One of the most interesting things about the United States film community in the last couple of years is definitely the apparent resurrection of films largely forgotten by the general public – or never even introduced to them. This fascinating trend of much-welcome film re-presentation strives to give a second wind to the sails of countless gems that disappeared from circulation decades ago. These films, different in many aspects, share one common tragic quality: they might have been ahead of their time, they might have done horridly at the box office, they might have lacked support and fair presentation; whatever the reason might be, these films simply didn’t catch a break their authors and their crew deserved. Thanks to an unofficial movement spread across the country, these films are given a new life. From theaters such as the Alamo Drafthouse or Tarantino’s The New Beverly, home media publishers like Arrow, Vinegar Syndrome or Powerhouse, websites like Letterboxd, Rupert Pupkin Speaks and, to some extent, even Cinephilia & Beyond and our young NeoText, there’s a wave of wonderful film reappreciation that is making sure film culture stays alive and well.
One of the leading factors in the New York City scene is Jonathan Hertzberg, who has worked as the director of theatrical distribution and marketing for Kino Lorber, the NYC company specialized in distributing the best in international, documentary, independent and classic cinema. Jonathan started a boutique label called Fun City Editions, through which he reissues cinema and music gems that, as their website states, “exist outside of their time”. So far – through their partnership with Vinegar Syndrome – Fun City Editions have enriched us with stunning Blu-ray restorations of films such as Jeremy, I Start Counting, Alphabet City, Smile, Walking the Edge and Rancho Deluxe. I sat down for a virtual chat with Jonathan, one of the most passionate cinephiles there is, as he kindly allowed me to pick his brain for about half an hour.
The idea was to present Fun City Editions to our readers, in case someone wasn’t familiar with what you do, but also touch upon the larger theme of the movement in the States regarding cult film preservation and representation. John (Schoenfelder) says you’re probably the best person to talk to regarding the matter.
That’s kind of him to say. I guess I’m one of the people who has something to say on the subject.
Right off the bat – why did you start Fun City Editions of issuing Blu-rays?
Well, I’ve been a collector of physical media, of films on various formats, for decades at this point. From VHS and LaserDisc to DVD and Blu-ray. And also, of course, taping things off of TV. It started from a young age, seeing a lot of stuff on TV, probably seeing a lot of things before I should have in terms of my age. I’m a collector and I’ve always been interested in things from the past, things that were from a generation before me or more. I think those things always held a curiosity for me. And in my professional life, I’ve worked as a programmer when I was in university, and afterwards, for film festivals. A lot of what I worked on was the booking of classic titles, repertory titles. In my day job, I’ve worked for a company called Kino Lorber for several years, and for a lot of that time I’ve been curating a label over there called Kino Lorber Repertory, which is concerned with handling a big back catalog for the company as well as new restorations of old films. So I got a lot of experience there on the marketing and selling, as well as some acquisitions of classic titles, titles that needed to be restored or relaunched. As is often the case, when you work for someone else, you don’t have all of the executive power that you’d like, and I aspired to have my own label for a while because I’m interested in the publishing side as well. In my day job, I really don’t work in the home video side, I don’t work in the physical media part of it, so the movies kind of go out of my hands after the theatrical is done. I’m interested in all aspects of the release of these films – theatrical, digital, streaming, home video, television, too, if you can make a television sale.
That sort of led me to Fun City Editions. Having learned a lot in my professional work and having made a lot of contacts, the time was right. That allowed me to step in and start Fun City. I feel there is a lot of stuff out there that hasn’t been spoken for, that hasn’t been restored. That’s what I’m trying to do – I’m always trying to find more buried gems, more films that need love. There have been a lot of films that have been rescued or restored, but there’s still so much out there, there’s so much more to find. And that’s the fun part of this job – there’s a good deal of detective work. You try to find who owns the film, then you have to find out if there are materials you can use to make a restoration. Those are the two things you really have to know if you want to revive one of these older titles.
Since there are thousands of films that wait to be rediscovered, this sounds like a mission that might take some time to be accomplished. Like a job that will never end.
True, true! It’s always a balance between what you really like or love, what you can acquire and then if it’s something you can see there’s a market for. You have to have some passion for it, it has to be doable in terms of the film’s availability to be acquired, bought, licensed, and it has to make some sense business-wise. Otherwise, you know, you won’t be able to do any more of them and the mission will be cut short.
Speaking of the importance for each restoration to make sense in terms of sales, what can you tell me about the public’s interest so far?
