Firm Cult-ivates Discerning Fans of Horror, Pop Classics

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Business is "dead" at Anchor Bay Entertainment. The independent Troy, Mich.-based video company has scared up sales by cornering the horror market with such franchises as "Night of the Living Dead" and the "Evil Dead" films.

But Anchor Bay, which is owned by the Handleman Co., has in recent years recast itself in the industry as a distributor of definitive video and DVD editions of pop culture favorites and cult classics. Its eclectic catalog is a film buff's wish list that spans Disney fantasies to Dario Argento blood fests.

This year, Anchor Bay earned bragging (and distribution) rights to one of home video's most wanted titles, Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu." In October, it will distribute another hotly sought-after title, Monte Hellman's legendary road movie, "Two-Lane Blacktop," whose release was long stymied over the music rights.

Anchor Bay's mission statement, according to Jay Douglas, the company's vice president of acquisitions and development, is simple: "To put out really cool movies."

These include the first-ever video release of uncut wide-screen editions of Argento's "Phenomena," "Demons 2" and "Tenebre"; the Cannes Film Festival award-winning animated feature "Fantastic Planet"; the swinging '60s British comedy "Smashing Time," starring Lynn Redgrave; and Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run."

Last month, Anchor Bay released Disney's "The Black Hole." A limited collector's edition contains interviews with director Gary Nelson and cast members, and is packaged with nine lobby cards and a 48-page booklet about the making of the film. Earlier this month, the company released "Kook's Tour," the last film made by the Three Stooges.

Anchor Bay takes its cue, Douglas said, from Rhino Records, the archivist label that specializes in reissues.

"I'm a big fan," he said. "I was reading an article in a business magazine that said essentially that Rhino was [a successful company] without hits. They own very little. They license rights from other people. I thought that could be done with home video--license things that perhaps are not a company's top priority. If the Universal building was burning down, 'Two-Lane Blacktop' might not be the first film they'd run out with. But that's probably the one I would run out with."

Anchor Bay's primary strength is in the horror genre. In addition to the "Living Dead" and "Evil Dead" films, it also distributes "Hellraiser" (the company's all-time bestseller, Douglas said) and a collection of films produced by England's famed Hammer Studios. "We pretty much own Halloween," Douglas quipped.

Speaking of which, Douglas also licensed the rights to John Carpenter's seminal 1978 horror film of that name, which for several years had only been available at Blockbuster.

But it was the 1995 "special edition" of "Living Dead" that marked a new dawn at Anchor Bay. The title was technically in the public domain and was available from several companies in varying degrees of quality. Douglas licensed its pristine-quality edition from the laserdisc company Elite Entertainment. The video also contained several versions of the film's theatrical preview as well as the short film parody "Night of the Living Bread."

Its success, coupled with complimentary letters from film buffs, sent Douglas on a "scavenger hunt" for other titles that had either gone on moratorium and were pulled from the market, or had never been available on home video.

Douglas' efforts have met with positive response in the retail community. "We love their product," said Peter Busch, vice president of video merchandising for Musicland Stores Corp., which owns Suncoast Motion Picture Co. "They have essentially reinvented the horror genre by putting time and money in finding the best-quality prints available, and whenever possible, enhancing the value with bonus features such as interviews, documentaries or giving the consumer a choice between full-frame and wide-screen editions."

"This is a custom shop," Douglas observed. "There are people out there who are smarter than I am about movies, and they are bored by the state of the video business. At the end of the day, you have to offer the consumer more than just another movie in another cardboard box. You have to make it fun."

The most heartening response, Douglas said, has come from the filmmakers themselves. Anchor Bay's release of "Evil Dead 2" prompted a call from the film's director, Sam Raimi, who was looking for a video distributor for the first "Evil Dead."

"Dario Argento, George Romero, Sam Raimi and Werner Herzog may not have much in common," Douglas said, "but they all appreciate a good presentation and a good bargaining effort. They don't think of themselves as cult directors. They think their movies are mainstream. So we market them to the mainstream, but we aim at the collector, because the collector is going to grade us the harshest if we screw up."

But it's not all zombies and vampires. This October, Anchor Bay will release a collection of John Cassavetes films that previously had been available on the Miramax Home Entertainment label. In November, it will release Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" with bonus footage of scenes shot with Mick Jagger and Jason Robards prior to their departure from the film.

Anchor Bay also distributes the tony "Mobil Masterpiece Theatre" series, as well as the children's series "Thomas the Tank Engine" and "Baby Songs." But fear not, horror buffs. Perhaps the most provocative title on Anchor Bay's release schedule is a 30th anniversary edition of "Night of the Living Dead" that will feature new scenes filmed with original cast members (Romero did not participate but the film's screenwriter, John Russo, supervised).

"The assault on the farmhouse," Douglas enthused, "now has twice as many zombies as there were in [the original version from] 1968." It is scheduled to be released in late August.

Later in the year will come the reissue of Disney's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and the first-ever release of the William Castle chiller "I Saw What You Did."

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