay television initiated an order, the same process would have occurred. A division within Warner Bros. Studios had to initiate the request. The way we work it here, and this is what people don't understand is we're not going to release a widescreen or anamorphic film as 4:3 matted using a laserdisc master that was created in 1992.

So we have to go back and re-do everything. People say to me about Meet Me in St. Louis… "Your laserdisc in 1994 was restored." And I have to explain that what we're doing now is even better. The technological bar is raised and so is our task as to what to release and what it will look and sound like. Of course, every once in a while something will come out that is imperfect or is less than what we'd hoped, but we shoot for the highest possible quality, and I'm very proud of what we are achieving.

There are dozens and dozens of people who are involved in these decisions all along the road, and who are physically involved with touching the product before it gets to the customers. I can't stress that enough.

And everyone on our team is very excited about the classics and the success we are having with them. It's energizing them, and many of them that had no interest in the older films are discovering them as we begin working on them, and it's nice to know their timelessness is infectious. I've helped create another gaggle of film buffs. We are all clear on another basic fact of this business: You can't just release a title, not market it, and then expect people to find it.

Specifically, we're talking about That's Entertainment today. You'll see ads for the That's Entertainment Collection in most of the major publications. You'll also see it in targeted magazines like Playbill, where we know there are a lot of people who go to the theater who also like musicals, so… this is what it takes. It takes careful, calculated marketing planning, and risking the finances of spending the money on the preservation and restoration.

So everything we do… It's not just creating a tape master, it's starting from scratch in the photochemical realm, creating a new film element from which the tape master can be made unless we already have something that's top-quality from the recent past that is still acceptable by today's standards, and I'll give you an example.

On The Nun's Story, there was a new element made in 1995 that's beautiful, so we're going to release The Nun's Story at some point in the future, and we don't have to bear the very heavy cost of creating a new film element. Someone else paid for it a while back, thank goodness.

But, generally, on most of these pictures, we have to spend money. It is WB policy that we will NEVER transfer off of original negative because it could get damaged in the process, so a preservation intermediate element has to be made if it has not already been done. We have to start on the right foot.

Then some people will say "But don't you have a beautiful master that was used for the laserdisc?" Well, that was a D-1 made 15 years ago, or worse a D-2…..we don't feel it's good enough.

RAH: Let's move on to That's Entertainment. I saw it in 1974 at the Ziegfeld. It was a great experience. The audio was wonderful. I'd not seen much of the footage before, and the film was just a remarkable experience to see on the big screen.

One of the problems with it however, from a technical standpoint, was that what was considered to be the "Original negative," was in fact not. All of the extracted footage was duped from whatever was available at that time to the film stock du jour, which at that time was color reversal internegative (CRI), which had no archival qualities whatsoever, and a shelf life on a good day of probably seven years.

GF: Normally in our system if you're looking for an original camera negative you'll see it listed as OCN. But for That's Entertainment, if you do a search for the OCN, you won't find it. You'll just find CRI, and then in the notes portion it says… this is the actual camera negative of the feature… EK sections of the host portions are cut in, but the main body of the film is CRI.

RAH: So here we are, thirty years down the line and when Ned Price and his team went back to pull that negative, what did they find?

GF: Well, there are actually two negatives because there was a theatrical negative, and there was a television negative. The television negative is 4:3. The theatrical negative was composed for 1.85:1 theatrical projection and for blow-up for the 70mm roadshow engagements.

They found the CRI to be… well CRI are three of the scariest letters in the English language to me…

RAH: To me also.

GF: One of the things that's interesting about the whole CRI situation is when MGM began its film preservation program in the '60s, they began with the black and white nitrates in converting them to safety, and when they got to the color films, they made an "archival" CRI and a printing CRI…

RAH: An "archival" CRI is an oxymoron, of course…

GF: and then they also had safety masters created from all of the original three-strip Technicolor negatives. So they considered the films preserved, and everything was fine, and what started to shine light on how awful that was, was that in 1987 or 1988, The Museum of Modern Art requested a new print of Meet Me in St. Louis for a Vincente Minnelli retrospective they were going to tour around the country.

And they looked at the print that came out of the lab and they were horrified. It looked terrible. And they were willing to fund the original YCM negatives of Meet Me in St. Louis going to YCM Laboratories to make a new interpositive and a dupe negative from which prints could be made that would restore the color to that film.

