Today – some stories on the perils and rewards of attempting to license or borrow classic animation and films!
Happy October, die-hard animation folks.
It’s been a pretty interesting year here, and, if I can get past the exhaustion of everything currently, internally and externally, it’s also clearly of the most productive years in terms of amount of work going on, and, hopefully, getting finished. Work continues at Thunderbean, and I’ll give an update on progress of everything next week rather than the usual. The one thing I can say is that Grotesqueries is attempting to get to the finish line this week, and we’re attempting to get the discs for the set out well before Halloween.
I think we’re in such an interesting time right now in terms of classic animated films; on one hand, there’s much more accessibility to many of the older films, and many things have been released (on DVD and Blu-ray) that were just never available before to the general public. The last 15 years or so have seen things from major studios show up that I honestly thought wouldn’t. On the other hand, the biggest window for *who* wants to see them has been slowly closing for many, many years, and now there’s a smaller audience for much of it.
We all have the lists of things we want to see of course— but many things are stuck in a form of permanent withdrawal from the public view. For many, many films, the owners either don’t know they have a film or have no interest in releasing it, and, very likely, won’t ever, unless the material is worth the efforts *monetarily* to release it. It’s an odd situation in that some* things will see the light of day, with others, including a lot of animation and old children’s shows, seem to be in a special form of purgatory.
My own battles to try and release many things have been at least partially documented here, but the *actual* list is quite huge. This little boat that is Thunderbean is tiny while sailing on the same waters as many giant tankers, and sometimes even getting enough respect to get a dialogue going is difficult. At other times it’s quite easy, but getting to the point of actual deals can of course become difficult as well, in many different ways.Even releasing things are are in the public domain has its perils of course, from making a deal to borrow films to not stepping on anyone else’s toes that would like to release something that you’d like to as well. Sometimes you don’t even know you’ve stepped on someone’s foot in this way; what I’ve learned this year is to be diligent in communication and ask very specific questions so everyone’s on the same page. Borrowing films from collectors really depends on how willing the collector is to lend, and to become trustworthy enough to take care of their rare materials. I lost a few films more recently, lent to a friend of a friend. I’ve now learned my lesson on being much more on top of who has each thing and for how long.
To me, the accessibility of the films is the most important thing; The existence of Thunderbean serves that purpose above all else. I do hope to expand the business more, with the main intention of just being able to do bigger things; the growing pains of it financially and otherwise, have made decisions difficult at times, but I very much enjoy the things we’ve been so lucky to be able to do, and want to help make so many more sets happen as well.
Our own homes at this point will need to suffice for showings of classic films since there’s less of a chance to see them in public venues, and physical media still seems to be the best way to have an actual copy in your collection in a more permanent way. Don’t get me wrong, I do like my digital collections of stuff, but it’s much easier to organize and find what I’m looking for all the time on the shelves of discs.There are basically two types of deals I make with Thunderbean. Some are for licensing materials (often with a residual attached) and others are making a deal to borrow things to help cobble together a collection. Some of the most difficult ‘deals’ remain ongoing currently. There are some projects that have dragged on for years in just trying to get rights, some that have various roadblocks to accessibilities of materials, some that are just a ridiculous amount of work to get rights, some that are just a ridiculous amount of money to do so. One project looked like it was going, only to be scuttled by one missed phone call (ironically while I was teaching an animation history class!).
Another deal involves a character that was sold—for the first time since the 50s, to one company, then another, scuttling a signed contract and the majority of Thunderbean’s profit for several years. Happily, that project seems to have a light at the end of its tunnel. Another project hinges on the owners of the material finally just making the decision to move forward (with very little, if any, work on their part). The reluctance seems to be caused more from it just not being a priority, while it’s likely things are deteriorating, suffering from Vinegar Syndrome. This particular thing kills me the most since it’s material not seen since the late 40s and early 50s, and much of it are likely the only prints in existence.
One of my good collector friends was used to putting whole series of 16mm cartoons on the same reel, stored sometimes in a 35mm can with two 16mm reels full of cartoons together. In many cases, one of the films in those cans started to show signs of vinegar syndrome, drying out and curling many of the other films in the can from the exposure. I did a lot of soaking to soften some of those prints from scanning since many were better than any other materials I’ve found.I tried to license one film from a country in Asia years back, only to be told that an American would not be allowed to license that particular title! It was related to World War II, but I never imagined there would still be those particular restrictions.
I once made a deal to borrow some films from a collector, and he agreed to the lend as long as he was present at the transfers. That was fine, but when he saw the telecine scanner (at the professional facility) he was afraid the film may all shred or break and refused to scan *any* of it! I had cleaned and prepped all of them, but his fears had the best of him. Those prints remain unscanned.
One collector buried some of his films after lending them, another managed to (by accident) toss a key film I wanted to borrow to make an hd scan. Another tossed a bunch of films purposely, thinking that all his films were deteriorating and therefore useless. They weren’t.
One collector I knew passed a few years back; this has left his other half still has a ton of Nitrate films in sheds in their backyard! The collector had films since the mid-40s, and I had met him after a large fire destroyed one of the three sheds containing hundreds of reels. I made sure nothing else was still in sealed cans. Many 20s Felix the Cat cartoons went up in smoke in that fire— perhaps even some lost ones.
There are many, many more stories of collectors that have been incredibly generous than anything else. I can’t begin to thank them really; they are as much responsible for saving the past artist’s efforts as any of the archives and companies.The large corporations do need support when the do move the arrow forward and take a chance on things knowing they will be difficult to make a profit from. I do wish the business model would just consider making money in the overall business, with some titles making a lot more than others rather than the worry about *all* things making a big profit. Other things are presumed to have rights issues, so even dealing with that can of worms has been deemed not worth it for a larger company.
Warner Archive keeps the faith by offering a lot of otherwise unavailable feature films, and has made a lot of their cartoons available as well (and more to come).
Overall, the folks at the film archives and the folks we have licenses with have been absolutely stellar in helping to make the Thunderbean projects happen, and so many other projects for other small labels. They’re all film and animation fans as well, so often their hearts are in the same place.
So, there’s a few little stories. If you have a few that involve collecting films or making a deal to either buy or license films, feel free to post them!
Have a great week everyone!