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A Classic Act: George Feltenstein and the Crown Jewels of Warner Home Video

by David Krauss

Sure, he faces bottom-line financial and marketing considerations, but Feltenstein's ultimate modus operandi is much the same as the old motto of MGM: "Do it big. Do it right. And give it class." And for Feltenstein and the rest of his Warner team, unqualified success has followed.

Remember those old Orson Welles commercials for Paul Masson wine? You know, the ones where an obese Welles would stare into the camera and dramatically announce, "We will sell no wine before its time." Well, George Feltenstein possesses much the same attitude toward classic films on DVD, scouring vaults worldwide for the finest available source material, refusing to compromise on quality, and making sure every element is properly in place before releasing a classic title. The 43-year-old senior vice president of Warner Home Video holds the keys to a kingdom of Golden Age treasures?a massive, enviable catalog that encompasses the collections of Warner Bros., MGM and RKO studios. Many might call Feltenstein stingy in the way he methodically releases the Warner crown jewels. But there's a method to this "madness," and after speaking with him recently, it's abundantly clear that, beneath his lofty title, George is just a classic movie nut like the rest of us, a man who cares passionately about his work and the cause of film preservation. Sure, he faces bottom-line financial and marketing considerations, but Feltenstein's ultimate modus operandi is much the same as the old motto of MGM: "Do it big. Do it right. And give it class." And for Feltenstein and the rest of his Warner team, unqualified success has followed.

The guiding force behind the highly lauded Casablanca 60th Anniversary Edition (the division's top-seller to date), The Warner Legends Collection (featuring meticulously restored versions of The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Yankee Doodle Dandy) and the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, the affable, enthusiastic Feltenstein can't remember a time when he wasn't enamored of the classics. "I've always joked that when I was four, I was watching The Judy Garland Show in my parents' bedroom because they were in the living room watching Bonanza," he says with a laugh. Those parents encouraged his fledgling obsession, and when Feltenstein was six, his dad began bringing home copies of Variety for the precocious boy to peruse. "I look back now as an adult at what I did as a child and it's my only hint that maybe there is some kind of reincarnation," he says, "because it just does not make any sense why I was drawn to this."

His résumé includes a 10-year stint at MGM/UA Home Video, where he helped release a substantial portion of the studio's classic titles on videocassette and laserdisc, and a long association with Rhino Records that has spawned more than 100 audio CDs, many of which are soundtrack recordings of MGM's Golden Age musicals. When the MGM library was sold to Ted Turner, Feltenstein went with it. Although he's been with Time Warner since 1996, it's only been in the past year that he's been integrally involved in the production of Warner Home Video's classic DVDs. "I've been smiling ever since," he says. "I'm very happy and extraordinarily grateful."

dOc: First of all, what are your favorite film classics?

George Feltenstein: The answer is predictable, but hasn't changed since I was a kid. My favorite film is Gone With the Wind. Hands down. Runners up are Singin' in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, North by Northwest, and one title that isn't in our library, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

dOc: How well are the Warner classics selling? Are they making money for the company?

GF: I'm happy to say they are. All of the projects I've been involved with (at Warner) have been very profitable. Some, like our Warner Legends releases, have been in profit from day one, which is just a tremendously gratifying thing. There's so much support within this company to really get behind the classic catalog. We have the largest film library of any company. And when it comes to classics, we're especially blessed because we have the libraries of not one, not two, but three major studios, and that gives us an enormous wealth of material to choose from.

You know, back in the early days of DVD, consumers were not as embracing of classic film. They were looking for films like The Matrix and Blade Runner?films with lots of bells and whistles and 5.1 audio, because you had a primarily male 35 to 50 demographic. When DVD became a more mainstream medium and the penetration of players began to grow, suddenly it became more sensible to start bringing out library product, because the market had matured and was ready for it. We're lucky, though, because during that early period, other companies put out many of their classic titles and now are left with second tier selections, whereas we have yet to release many of our jewels. So we're in a great position, and that leaves us a lot of room to do things properly and correctly, and with a great deal of care and planning.

dOc: What's the timetable of one of your classic DVDs from inception to release?

GF: We're actually working two years in advance now. And that's because it usually takes our film restoration people nine to twelve months to get the film elements restored and a master made, and then it takes six months from that point until you have a DVD ready for replication. It can be very, very time-consuming and it can be very expensive. But Warner Bros. has a corporate commitment to film restoration and preservation that is probably unparalleled. We have an enormous amount of film always in the preservation chain, whether it's short subjects or cartoons or feature films. We just want to get everything protected. So that's always going on.

dOc: Who decides what titles will be released?

