The ins and outs of launching an independent cult movie blu-ray label in 2021.
Once upon a time, a video label specialising in what we might call niche works – genre films of various sorts, ‘cult’ movies and the like – could hope to sell a sizeable number of units, with even limited editions being pressed and selling in five-figure numbers. They were the glory days of DVD, when labels like Anchor Bay and Blue Underground – and more latterly Arrow, Severin and others – could release anything and have it sell well. Perhaps not quite a licence to print money – for then, as now, labels came and went with varying degrees of success and there was still the need for some understanding of the films being released rather than simply snapping up anything and chucking it onto the market. But a label that understood its audience could sell surprisingly huge numbers of old movies that no one in the mainstream of film criticism thought were remotely important. Those days are, perhaps, over – while the aforementioned labels are still able to produce luxurious box sets and fancy pants editions of cult favourites on blu-ray, the numbers have certainly declined – a limited edition might now be 3000 – 5000 copies, which is still pretty decent. But not what things used to be. The rise of streaming and other digital formats, the lure of Netflix and other quasi-broadcasting formats has bitten into what was already a somewhat flooded and declining market. Smaller labels either vanish or are gobbled up by larger, wealthier rivals, and several labels now seem to be increasingly concentrating their efforts on streaming channels. For the collector, we live in both the best and worst of times – certainly, the versions of many cult favourites emerging on blu-ray now seem to be as definitive and exhaustive as they could ever be, but the audience for anything other than the most popular classics has without question dwindled. Blu-ray increasingly feels like vinyl – a physical niche product in itself, rather than a mass-market medium.
To launch a new label in this climate – and, indeed, in the midst of a pandemic that has seen lockdowns and uncertainty – might seem the height of folly. But Fractured Visions, under the ownership of Phil Escott, has just launched with the release of Sergio Martino’s Silent Action, an impressively grim and downbeat Italian crime drama that mixes the action of the Poliziotteschi cop thriller with the cynicism of the political drama, as a cop wades his way through a case that involves murder and corruption. Like many Martino films, it is an efficient, solid affair – not the work of a visionary director by any stretch of the imagination, but a gritty, no-nonsense production that perfectly suits the rather nihilistic nature of the story. Crime dramas remain a somewhat underrated and underexposed genre compared to other Italian movies, despite – or possibly because of – a rather more specifically Italian feel to many of the films; 1970s crime films often reflect their nationality more than anything other than comedy movies, and the cynical resignation and corruption that runs through Italian films like this is something very geographically specific.
The Fractured Visions release comes laden with extras, as is now obligatory for any niche release – this includes the impressive soundtrack on CD, interviews, audio commentaries and a booklet, all going towards ensuring that this is the definite article. It’s definitely something that we would recommend picking up, whether you enjoy violent crime movies or political conspiracy thrillers.
This new release made us wonder – not for the first time – about the state of home video distribution in the 2020s, and so we decided to chat to Phil Escott about his reasoning behind the label, the problems faced by small indies starting up in a hostile climate and where he envisioned things going in the future.
We began by asking about how he reached this point in his career.
“A passion for film has always been a part of me. I started writing about cult cinema for websites like Joe Horror, Lovelock And Load and also had my own shitty little blog called Welcome To the Deuce, while I was starting to write short scripts and shoot them with some friends on the weekends – when we weren’t having triple or quadruple film showings at my apartment. It was around this time that I started to shoot interviews for labels like Arrow and 88 Films, which was a great introduction to the world of film distribution – but I was also caught up in getting a feature film set-up so wasn’t fully committed to the cause at that point. The film – Cruel Summer – was made and premiered at FrightFest and was released on DVD but I can’t say I had the best experience with the distribution side on that film and that pushed me back into the extras world once again, where I’ve since helped 101 Films with their Black Label line-up and Second Sight Films with a large number of their limited-edition releases.”
Escott’s work with other labels producing extra content gave him a knowledge of how indie film distributors work and fuelled a desire to set up his own company releasing the sort of films that he loved.
“I started Fractured Visions as a monthly event for cult film fans in Cardiff, where I would programme a double-bill of cinematic craziness to be enjoyed on the big screen; the first was Bloody Moon and Pieces, so if that didn’t give people a hint of what Fractured Visions was about I don’t know what else would. The goal was to always transition into a label, but I wasn’t fully educated in the ins and the outs of the business yet so I’ve spent the past three years immersing myself in that side of things.”
Of course, things change quickly in the distribution world, and during the time that Escott was planning and plotting, many labels began to invest heavily in online and digital distribution, or simply went under. The physical market has certainly declined, and we wondered where he saw Fractured Visions’ place in the brave new world.
“Physical media just isn’t bringing in the numbers it used to – remember when an Anchor Bay limited edition would be 30,000 units only? Luckily I don’t have to pull those kinds of numbers, which means I can take more risks on the titles I select as I’m not looking to move ten or fifteen thousand units, I’ll be happy to sell through the three thousand first press editions! I’m looking to serve people who are still looking to experience films via the physical media experience, which is far more than just watching a film for 90-or-so minutes – you’ll be spending an evening with a Fractured Visions release.”