My company is distributed by Vinegar Syndrome, which is already very established in this landscape. There’s a lot of brand awareness for Vinegar Syndrome, they have an incredible amount of loyalty that they’ve built up, so coming in as a partner label, as they call it, it put a lot of eyeballs on my company and what I was doing. Probably much more quickly than if I was with another distributor or starting on my own. So, it’s been good. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the feedback I got from both the reviewers and from the consumers, fans on social media who also contact me by email. We’ve got six releases on the market, and a few other titles that we announced that are a bit down the line.
Every time a new release comes out, it makes more people aware of the company because something about that latest movie attracts a different part of the audience. From there, they go backwards: if they weren’t aware of us from release number one, and they become aware of us on, let’s say, release number five, they go, oh, look at all those other things you guys have already done, this is great, and they catch up. That’s part of the collector’s mentality. People want to be on the ground floor with the label. People who collect Blu-rays at this point, it’s obviously niche, it’s not super mainstream, it’s more of a devoted, dedicated type of fan. A lot of people are like, once they buy one, they’re on board, they trust you and they want to complete the collection and have every spine on their shelf. It’s a special mentality, a collector’s mentality, I understand it as I’m a part of that.
You’ve got to embrace that to succeed in this business and try to find ways to reach that audience. Especially considering a lot of stuff we’re releasing is something a lot of these people haven’t heard of before, which is exciting but also a little scary. You don’t necessarily have as much of a built-in audience for something like I Start Counting or Jeremy, as you would have if you released an eighties’ slasher movie or something like that. But it’s been exciting to see people maybe broaden their viewing habits and be open-minded about some of this stuff. Like I said, the sweet spot is horror – but that well is going to run dry. There’s already a lot of labels, including Vinegar Syndrome, that do that really well. Among the things I’m looking for and re-releasing, some things may be genre, they may have horror elements or other genre elements, but a lot of them are dramas and therefore not immediately sellable as a genre title.
What’s been heartening to see is that people have been into things like Jeremy because there’s something universal about it and people relate to its story, relate to its characters. And they say, this is not something I’d usually be watching, but Fun City has done great stuff up till now so I’ll check this one out. And they love it. That’s very common feedback I’ve received. A lot of our buyers are Vinegar Syndrome customers who are maybe usually watching action or horror stuff, but a good portion of those people seem to be looking at our stuff, too, even if it doesn’t fall within these categories.
What’s great about the project is that it’s not only aimed at the people who know about the films you’re reissuing and want to complete their collections, but also all the new viewers that have never been exposed to these films. You’re helping these works get completely new audiences.
Yes, also it’s a younger audience. Vinegar Syndrome has done a really good job of reaching a younger audience, almost debunking this idea that physical media is going to be dead in five years, or that physical media was dead five years ago. And that’s only the case if you’re thinking about it in terms of the older market, an older fanbase and demographic. I’m interacting with people on social media, and a lot of our audience is young – in their teens or twenties. They’re still buying and looking for content on Blu-ray. And that’s key, that feeds into what you were saying when you stated we’re reaching people who never heard of those films before.
Of course, there’s going to be people who buy Jeremy, for instance, because they saw it almost fifty years ago, there are people who loved it when it came out, but there’s also people who didn’t know it existed until we put it out. Obviously you want to reach both of those components of the audience. But in terms of long-term survival of physical media, you have to keep looking forward and making sure you’re doing everything you can to hit a younger audience and grow that younger audience, because that’s what’s going to keep the market growing for more than five or ten years.
We could talk about the similarities between this home video revival and the way vinyl came back as a hit with the younger audiences, who either thought they were cool or it helped them shape their own identity in some way. This isn’t keeping just the film culture alive, but also the technological aspect of making films.
Yeah, absolutely, there are parallels with the vinyl resurgence. In fact, we’ll also be doing some records, we have a record coming out. Or vinyl, whatever you prefer to call it. The young people like to say “vinyls”. We have the soundtrack for the cult sci-fi post-apocalyptic adult film Café Flesh. It was available on LP and tape in the early eighties when the movie was new, except at the time the record company decided to release it with a different title, sort of not to have it directly attached to an adult film, to a hardcore film. But we’re rebranding it as Café Flesh. The film hasn’t been available in a decent version, and people really want to have it. We don’t have it unfortunately, but we do have the record and that has certainly garnered quite a bit of chatter whenever we’d post something, people get really excited. Anyway, what I wanted to say, I’m a record person also, I understand the parallel there.
Besides, obviously, its availability, what would you say are your main criteria when picking a film for your next edition?
