The Reprobate talks to the man behind the latest boutique Blu-ray label specialising in overlooked, lesser-known movies.
The launching of a new video label – particularly a niche label with a big roster and bit plans – is always something to take notice of, especially at a time when we are constantly being told that physical media is dead. Radiance Films emerged late last year with a flurry of tweets that gave an unusual level of insight into the workings of buying and releasing films – not too much insight, of course, because why give potential rivals a heads-up on everything you have planned or how to get into the business, but still enough to count as a certain degree of pulling back the curtain before the blu-rays themselves began to emerge at the start of 2023.
It certainly caught our attention, and when we’re given a snippet of information, our instinct is to discover more. We figured that Radiance main man Francesco Simeoni would be amenable to chatting about the launch of the label and the world of boutique video and cult cinema in general, and indeed he was. Our initial plan was to include here reviews of the first batch of Radiance releases but unfortunately, our ongoing redecorating of the Reprobate offices has made our TV inaccessible for longer than planned and rather than hang onto this interview any longer, we’ve decided to publish now and follow up with the Radiance overview in a week or so. Suffice to say that the catalogue so far is a fascinating one and includes movies from around the world that have perhaps been overlooked so far. One of the things we can most credit Radiance with is widening the scope of cult cinema labels and bringing rarely seen movies to a new audience.
But we’ll get into those films soon enough. For now, on with our chat with Simeoni…
Can you tell us a bit about your background pre-Radiance? I know you can here via Arrow but before then is a mystery.
I started out in the cinema side of the business, working for Mainline Pictures who owned the Screen at/on… group of cinemas, perhaps most famously including Screen on the Green where the Sex Pistols played and Adam Ant rehearsed, where midnight showings of Rocky Horror ran for years and as a group was a great supporter of arthouse and independent cinema. So with all that history, it was an interesting group of people who worked there and helped to expand my knowledge of cinema, from those things they did and stuff they had laying around the office, not to mention because it had previously been a distributor releasing films like Eraserhead, Grey Gardens, Over the Edge and My Beautiful Laundrette.
So whilst I’d already been interested in films and was a physical media collector with a VHS collection and then DVD my interests went off in different directions around this time, seeing films in the Screen cinemas, exploring various different lists (IMDb, AFI, Sight & Sound, They Shoot Pictures etc.) my interests were pretty canonical, even through university which I went to after this point as a mature student. Influenced by Academia I explored further into Asian and eastern European cinemas, Third Cinema, etc. but even then I was beginning to explore genre, becoming a fan of Amicus, seeing my first Argento movies and so on but it had been quite canonical.
Shortly thereafter I found myself at Arrow where I was thrown in the deep end – I loved home video but knew nothing about it from a technical standpoint. I didn’t know different master formats, encoding types and how releases are put together but I had read lots about it and learned quickly. Through my time at Arrow, I learned that side of the business but also really started to learn more about films which were outside of the canon or pop culture. So my sense of exploration had become a job so it was different, it was more about Arrow Video rather than anything else so some of my own interests got somewhat left behind. So in a funny way I am coming full circle going back to that discovery but now filtered through my experiences at Arrow.
What made you set up your own label and what was the motivation, creatively, behind Radiance? What is there here that you couldn’t do at Arrow?
There is no one reason, it’s a combination of 12 years at Arrow being a long time and wanting a change of scenery, the increasing corporatisation of the company (in place pre-THG), the increasing demand to sustain a larger and ever-growing company did play a part as well. Not to mention the trends which went further into areas I was less keen on. As a larger company, there is pressure to do what sells in larger quantities and can drive larger revenues because you have a lot of salaries to pay, it’s just economics. So I felt like I couldn’t explore certain things; not that anyone told me so but I felt that responsibility. I thought I would be putting my colleagues and the company at risk if I did too many risky deep dives – and we did that a bunch of times and they didn’t work (or work well enough) and the deals themselves were often complicated and caused headaches for multiple people. So it was far easier to stick to more obvious things or big sexy projects, where sales jump high, to go where revenues can be increased (UHD, special packaging) and to please not only the accountants, the bosses, the bottom line but also a greater army of fans who were increasingly buying and being excited by the big blockbuster or big shiny boxes but a small number of people/buyers were about The Possessed, or The Tree of Wooden Clogs. And those were the things that I found most interesting.