And when we saw how great the results of that were, Roger Mayer, who was the president of Turner Entertainment Company said "Okay… We need to go back to all of the Technicolor films in the Turner library and preserve them all over again, properly, making new IPs and INs from the three-strip originals.

But in the intervening years, some of the three-strip originals had burned at the fire at [George] Eastman House, most notoriously all but one reel of Singin' in the Rain and the last two reels of An American in Paris, the last two reels of Annie Get Your Gun.

It's heartbreaking. All of In the Good Old Summertime, I believe. We lost so much. Thank God Gone with the Wind was spared… and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz, but we did lose a lot.

The safety masters that were made, if they were made correctly, can usually save us, but…

RAH: Normally people made them and never looked at them.

GF: Yes, well in the case of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, nobody ever looked at them, and for the scope version the separations were made incorrectly.

And when the original negative got damaged during the 1968 re-issue, blown up to 70mm, we were in big trouble.

So that's why that new DVD looks as good as it does, it is a result of a tremendous amount of work by a lot of people to try to get it to be the best it can be… despite the limitations of the early Scope optics and…

RAH: Ansco…

GF: Yes, Ansco. You've got a lot going against you.

But getting back, during that period the MGM lab was all about CRI. And CRI was subject to color breathing, excessive grain… sometimes it could look pretty good… every once in awhile.

RAH: When it was new.

GF: Precisely. When it was new… and then it was subject to fading.

We wanted to put out the That's Entertainment films, but we were very afraid. I was terrified about what this project might entail. I knew that it would be an enormous amount of work, because I also know what the collector… the DVD consumer expects in terms of quality. It's what I myself expect in terms of quality.

And when you have your "original negative" of a feature which is already at least one generation away from the original in terms of the clips, that frightened me.

And then there was the whole issue that the original aspect ratio of projection and presentation of That's Entertainment and its two sequels should be in the 16:9 format replicating how you and I saw this film at the Ziegfeld…

RAH: In 1.85…

GF: Right… Yet, if that's your only transfer, those people who are not fortunate enough yet to have 16:9 televisions would be watching a postage stamp. Like the 16mm prints of the film were, with the 4:3 images within a black square, and the only times you'd see image on the side is when it's a scope clip, which is very rare.

So I made two basic decisions. I have to make it clear here that all of the technical work is done by Ned Price and his group, so I went to Ned and told him that I really wanted to do the That's Entertainment movies, and his eyes kind of rolled to the back and his head and he said "George, that's going to be a nightmare."

And yet everybody's been screaming for these movies… "Why hasn't Warner put them out?"

And I wanted to do it, as Louis B. Mayer would have said… I wanted to "do it big, do it right, and give it class."

Now that it's all done, I can say with confidence and pride that we've done that…

RAH: They're beautiful…

GF: but to get there required a lot of decisions, so the first decision we made was that we would present the films on DVD-18s, with a 16:9 transfer representing the original theatrical presentation of each of the three films, and on the other side we would have a full frame 4:3 presentation for people who don't have 16:9 TVs, so they didn't end up with a postage stamp, but that the letterbox clips of films like Love Me or Leave Me and Hit the Deck, and Seven Brides and so on would be original aspect ratio of photography.

RAH: The nice thing about this concept is that most people, at least who can afford it in the next couple of years will probably be moving to wide screen monitors, they can basically have the best of both worlds.

GF: Exactly… and I wanted it to be something they wouldn't have to go out and buy again. That is actually a very serious issue; a lot of people have a cynical view of home video companies… there are companies out there who are notorious for 'double dipping' come out with a certain special new edition of a film that just came out or something. I can't say that WHV has never done it… there have been one or two instances where for producer reasons or whatever, that we've come out with a second edition of a contemporary film, but we try to get it right the first time and avoid that kind of practice wherever possible.

These movies are very important to me. Our entire library is important to me, but these films hold a special place in many people's hearts. I wanted a disc that wouldn't become obsolete. Those of us who frequent the DVD websites and the home theatre enthusiast websites… many people think that everyone has a 16:9 TV. The totals are growing daily, and two or three years from now it will be more commonplace than not, but right now I wanted to have a product that would please both consumers.

RAH: And it does perfectly.

GF: And there's also another aspect in that I knew there would be some people out there… you know some people aren't happy unless they're unhappy about a DVD. They look for what can they find wrong with it. What can they complain about… and I know that some people who hadn't seen That's Entertainment in the theatre and didn't understand the use of wide screen, and the widescreen optical work, which was a dazzling effect in the theatre, and I'm so excited to finally be able to replicate that in my home, but it does violate the OAR of the original photography of a few specific clips. So if somebody is so upset that they're not seeing the full frame of action of On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe, they can turn their disc over, watch the 4x3 version and see it there.