Well, the thing I really like to focus on is the films that haven’t been available on Blu-ray before, or maybe that haven’t been available even on DVD or home video. Something like I Start Counting. Some people claim that there were VHS editions in far-flung places way back in the day, but I’ve never seen any actual evidence of that. That’s the perfect example of what I aim to do. A movie that you really couldn’t see in a decent version. A big criterion was putting out something like that, where the marketplace was totally clear. You know, we’re not talking about something that’s come out on Blu-ray multiple times, it hasn’t even been available in a decent version. With titles such as I Start Counting, we really get the opportunity to re-introduce it, or introduce it for the first time, frankly, because it’s a film that’s never been officially released in the US before. That’s a really important part in our decision-making, to land on a film that’s really not been exploited yet. I just think it’s more rewarding to be first rather than come out with the umpteenth edition of a certain film.
The other thing is, do I feel there’s a market for it? Do I feel there’s an audience that I can reach? Are there hooks in this movie? In every title I try to find what I think are things that make the film relevant. If I’m talking to someone who’s never heard of it before, how can I sell this title, how can I present it in such a way that they feel, oh, it’s cool, I get it, it’s like this or that movie, that kind of thing. This is fairly basic, I guess. That’s really what you have to do with any business. And like I said before, I feel for the most part that I really have to believe in it. I’m doing a small number of titles, it’s a legitimately boutique or bespoke kind of an operation, so every release people feel there’s a lot of care behind it. So far, that seems to be the case, people feel each release has a certain handmade quality. That’s something else I’m striving for.
When you put out a small number of Blu-rays, the audience must think it’s something special since you’ve handpicked it among thousands of movies.
Absolutely, that’s definitely the idea behind saying it’s a boutique, bespoke, handcrafted kind of label. I’ve been a collector for many years and now the bar’s pretty high – it’s more niche overall, even the records are pressed in much smaller numbers than they would’ve been back in the day. It’s not a mass-market kind of a medium at this point, whether you’re talking about films or music. It’s definitely more niche, more specialized. The bar is pretty high: the things that do come out are not really bare-bones so much, it’s more like really nicely put together editions.
When you put out a release, you want to make something that people are proud to put on their shelf. You want to put something out there that’s going to look good next to, you know, the Criterion or the Arrow or the Vinegar Syndrome stuff. The numbers are smaller, but the bar is actually higher in terms of quality because people have limited shelf space and limited funds, limited entertainment dollars, so you really want to make them feel like, I don’t know this movie, but God, that package looks so gorgeous, so beautiful, that I have to own it.
And that happened to us with Alphabet City, which was our first release, where the artwork was really striking. That was a movie I picked because I felt like it was underrated and underseen. Given all of the elements it had that, to me, were so much in style now, from the post-disco electro score by Nile Rodgers, to the really neon-tinged post-punk early eighties neon-noir things that are so popular now, whether you’re looking at the Safdie brothers or Grand Theft Auto, the video game, or Nicolas Winding Refn. If people saw these movies and video games and liked them, they should like Alphabet City even if they’ve never heard of it because Alphabet City is for sure in the DNA of those things, it absolutely inspired them whether directly or indirectly, and the artwork kind of spoke to that. You see the artwork and you think this could be the poster for a Nicolas Winding Refn film.
You mentioned a couple of times how important it is to feel the pulse of your audience and anticipate their wishes when it comes to choosing a film for the next re-issue. You must be under a lot of pressure to carefully make your choice, because if there isn’t enough interest upon the release, you can get in trouble regarding financing Fun City’s future projects.
For sure. Not every film is going to have the same level of success. Luckily, even the titles that were a little slower to sell, they are all doing well. Well enough for me to keep going. Basically, even though we’re young, we’ve built up an audience, started to get something of a fanbase, people who are on board with everything you do. I don’t know how many of those people there are, I’m just going anecdotally based on people posting stuff on social media, where I try to be constantly engaged and reach them.
Right now, I’m in a good spot. Knock on wood or whatever. I haven’t had anything that I’ve spent a ton of money on and it bombed or something like that. I’m trying to keep the business cost-responsible and not operate above my means or too over my head. I’m just kind of going with my instincts to a degree and learning as I go, and using what I’ve learned when going forward. Everything’s pretty modest, this is still a sideline gig for me, I haven’t left my full-time position yet, but – so far, so good. It’s going in the right direction and I don’t need to quit yet.
You went to college with Brian Saur, who co-hosts the Pure Cinema Podcast. When we look at the larger picture of the trend of the revitalization of cult films in the US, is it a generational thing? Were you guys coordinated when you started or we’re talking about a spontaneous movement that happened across the country?