With the rise of boutique labels over the last few years, what will make you stand out from your ‘rivals’?
I think boutique labels are now of a quality and standard that it’s about curation more than anything, so I think it’ll be that. I’ve tuned out of some labels now because their curation has changed to the point I find myself less and less interested so I think that also influenced my decision. I found myself wondering why anyone else wasn’t doing X, Y and Z, because whilst it might not work for a big company, someone with low overheads or a more ballsy approach might. So I think it’s going to be a slow process but I think in the end people will find Radiance because they’re going to find the titles interesting.
When I was thinking about the label I was thinking about how I was in a really dangerous place because the label isn’t for casual cinema fans or people who are just getting into physical media, it’s really for people who are digging. So I am really dependent on other labels, for when someone has gotten through all the classics and wants to make more discoveries they’re hopefully going to find Radiance to answer that query more and more. It’s both as much economical as it is curatorial for me; if the rights came up to a big title, for example, L’Avventura, I both could not afford it but would not be interested in it either. People will say but why not, you could do more extras or a UHD and I would just say I don’t care about that stuff, I know all I need to know about the film, and I have a nice Blu-ray already. I’d be more interested in Zabriskie Point and I’d say that for most things in similar situations. So I’m hoping there are enough people out there who feel similarly to me.
I’m of an age now where I’ve upgraded through VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, I think I am a bit fatigued now from upgrading and have the feeling that those discoveries which inspired me when I was a young collector have seriously waned. I think it’s easy to be complacent about this because you can hop from era to era or by country and genre and say hey, I have the Japanese masters like Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi and the genre masters in Fukaksaku, Kitano and Miike ticked off and made my discoveries in Imamura, Teshigahara and Obayashi and that’s fine – so I’ll move onto something else or just upgrade those over and over, but there’s still so much more to explore. I get immensely excited when I see a film that gives me the same feeling I got when I first saw Vengeance is Mine and I started down that path discovering Imamura, Nikolaidis, Rozier, Weerasethakul or Ceylan. And there are other directors like that just waiting for that discovery.
So we know what doesn’t interest you, but what sort of titles, genres or styles are you releasing/looking at? The initial Radiance collection is pretty mixed.
I find this impossible to answer because I like what I like and that isn’t by genre or era. I have genre films and arthouse films, I have old films and new films. What I do dislike is getting one thing and mining the hell out of it. I hate that glut you can often see where you end up having too much of one thing. To me it would be like saying OK, beef tastes good and steak is a pretty great way to eat it and then having steak every night for dinner. That, to me, is awful, some nights I might want fish or noodles, European, Asian, spicy, light.
I consume films in the same way. One night I might want something that demands a bit more, maybe it’s something quite slow and it’s more about movement and image and less about words or action, just about how things are framed and its effect on you over the passage of time. But come Friday night when I’m tired I want some big action or genre thing I can unwind to and have fun with. I like both these things so I don’t see why one label can’t do them. If there’s one thing I saw at Arrow, it’s that enough people out there have varied, eclectic tastes and if they can get on board with that then I hope there’s enough that will see it and enjoy it on Radiance too.
How important is the packaging – not just the sleeve design but the disc extras etc – for labels like Radiance? If you are selling films to people that might not know much about those films, you need to make the whole thing attractive I’m guessing.
I think it is and it isn’t. I do have various things that bug me about physical media, how you might often get releases with big strips across the front telling you things that do make the package feel more of a delivery or instructional function than something which feels nice and a pleasure to own. I think if physical media is going to survive it’s going to be built on the collectors who buy regularly and it’s those people who are pickier. I don’t buy a book because it has a quote on the front saying it’s great or really need to have a banner at the top saying it’s hardback limited edition and a flash image with now a major motion picture and audiobook download code included inside. I have never really understood why books or music don’t come packaged like that but movies often do.