GF: The way things are set up now, when it comes to the classics titles, most of the ideas come from me, in that I will present them to my teammates here. We're very much a team in terms of the marketing focus. I work with a great group of people. We all really help each other and we have tremendous enthusiasm for what we're doing. So we'll all pitch ideas, and the fact that I've been working with most of this library for 16 years in one capacity or another gives me a good background of history and success. I know that what's succeeded before will succeed again, and that what's failed before is not worth revisiting, with rare exception. We will propose things that we feel will be profitable and also are what the customers want. I constantly peruse all the chat rooms and websites and news groups to see what the people are saying. Now some of what people ask for is just unrealistic. I mean, I recently read a comment from someone about a very, very obscure, unimportant film from the 1980s that grossed two million dollars that I never even put on laserdisc, and somebody was saying, "Oh, Warner Bros. should do a two-disc special edition." Well, that's obviously absurd. But when we do see a common thread of what people want, then we'll try to pursue it.

dOc: Are there some films in the library that are in such poor shape that no matter how well-loved and classic they may be, they just aren't suitable for DVD?

GF: No. There's nothing in that state of affairs. This is no secret, but the reason we have not yet released King Kong is that we are still searching around the globe for better film elements.

dOc: So you could have released it, but you choose not to.

GF: Right. We could have released it, and it would look the way the old laserdisc looked or it would look the way it looks when you see it on Turner Classic Movies. But generally, the DVD format, because it is so spectacular in terms of the clarity of picture and sound, has brought forth very demanding consumers, and we want to give them the very best possible product. So we could have put out a mediocre King Kong and made oodles of dollars and then come back years later with another version when we were ready to bring it out in a way that looked and sounded terrific. We do not believe in doing that. Citizen Kane is the perfect example of waiting until you find the right film elements and you can do the right transfer and can deliver a quality product. Now there have been one or two cases where we did release a film early on in DVD and have come out with a newer version, because we really could make a difference. Singin' in the Rain and Casablanca are examples of that. The original DVDs were perfectly fine, but the difference in what we now are able to achieve six or seven years later is breathtaking and dramatic, so that justifies going back and re-exploring another title.

dOc: One thing I especially appreciate about the Warner classics is that you always put a few extras on them, even if it's just a 10-minute "making-of" featurette, cartoon, and trailer. A lot of the other major companies hardly put anything on their classics discs. Is there a special features producer who culls this material and decides what will be included?

GF: Well, we have a DVD production group and special features group and they do all the titles, whether its Terminator 3 or Casablanca. When it comes to the classics, I tend to guide them in terms of knowing what the vault material is, because I was using a lot of this material on laserdiscs 10 or 12 years ago, so that helps a lot. But in terms of creating the new pieces?we have new documentaries on our upcoming releases of Grand Hotel and The Great Ziegfeld?and on some titles we really feel there's just a little something extra we can say by creating a new piece.

dOc: It makes a world of difference.

GF: And then when you get to titles like the Warner Legends, we really wanted to go all-out and create really special documentaries. We've also got this incredible library of existing product, because I've been involved with documentaries we've done in co-production with PBS or TCM, so we use those things as well. So we've got a real wealth of material, and it's quality material. And I think that's what's really important. We also have to judge how much we're going to spend on extra material for a title, based on how well we think the title is going to sell. We're very, very financially oriented. I want these releases to be profitable so there can be more of them. So we're judicious in how much money we spend and what titles get something on them and what titles don't. Sometimes we just don't have room. There's no trailer on (the upcoming) Goodbye Mr. Chips, because we only had room for the movie, or we would have compromised the compression. And we don't want to do that. We want to have the best possible picture quality.

dOc: How does the cost relate for a classic DVD versus a new blockbuster? Is your cost substantially higher due to all the restoration work involved?

GF: It's a case-by-case basis. In terms of the film, if we have to make new negatives and do film work, the cost can be several hundred thousand dollars. It can be extraordinarily expensive. Now people have said to me regarding Meet Me in St. Louis, "You're laserdisc looked great. You said it was a restoration then. Why restore it again?" And the answer will be when the new DVD comes out and people put it in and then they'll say, "Oh! Now I understand!" You know, I look at what we did 10 years ago that I thought was the bee's knees and now I go, "Ugh!" I mean, my beautiful laserdiscs are now all fuzzy. It's terribly depressing and yet it's very exciting because the DVD technology is so much better. A lot of other companies just take their masters that have been hanging around for the last eight or 10 years and put them onto DVD. We will not do that. Our quality standards are too high.

dOc: Is there a ballpark figure on what the average cost is to put out a classic DVD?