It’s a good question. Was it a coordinated thing? No, I think it’s organic. I think it just happens to be that it’s connected on a personal level in my case. John (Schoenfelder) and I went to college together in Madison, Wisconsin. At the same time I also met Brian Saur in Madison, in the nineties. It just so happens to be that the three of us are really invested in this part of the film culture specifically, in sort of adjacent areas. It’s been great for me personally, John does all the things he does, including working with you guys (Cinephilia & Beyond), and we are simpatico in so many ways, and a lot of our formative viewing happened literally together. And it’s the same thing with Brian, as he started in blogging and moved over to the podcast world. For me personally, it’s great that these people I have such a history with are also in this niche. We’re still friends and they are a huge help to me professionally. With John’s resources and his reach, and then Brian’s resources and reach… That’s for me, on an individual, personal level, a very unique situation and I’ve definitely benefited from it.
I think on the whole, if you look over the last twenty years or so, as people from our generation have gotten older and gotten more of a foothold within the industry, there’s been more of an interest in some cult films of a more recent vintage. When I say recent, I mean like the seventies, eighties and nineties. Being in this business for a while and having worked and learned under boomers for a long time, the generation before, I saw that their focus and what was really being canonized belonged to that generation, which was also kind of a part of the first Film School Generation. A lot of things becoming canonical were from their youth and also prior to their youth, as well as the European New Wave. These were the things that John and I learned about in our classes, in David Bordwell’s courses, for instance.
On my own, I was reading about films that weren’t in this canon, that were sort of post-sixties, post-New Wave films. Books like Danny Peary’s Cult Movies. Guide for the Film Fanatic is another Danny Peary book that people cite now, people like Brian and Elric Kane from the Pure Cinema Podcast. And other writers: the late Mike McPadden was another, Larry Karaszewski… But those weren’t books that people were reading in classes, those books and films were not what was taught in the courses, but they were interesting to me because I was interested in where things led. Again, I was always curious about the stuff that wasn’t talked about as much. I don’t want to say these films were buried, but a lot of them were waiting to be discovered. They had their first release and then went into hibernation, so to speak.
There were a lot of films that I read about in Danny Peary’s books and they weren’t really available in a good version, and weren’t talked about in classes, but twenty years later they ended up in the Criterion collection, or BFI released them, or Arrow in really nice, restored editions. Or in my case Fun City Editions. I think what we’re seeing is a natural progression of a life span of films, or life cycles of films. They come out, even now, with streaming and home video and all these ways that movies are kept going, in a way that wasn’t possible in the pre-video days. Films still do kind of go into hibernation, they still do go under the surface for a while, and I expect that the generation that’s going to come after me is going to bring back a lot of films that are made today, from the last decade, maybe films that people aren’t really talking about as much now.
And the next generation comes along, finds out about them and revives them. In terms of the people who are doing what I’m doing on the video side, or people who are programming arthouse cinemas that show repertory films, a lot of those people are people who are of our age, people who are younger. It almost seems like there’s more interest and life being put into these films by members of Generation X or millenials at this point.
A lot of time when we’re talking about films from the seventies that the boomers made or saw when they came out, they don’t really have the same feelings for them. I’m going on another tangent here, but a lot of things, including especially the films that I’ve released, are sleepers, movies that were not real successes when they came out. They were not movies that won Academy Awards. When you talk to people who were around, let’s say, when Alphabet City came out, either someone who worked on that film or reviewed it, their memory of the film is probably, oh, the film’s a piece of shit. That was a bomb, right? Because they worked on it, reviewed it or booked it, and it did terrible business for them. When they look back at it, they say it’s a terrible movie. They are only thinking of it in 1984 terms. But the younger audience didn’t get the chance to see it when it was new.
People like me, when we see it, we think, oh, this is totally a precursor to Good Time or Uncut Gems by the Safdie brothers I mentioned before. Films set in New York, all in one night, there’s a certain level of white-knuckle tension in them, and also a certain sense of style and music. Stylistically speaking, when I saw it, I thought Alphabet City must be a film that Josh and Benny loved, right? This is the whole point I’m trying to make: these films reach people on home video or cable, they inspire people to make films a whole generation later. It’s the type of films people who were around when they came out found difficult to appreciate, because they got horrible reviews, bombed at the box office, and that’s that – for them it’s forgotten. I see our role as resetting that history.
Giving them a second chance.
Yeah, or a third chance even. That speaks to the motto I gave to Fun City, which is movies or records that “exist out of their time.” They might have been ahead of their time, or they just might have been a little too weird, or a bit too left of center, to be a mainstream success. But they have elements that are timeless, elements which have inspired or given root to all sorts of things that came after, films, books, records, whatever… That’s another guiding principle of mine. You can watch these films and say, oh, that movie is so eighties, but in so many other ways it’s so relevant now, or it’s more relevant now than when it first came out.
Jonathan, thanks for your time and I hope Fun City keeps up with the amazing work it’s been doing.