In that sense Radiance releases are probably more like books or music than traditional films; the OBI strip we’re using comes from CDs and vinyl. But I would not buy something because I didn’t like the artwork or packaging and I suspect most feel the same way. I have no intention of doing packaging for the sake of it. If I have a release which warrants that extra, the rigid box and the bigger book it’ll be because the release demands it in some way, but I don’t think this will be a regular feature. Many of my releases will be about simplicity, uniformity and keeping prices in a place people can get on board with while still being special.
I think special features are a great way to explore a film and understand the history around a film, but I am aiming to do these in a succinct and efficient manner. I think we went through that period where releases could claim to have something absurd like 90 hours of extra content and for my own take on things I want to have value while not taking a week to consume a release. I pretty much want to be done in one or two visits with a disc and I want to have the knowledge that when the release was put together it was looked after, I want to have the confidence that they did the best they could with it. I don’t want to have that nagging feeling while watching about whether or not it’s in the right ratio or the colour grading is off. I think it’s the nagging feeling rather than the thing itself which is the real problem.
So I think these are the things that are important and the way in which I’ll approach releases for Radiance. That means getting the various discussion points about a release addressed in a few interesting videos and a booklet. Sometimes releases will go beyond that and I think at that point it becomes about choice, you can choose to sit with a film through a commentary or read a booklet, or watch a documentary, you can do all and there might be a bit of overlap or you can do some but that’s where carefully putting a release together comes in. I’m working on The Man on the Roof at the moment and we do have all of those things, you can watch the feature-length documentary and you’re going to get a really good sense of what the film was like to be made but you won’t hear from Widerberg (he wasn’t alive when it was made) so you can watch the documentary about him, which is about him and less so about the film. Or you can listen to the commentary which I decided to commission in select scene segments on a series of topics so you can listen to all, or pick and choose but this was so we wouldn’t have so much overlap with the other extras, otherwise, you have someone talk for two hours they’re going to pretty much say everything they can about the whole film and so cannibalise the extras or start describing the scenes and neither is what anyone wants. It’s hard not to overlap a little, but it’s great to consume it all, over a period of time and come back to and revisit a different aspect of the film on a rewatch. And I think that is ultimately what we’re striving for with the best boutique label releases and I only want to own the best boutique releases or my favourite films if it’s a studio release without all this nice stuff.
You’ve been pretty transparent on social media about the whole creative process from start to finish – is this a deliberate move to hook interest or just your own personality showing through?
I suspect it’s a bit of both! When I started I didn’t have any releases so I just spoke about the process without naming films and people seemed to enjoy it so I continued. I just didn’t want to bore anyone but as I got good feedback it made sense to continue. I am fairly open and I guess confident about saying various things, especially now that I only have myself to answer to so I feel liberated to do that. I also feel like there’s a great, knowledgeable and understanding community listening so being open is quite easy. The interest in the behind-the-scenes and mechanics of releasing was quite a surprise to me so it’s something I definitely want to keep going.
Talk us through the initial releases.
The Working Class Goes to Heaven is the first release, the title I chose to be the number one and this was quite a hard choice to make. I looked at other #1 releases like La Grand Illusion for Criterion, Sunrise for Masters of Cinema and Christine for Indicator, and realised that I was never going to have a major or ‘important’ title to fill that slot so thought the best thing to do would be to go for personality – and I think this film, as something more obscure but still very good and classic, fits the bill very well. Elio Petri is one of those discovery filmmakers I mentioned above. This was the first film of his I saw, I think by exploring films with Gian Maria Volonte, one of my favourite actors, and I think he’s a brilliant, fascinating filmmaker. I feel like I really re-discovered the film here, the insight we got into it was really fascinating and allowed me to consider it in a totally new way.