RAH: Or they can put in their copy of the entire film.

GF: Of course, that's another issue too. I fondly remember when the film first opened. My parents took me to see it at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan… I was about 14, I guess, and it was one of the most significant life-changing experiences for me on a number of levels… first of which because I hadn't seen most of that material, because most people couldn't see most of that material. Broadway Melody of 1940 had never been shown on New York television, because WCBS, which had the broadcast rights, thought that Broadway Melody of 1940 sounded too old, and that the 1940 in the title made it unmarketable. They never ran it even though they had the rights. So I had never seen Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell do Begin the Beguine. I had also never seen Make 'em Laugh from Singin' in the Rain, and the reason is that my experience with Singin' in the Rain was as it was shown by WNBC on the 4:30 movie in a 90 minute timeslot.

RAH: Which is about 72 minutes…

GF: 72 minutes of film, of a 103 minute movie…

RAH: And what do you do? You cut out the musical numbers.

GF: They cut out Make 'em Laugh, Good Morning… virtually all of the Broadway Melody ballet… I had never seen any of those things… and in those days also, repertory theatres virtually never ran the classic musicals. There weren't prints for them to show. Needless to say, it was 2 hours and 15 minutes of amazement for me from start to finish. It still is.

RAH: The other interesting thing… and this came up when we were watching the George and Alana [Hamilton] piece… from the opening… that whole five or seven minutes of clips looks so horrible, and I turned to Joanne, who was watching it with me and said "That's what many films looked like on TV in the '60s."

GF: That's what virtually everything looked like.

RAH: Unless you had a network broadcast.

GF: Right. The '60s, the '70s, and really until the mid-'80s.

RAH: They were syndication prints…

GF: They were 16mm syndication prints that had been run through a meat grinder. and with the exception of WPIX in New York, which actually did show 35mm prints, the usual results were very poor.

Every station showed 16mm prints that were derived from dupe negatives. They had splices, they had scratches, and gouges…

RAH: And cue marks…

GF: Yes, and cue marks… and songs were taken out and scenes were taken out and dissolves were cut out… You may remember this… the way that some New York stations would remove the main titles and run them at the end instead of the beginning.

The reality is that most people didn't ever see these films, so it was a revelation to see this material on the big screen… and it was being presented with style, panache, and class to a whole new audience. That's Entertainment opened to massive box-office success. Totally unexpected. You had young people going to see this film as a brand new movie… which it was… and they were thrilled by it, and it was the sixth top grossing film of 1974, surrounded by Blazing Saddles and The Exorcist and the like.

RAH: With all of the technical problems, what did you change in the film? What did you replace? Did you upgrade?

GF: The 16x9 transfers are very, very faithful to the original films.. We worked very hard to reconstruct the entire film without having to depend exclusively on the CRI, but had to use it as a basis. To work without it, straight from individual elements, would have been a multi-million dollar expense. So where we had the Ultra-resolution Singin' in the Rain, we inserted that. Where we had the newest, cleanest transfer of The Wizard of Oz, we inserted that. Situations like that were the exception rather than the rule, but we upgraded where we could.

RAH: High Society looked like it was…

GF: Precisely. High Society was from our new 16:9 high definition transfer from the VistaVision elements.

RAH: Which is gorgeous.

GF: And even more importantly than that we should talk about the sound for High Society. It's now 5.1 stereo. The stereophonic sound in That's Entertainment in 70mm was one of the most thrilling aspects of the movie for me. And yet High Society was originally released monaurally because it was in VistaVision, and VistaVision didn't have true stereo.

So when they showed the clips… actually only one clip from High Society in the original version, which is the Sinatra / Crosby number, the audio was mono.

This is the first time where That's Entertainment has stereo audio for the High Society clips, and I say clips plural, because the European version of That's Entertainment had True Love in it. So we have now traditionally put that back into all versions of the film going back to the laserdiscs of the early '90s.

Now interestingly enough, for That's Entertainment Part II, they went back to the original stereo recording sessions. It was probably Saul Chaplin's idea, since he worked on High Society, but the two High Society numbers in That's Entertainment Part II did have stereo audio in the theatre.

On to Part Two

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