Of course, the last twelve months have also seen the Covid pandemic, which has turned our understanding of, well, everything upside down – what might have seemed a solid business plan at the start of 2020 might suddenly be impractical, while other ideas once fanciful have now come into their own. We wondered if the sudden changes that we have all gone through had affected the launch of the label.
“Actually it was a key reason for me speeding up the process. I was in year three of my five-year plan, but having all that additional free time, where I couldn’t do much work, helped speed things up considerably. So Fractured Visions the label is coming a year earlier than I had originally intended.”
Being the new fish is what some might think is an already overcrowded pond is bound to have its own problems – after all, there is not an infinite number of well-known and commercially viable (even on a small scale) movies that are both available and in a condition that collectors will demand, and with several other companies who are already well-established, there is always the risk of finding that everything you want has already been snapped up. Escott doesn’t, however, see this as a problem for him.
“I have a great relationship with a number of the labels here in the UK and still help place titles with them. It’s the film lover in me – I want these films to be given the best possible releases and if I can’t offer that to a film, then there’s no reason why I should stop the film from being with a label that can do it justice. There are some titles that are just too obscure to be on everyone’s radar – so there will also be titles out there that I love that other labels might see as a risk due to the potential low-sales, which isn’t such an issue for me as I just have to keep my lights on, not a whole office. Of course, I’m at the mercy of license holders as I don’t have the resources to conduct new scans if the existing one isn’t fully satisfactory. But, that being said, the masters we’ve had were in good shape for the most part but we did have to complete some restoration work in regards to the colour timing and the English audio.”
That brings us to Silent Action, the debut release. What was it about that film that attracted Escott to make it his debut release?
“It’s a film I have a great appreciation of, but had only seen on VHS as the old Italian DVD didn’t have English subs, which I think helps explain its absence from the market for so long. I think it’s the perfect film for fans of Sergio Martino who are accustomed to his giallo films and are wanting to test the waters with Euro Crime. I think the genre has a sullied reputation with casual viewers who might think they are all the same, a macho cop slapping the shit out of people and bringing down organised crime with bullets and fists. This one obviously still contains a tough cop slapping the shit out of people when needed, but there’s a lot more going on here that elevates it above the genre conventions and I hope will serve as a nice segway into this wonderful little sub-genre.”
It goes without saying that the older and less well-known a film is, the harder it is to get extra content for the disc – people have died or reached an age where their memories have faded, materials vanish into vaults or are destroyed, and everything becomes that much harder. The rise of the expert commentary is something that I’m not going to criticise because God knows I’ve done enough of them, and there’s a definite place for an informed talk about a film every bit as much as an article or book – but their rise is perhaps indicative of the struggle to find solid supplementary material for many older and more obscure titles. For Escott, supplementary material is critical.
“I mentioned previously ‘spending an evening’ with a Fractured Visions release and I mean it, the video extras alone on Silent Action clock in at three hours, so viewers will have plenty to unpack with this release. We have some interviews with cast and crew, who we are luckily still graced with – that isn’t always the case when dealing with films of this vintage. There’s a contextual piece on the era these films were birthed in; Seventies Italy was crazy and the Euro Crime genre is the genre that best reflected those times I feel, so this will give fans a glimpse at that period and all the insanity it entailed. Then viewers can kick back, grab a J&B, put the soundtrack CD on and take a read of the booklet that comes with the set. I want to re-capture the feeling I had when I would pick up a limited edition Anchor Bay DVD way back when, and you always knew you were in for something special.”
The big question, of course, is: what’s next? Are Silent Action and forthcoming follow-up Free Hand for a Tough Cop a statement of intent, marking out Fractured Visions as a label that will specialise in Italian crime cinema, or is it simply the first of a wide variety of titles from around the world? Escott suggests the latter.
“I’ll be focusing on films that I have a deep affinity for, both classic and contemporary from all over the world. Euro Crime is a genre I love and felt wasn’t being fully appreciated here in the UK so I did want to bring the genre back into the collective discussion. But we’ll also be releasing a contemporary Spanish language film later this year, which I know will appeal to fans of Alejandro Jodorowsky.”
As huge fans of Jodorowsky, we’re intrigued to hear this and look forward to seeing what is to come. While the cult movie market might sometimes seem flooded, there is always room for someone to come along and bring something new to the table – especially if they are not simply rehashing the same old titles in ever-fancier editions and instead probing the overlooked and under-appreciated. Perhaps it is only the radically independent one-man-band labels that will be able to do this, content to sell small numbers of niche titles. All the more reason, then, for people to support small labels. Ask yourself – do you really need that 4K update of a movie that you already have in multiple editions, or would your money be better off going on something unseen and unknown? You can buy both, of course – but cult movie fans are increasingly becoming creatures of habit, and we’d encourage everyone to push outside their comfort zone and try the road less travelled. Silent Action is well worth your attention, and Fractured Visions seems a label to watch.
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