GF: It varies from title to title. And what we decide to do in terms of restoration varies not only in what we can justify spending, but also what elements are available. If the original negative is gone and there's nothing else to go back to and we have to use an existing fine-grain or an existing dup-negative, there's not a lot you can do. On most titles, we can't justify the frame-by-frame restoration like we did on Casablanca and Citizen Kane, because sales won't be high enough. So we try to do the very best job that we can and allot the most possible funds that we can so we can release a product that will satisfy the consumer.

dOc: I noticed on the Cole Porter musicals that although the discs included new featurettes in which stars like Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse appear, none of the original stars did an audio commentary. Was there any discussion of them doing an audio commentary or of actual stars doing commentary on the releases?

GF: No, because a lot of the time the older stars don't have a lot to say. You know, to have someone sit there and watch the movie who wasn't involved with all of the film sometimes can be insipid. I've seen that happen. So we're very, very careful. When you can have a director or somebody who had an overall involvement in the film do a commentary, then it does resonate and it does make sense. And of course when you're dealing with these older films, so many of the people who were involved with them are no longer with us. But we're trying to circumvent that somewhat through something we started in 1993 called the Turner Archival Project. Four times a year we shoot on 16 mm film?not video?interviews with anyone who ever worked at MGM, Warner Bros. or RKO. And by now we've banked almost 300 people who worked either in front of or behind the camera, and we can use these interviews on our DVDs and in these little documentary pieces. So that's a terrific resource.

But you'll see more commentaries as you see more classic releases from us. Our release schedule is going to be twice in 2004 what it was in 2003, so you'll also be seeing more commentaries just by virtue of the fact that we're going to be releasing more product.

dOc: As far as the 2-disc special editions go, was that somewhat of a gamble at first? I know films like Casablanca or Singin' in the Rain are basically sure bets, but although everyone knows that Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a great film, wouldn't that be a risky title?

GF: That was a risk. That was one of my first big projects, because I said, look, these films have been owned by other people for 40 years and they've come home, so let's really celebrate them. I mean, when you think of Warner Bros., you think of (James) Cagney and (Humphrey) Bogart and (Errol) Flynn, so let's get behind this. You know, anniversary editions and special editions?I have to laugh, because I notice that Columbia/TriStar is doing an Annie anniversary edition in January. The movie was made in 1982 and is coming out in 2004, so what is this, the 22nd anniversary edition? [laughter] The first anniversary editions ever in home video were what we did with Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz for their 50th in 1989 and I've seen that concept become so abused. And the same thing goes for special editions and two-disc editions on DVD. Once it's established as a way to make a success, I think the tendency can be there to abuse it, and we are very careful not to abuse it. There are some films where there's no justification for a second disc. In the case of each of the Warner Legends titles, in the case of Casablanca and Singin' in the Rain, we had a wealth of material both on hand and in what we could create that justifies an ample second disc. And that is really the criteria we set. The films have to be of true collectible, lasting value; we have to believe that they will be treasured by the people that own them; and we have to have enough really exceptional content to justify going into a double-disc special edition.

dOc: Now, lately, there seems to be more of a focus on male stars. We haven't seen a lot of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis...

GF: You will, you will.

dOc: ...or Jean Harlow...

GF: Well, the thing is, there are realities. We're only putting out our first Greta Garbo film with Grand Hotel in February. We're going to do something with Garbo in 2005 for her centennial. With Bette Davis, most of her great films are already available. As a matter of fact, a lot of them came out at the very beginning of DVD like Jezebel and Dark Victory?

dOc: I know, and the quality wasn't very good.

