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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cheepnis: an introduction.

(I'm starting this blog off by porting some old writings over as they are relevant to the direction I want this thing to go. I'll be updating and elaborating on these things as I go along.)

I've picked up an odd collecting obsession lately, cheap DVDs. Now, I'm not talking budget line major studio releases of last summer's blockbuster. I'm talking funky looking public domain movies on labels you've never heard of with a per movie price of less than a dollar. That kind of cheap.

I grew up on the tail end of the local "creature feature" TV show and I guess those movies have stayed with me, for some reason. I still remember catching Sammy Terry (who'd been around so long, my father watched him as a boy) and Bob & Tom (long before their radio show was syndicated) hosting weird old black and white cheepies which always seemed to me much more interesting than current Hollywood fare. Rediscovering Mystery Science Theater 3000 has rekindled my interest in these movies I'd forgotten about a long time ago.

In the past few years, a bunch of companies have started hawking almost nothing but old b-movies on DVD dirt cheap. Some of these are new startups, while others should be familiar to anyone who built a library of VHS tapes. What I want to do is talk about some of these companies and the movies they are putting out just because there isn't a whole lot of info out there and it's something I think is very interesting. In fact, most of what I know, I've discovered through old posts on message boards such as DVD Maniacs and Cheap DVDs.

To start with, one may be completely baffled as to how a company can release say 50 movies in a set for less than $25 and turn a profit. Well, it's quite easy. Most of these companies rely on public domain material for their discs. What that means is the original creator of the film has given up their claim on it and anyone is free to do what they want with it. Many people assume these releases are bootlegs. No, it's actually quite legal, though one can say they are unauthorized releases as they don't have the blessing of the original producers to make these things, but they don't need it either.

Back before Disney started writing these laws for the government, there were two ways something could enter the public domain. The first way was if the original owner did not assert copyright when the film was first released. That's how the original Night of the Living Dead became public domain. The film's distributor changed it's name at the last minute and substituted a new title card in the print but forgot to put the copyright info on it, so Living Dead was never copyrighted.

The second method was if the copyright was not renewed. If I recall correctly, the way this used to work was that anything published before 1978 was copyrighted automatically for 28 years and could be renewed for another 47 years. In 1998, this was expanded to 67 years, though anything produced before 1923 had already expired into the public domain. This is how some old TV shows (like the Beverly Hillbillies and Andy Griffith) entered public domain.

(Pretty much anything created or published after 1978 is copyrighted for the life of the creator plus 70 years, which nothing copyrighted after 1978 is going public domain in our lifetime. This 1978 part is why many people think the public domain is dead. This fact isn't really relevant to the DVDs I'm talking about, but I threw it in just for completeness sake.)

There are several companies who specialize in nothing but public domain film. These companies don't sell to the public, but they sell to professionals who wish to buy royalty free programming. They have the films transferred to a professional video format and do the research to insure what they are selling is, in fact, in the public domain.

What these cheepies DVD companies do is they order a bunch of films from these companies, digitize them, have them authored to DVD and there's your release. Unlike most major studios, there's no effort made at restoration. What they get from the public domain movie house is what they get. Restoration is, after all, a costly procedure and the point here is to get cheap product in the store.

(Alternately, there seems to be a lot of companies ripping other companies discs or just dubbing old VHS tapes for source material. It's not uncommon to see a watermark or some other identifying factor of one company's print pop up on someone else's DVD. Really, there isn't anything anyone can do about that if the material in question is really public domain, but it is sketchy from an ethical standpoint.)

Which leads me to a huge point: if you're thinking about picking up a handful of these $1 dvds, don't expect Criterion Collection quality. These aren't THX certified nor are these aimed at the sort of people who would care about such a thing. Every time someone from one of these companies is interviewed, they say the same thing; they want to get the low end of the market, the people who are just looking for some mindless entertainment to go with their $29 dvd player.

The fact that in some cases they are putting out some rare and desirable movies is often times coincidental, though there do seem to be some film buffs in the know responsible for some of these DVD lines. However, these releases really get some of the more serious film snobs up in arms due to the quality issues. Yes, I'd love it if some of these things were easier to watch but, expecting some sort of archival quality release at this price point is really missing the point.

That's not to say that all these DVDs are poor quality. Yes, a lot of times you will find an overly compressed DVD of a scratchy, washed out film that someone has tampered with the contrast levels to try to improve. However, sometimes you'll get a clean print that looks pretty damn good, all things considered. You just never know until you get home and put it in the player.

Since I first wrote this, the market for these really low end discs has become incredibly oversaturated. One can literally find dozens of different versions of films like Satanic Rites of Dracula and Night of the Living Dead to say nothing of the endless recycling of that handful of old TV shows in the public domain. A few companies have taken the next logical step and are actually licensing original content. Mostly I'm seeing what looks like ultra low budget horror shot straight to digital video. I haven't dipped a toe in this water yet, but some of these films do look interesting.

That's pretty much the background. I think next time I'm going to talk a little about the different companies I know of, what they have to offer and where you might find them.

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