I’d been exploring Commedia all’Italiana over the last few years and I had not really considered the film as having that lineage, for me it was quite distant from that, a political film and not obviously a comedy but it is funny but not in a broad way, and it’s obviously dramatic as well. Volonte is amazing in it and it really shows how he was able to transform himself, his performance here is markedly different to The Mattei Affair which also won the Palme d’Or shared with this film. He is a factory worker who gets off on being the best at his work and gloats about how much he makes in bonuses and so on and the bosses use him to set the acceptable levels of work output to hit but his cockiness bites him in the arse when he gets his finger cut off in an accident and that causes him to entirely re-think his approach and becomes a revolutionary. Despite being shot mostly in a factory and drab, grey exteriors and dark apartments it is a visually impressive film and I think this release finally does it justice. I had the Minerva DVD but the colour was off; we found a print-sourced transfer and were able to accurately re-time the film which gave it a subtle but important change in feeling and a general boost in quality which you really feel watching the film I think.
The next release is Big Time Gambling Boss, I was going for something Japanese in the second slot as Japanese films are very close to my heart and will be a strong part of the label going forward. So I was deciding which one to put in and the feedback I was getting from eager fans gave me the confidence to choose this, a completely unknown film by an unknown director, starring a great actor but one who had never really been a major cover star of any films released in the west. Nevertheless, I thought the strength of the film would pull it through and I really wanted to emphasize Radiance as a label about discovery. The film is from 1968 and the period before Kinji Fukasaku shook up the yakuza film so here it’s a period setting and it’s more about characters and the themes of honour and clan loyalty than later films which upended some of these things in more complex ways. It’s written by Kazuo Kasahara who would go on to write Fukasaku’s major films including Battles Without Honour and Humanity and his plot machinations shine through here. It’s about a yakuza clan boss who in ill health says they must choose a successor and this falls on Tsuruta’s character but he’s not an original gang member and he believes the character played by Wakayama (who is less recognisable here than when he’s in Lone Wolf and Cub but every bit as good) though he’s in jail. An advisor played by Nobuo Kaneko (who plays a scheming rat in pretty much everything because he’s so good at it) twists things so that someone else gets it and then complications ensue. This is kind of what I was talking about earlier, everyone involved with the film is not around and the Japanese don’t have the same sort of archive access that other countries have so finding interviews is nigh on impossible but this was about getting the film looking right and including things relevant to the release without unnecessarily stuffing it.
I don’t know how much you’ll want to get into this, but what sort of sales figures does a label like Radiance need to be sustainable? What counts as good sales for a niche release these days?
This is impossible to say really – how many staff does the label have, are the staff earning higher salaries because they could otherwise get jobs at Netflix, are the releases sourced from off-the-shelf masters, do they have multiple audio tracks requiring higher costs of subtitling, QC, encoding etc.? Is the film really long so racking up a big BBFC bill? When we’re talking about niche releases, all these things can make a big difference because the margins are quite small. For Radiance, releasing 2000 units will get me to break even or slightly above. I am dependent on selling other rights like digital or TV or a follow-on standard edition. Some releases I don’t anticipate selling a standard edition at all, but when I can get to limited editions of 3000 I will be in a better position to make more money; as a start-up, I am in a position to be able to re-invest anything I make straight back into releases so for me it’s more about that than it is in driving profits, which at this stage would be a luxury. I think the limited run for most labels will be more about the size of the audience willing to pay the standard price. If you’re a big company you can try alternatives to this, like making it big and adding more stuff and increasing the price or you can simplify it in extras and packaging and make less money per unit and hope to do more volume, which is a risky play and one a small label would be unwise to attempt.
On a similar ‘answer if you are comfortable’ note – has the expansion of cult labels pushed the prices of buying the rights to niche movies up? And how does that then impact on retail prices? I’m guessing that you see the market as sustainable but do you think that there is a breaking point where there is just too much content out there, especially in times of recession etc?
Prices have definitely gone up that’s for sure, but in some respects, they haven’t by a lot. it really depends on who is selling and that can mean the difference between something coming out and something not. Certainly, bigger labels will pay more/be demanded of more by licensors but I think the smart ones know when to sell and when to sit. What’s frustrating is those types that sit and end up waiting forever. There are a few of those for sure. The other frustrating thing is the dreaded remake. Since some people will think if a title is going to be remade then the original must now be worth a fortune because when the Hollywood reimagining comes out there will be so much attention on it. That’s rarely the case since the market works like that a lot less these days and that remake may not ever get made…. I’ve had that a few times with the original but also tangential films since some films can get held back as part of ‘related promotional activity’.