GF: ?and they did not do very well because it wasn't the right time. The market was very immature, and the titles that were performing well at that time were the bells and whistles titles. So, that cast kind of a cloud over the ability for these older black-and-white classics to do business. And so happily, we have turned the boat around and we've had great success with movies like Mildred Pierce, The Women and The Shop Around the Corner, and so forth. Yes, there will be a lot more of that, but the reality is that more people are interested in Humphrey Bogart than Jean Harlow. That's the reality. Older people are now buying DVD machines, so older people will be interested in the older films on DVD, just as they supported them on videocassette. Our challenge is to try and take the more difficult titles and market them on DVD to the younger audience in a profitable manner. One of the ways we did this was with our Lon Chaney collection, which we did in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies. And by working with them, we were able to cross-promote with them and take a project that normally we might not have done because we wouldn't be sure it would be cost-effective, and turn it into something popular and profitable. It's only been available for a couple of weeks, but it's been doing really well.

dOc: Is there a way you can track who's buying the classics demographically?

GF: We do use studies and also advertise in certain publications trying to target our buyers. And it's been successful. I'm delighted that all those films are bathing in black profit ink! [laughter]

dOc: That's great for fans of the films, too, because they know more will come.

GF: Exactly. And, you know, prior to this, there really wasn't a well-thought-out plan on how best to effectively work with the library. And I'm happy to say that several of my co-workers and myself have very specific views on how to achieve that kind of success. So our team?and I don't want to make it sound like it's just me; we're a team?we develop a strategy for what titles would be appropriate at what time and try to have the best possible success.

dOc: And obviously you don't want to just throw things out there?

GF: Oh, God no.

dOc: ?even though every film has its fan base, but you don't want them to get lost in the shuffle.

GF: We've seen others do that and fail and we don't want to make that same mistake. And we value our films tremendously and we want to give them the best possible release.

dOc: What about HD-DVD and classics? Will the extra clarity magnify the faults? Do you have any concerns about that?

GF: No, it's only going to make things better. It's still a long way away, but it's only going to make things better.

dOc: Does it concern you that someday people will expect new editions of titles like Casablanca and Meet Me in St. Louis because they'll think they'll look even better in HD-DVD?

GF: Well, you know what, I have a high-definition television at home and I get HDNet Movies and I watch movies in HD on HBO and whatnot, and you can certainly notice a difference, but it's not that substantial. To me, the DVDs still look magnificent. HD-DVD will be a definite improvement in clarity, but it won't be as dramatic a difference as let's say the difference between laser and DVD. It will be better, but we don't even know what it will be because there isn't an approved format yet. And I think it's going to be a while, too. Meanwhile, I'm watching these DVDs on the same set as I watch hi-def programming, and the DVDs look spectacular.

dOc: As far as your position there at Warner goes, what's the most gratifying thing for you? Is it getting these films out in their pristine form and having people enjoy them?

GF: That is the greatest joy, and then you add in the sentence, "and to see them be profitable."

dOc: You say all the classic releases have been successful. Have there been any notable failures?

GF: No. We've only had successes and the level to which they've succeeded certainly varies, but we've hit our goals and we've made profits and in some cases the results have been outstanding. I take particular joy in the Warner Legends collection because that was a real pet project, and the Looney Tunes Golden Collection I was involved in for six or seven years trying to get that off the ground, and that has been a tremendous success. There were certain people who have this prejudice about classic animation and think, "Oh, it's cartoons; it's for kids," and, you know, my thought is, "No, this is classic American filmmaking that is animated and if you treat it with respect and position it for the adult collector who can then share it with their family, you'll have a great success." Thankfully, the team agreed with that philosophy, and our Looney Tunes Golden Collection is a massive success. So again, that's the gratification. It's not just having the product be beautiful and wonderful. That's great, but when people buy it and love it... There's a rave review for the Looney Tunes in The Wall Street Journal of all places, so even my father noticed that. That made me happy.

dOc: It's especially nice when the parents take notice, isn't it?

GF: They don't read Variety, but they read The Wall Street Journal.

dOc: Can you give me a preview of some of the titles that are being released next year? Are there some extra special releases that you're particularly looking forward to?

GF: There are oodles. I'm not at liberty to be specific, but I have hinted in other interviews and in other publications that we've got some big stuff coming. There will be a lot more double-disc special editions, a lot more classic product from the '30s on up and I think everybody's going to be really, really happy. We've just got great things in store.

On January 6, Warner Home Video will release a double feature of the 1932 and 1941 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Days of Wine and Roses, the 1960 version of Where the Boys Are, and The Wind and the Lion. In February, such beloved classics as My Fair Lady (in a two-disc special edition), Grand Hotel, Mrs. Miniver, the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, the 1939 version of Goodbye Mr. Chips, Gaslight, and The Great Ziegfeld will appear on Warner DVD.