I think retail pricing is at the best it’s ever been for what people are getting. Now I think about it, I am surprised it’s not higher. I see people in the UK routinely importing niche releases for other countries for £30-40 whether that be an Imprint, La chat qui fume or a higher priced Criterion or Vinegar Syndrome – but I think because it’s a rare import they’re willing to do it because there’s no other choice.
This was part of the reason I wanted to host other labels because I knew there was a home audience who are probably sitting on a list of ‘would like to have’ releases from other countries if they were not £40. I remember buying a DVD with no extras for £19.99 in the early 2000s, twenty years later and we’re looking at that pushing £40 now apparently according to inflation but even the money aside I think that if you look at the leap in packaging, extras and the overall quality you get a lot more for your money. When I started Radiance a friend of mine said “wow, you’re so cheap” and I said I just couldn’t hope to charge what the biggest labels or import labels charge because these are unknown films and I think at a higher price point you cause people to waver and maybe sit for a sale. So I have to be accessible from the outset and since I can’t have discount sales from a financial point of view this is it, people buy in or miss out unfortunately. The most economical way for me and the buyer is to get a long-term package, the more of those I sell the more I can invest and release and ultimately the buyer gets an increased slate than originally planned. Though I haven’t sold enough of those to do that yet!
In times of recession, I think home entertainment is usually pretty safe because a Blu-ray is cheaper than a night at the cinema or dinner out so people tend to keep buying. We all need to treat ourselves a little bit every now and again if we can afford it, so home media is usually pretty good for that. It is definitely a tough time and I would have obviously preferred to start a business in more buoyant times. But if I didn’t start now I don’t think I ever would have. As to whether there is just too much content out there it is an interesting question. I think in a way this will support niches more and more. We are going toward a stage where every niche can be catered to and ultimately that’s how people will make their decisions, but whether or not it’s financially viable is much more difficult to predict. I am sure some of the labels won’t survive purely because the margins might be too tight, and I have to realistically say that for Radiance as well.
You’ve touched on this a little, but can you give a layman’s guide to why we don’t see certain cult favourites getting any sort of release while others are constantly regurgitated?
I think there are two key reasons for this. As you mention it, let’s tackle rights. There are many films out there stuck due to one reason or another, and this can be as complex as music rights preventing a film from being released down to a company which just doesn’t have the ability to release them because that business does something else, release blockbusters or medicines. The other reason is economics. The audience size for a major film will be such that there is someone buying that title every year without fail, there is always someone re-discovering it, buying it as a gift, replacing a lost copy or whatever. There are obviously a great many shades of this, from the blockbuster that always adorns the shelves at seasonal times and just continues to sell and sell to the cult film that gets bought by fans in every format in different package types, it’s the same kind of market logic. That same market logic will be what drives decision making when it comes to a label filling their release pipes. Combined with the rights question it is easier for a label to go to a company that’s easy to work with, has material that can be delivered as and when needed and has titles which have proven audience metrics. So the person who has a responsibility to their organisation is going to choose the path that’s easiest.
That we get things that are difficult, the rights entanglements that take years to resolve, and the materials that take months if not years to search for, is down to the passion of individuals at these labels, archives, and institutions. Ultimately it’s a business like any other and you can’t charge more for a release just because it took five years to clear the rights. When you boil that down in financial terms, it makes no sense for a business to say why did we invest all this time in this film which made us no more money than this other one, because usually, that’s how it goes. A lack of availability will rarely mean bumper sales. Unfortunately, it’s hard to communicate that to rightsholders who are sometimes holding out for sums which are just completely unrealistic.
Thanks to Francesco for being so open with his answers. We’ll be back with a look at a variety of the initial Radiance releases and our thoughts on where the label is heading shortly.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!