A. Harris - Main Page
Robert A. Harris Interview:
Warner Home Video's George Feltenstein
almost a household name to the minions of laserdisc aficionados
during their reign, George Feltenstein's work is just becoming known
to the newer and much larger DVD audience, who will shortly be
viewing him as the laserdisc audience has in the past, as one of the
heroes of the home video world.
With the release of one of Mr. Feltenstein's pet projects, That's
Entertainment: The Complete Collection, I thought the
time had come to do a Digital Bits
chat with him.
We had a telephonic chat on Friday October 15, and the edited
transcript is below:
[Editor's Note: Feltenstein's official title
at Warner Home Video is Sr. VP of Marketing for Classic Catalog.]
Robert A. Harris (The Digital Bits):
George, let's do a bit of background. How long have you been in the
home video industry?
George Feltenstein (Warner Home Video):
It's been eighteen years.
You really gained a reputation during the laserdisc days for
putting out some of the finest classic related special editions
that were done. It really came down to Criterion and
Feltenstein, and that was it.
Having editions that were literally crammed with additional
audio tracks and things that you could find in the vaults. I
have a copy of the Judy Garland boxed set sitting in front of
GF: That was a monumental
achievement, of which we were very proud.
RAH: There were so many.
There was That's Entertainment.
Which are those of which you are most proud?
It's hard to select one favorite. My first thought goes back to 1988
when I had the audacity to suggest we release letterboxed laserdiscs
of Ben-Hur and Dr.
Zhivago. Nothing like that had ever been done before.
Sure there had been a few letterboxed LDs. MGM actually issued the
first one ever, Manhattan. The
Voyager press released one or two, but no studio had embraced the
concept of OAR in the U.S., I had to get MGM/UA's Japanese licensee
to pitch in on the costs, and when those 2 discs came out, it was a
mini-explosion in the mini-laser world. Sales were relatively huge,
and people got to see what I had always wanted to:. the original
aspect ratio as seen in theatres, and with Dolby Surround sound.
Even though I will never watch them again, I treasure both of those
releases as hallmarks of what was to come. Soon thereafter came Seven
Brides and James Bond films and Victor/Victoria
and we were leading the industry with letterboxed releases. Then
came things like the 50th anniversary OZ disc and then the big
collections which were very popular and seduced die hard film buffs
to embrace laserdisc. One of my personal favorites was the first of
two collections of Vitaphone Shorts, called Swing
Swing Swing.Then I think of the first Golden
Age of Looney Tunes box, which everyone thought I was
nuts to do (and we did 4 more!)
the Tex Avery boxed set, the
Dawn of Sound boxes, the list
goes on and on
Of course, I was most proud of The
Ultimate Oz, which in 1993 was a staggering laserdisc.
The sheer volume of it. The multiple layers of special features and
the qualitative presentation. When re-combined with an even better
new transfer by WB, everything on it became the DVD that came out in
1999 and blew everyone away.
RAH: For a quarter of the
GF: A fifth of the price,
RAH: The selling price on
those was high, but commensurate with the production cost. What did
it cost to press a disc back
GF: $8.55 for a two-sided disc
not counting the jacket or other costs. It was extraordinarily
RAH: So if you had a four disc
set with a box, you were easily into $40 production cost before
GF: One of the things that
made the laserdisc business so difficult was the ability to make a
product that was reasonably priced on which you could be profitable.
It was nearly impossible. The margins were terribly small, and of
course, the universe of consumers was small. Laserdisc never got
beyond the "niche" market, and terrible mistakes were made
by the industry by not getting behind it. Many studios just didn't
care about it and licensed out their product to third parties. Other
companies like MGM, Warner, and Universal really got behind it, and
tried to make a go of it. After a while it became obvious that it
was never going to become as broadly popular as it deserved to be.
It was heartbreaking to put so much work into something that so few
people took advantage of and now, sadly has gone the way of the 8
RAH: As you know, a lot of
people still collect them. What were the average pressings on some
of those things?
GF: On the box sets, anywhere
from three to five thousand units.
RAH: Which today would be
considered a failure in DVD terms.
GF: It would be a disaster.
RAH: As a kind of introduction
to those who don't know you, you are probably one of the few people
in the industry that I'm aware of who might well show up at their
desk if told they weren't being paid.
GF: Absolutely. And in a way,
that actually did happen
because in October of 1990, MGM/UA
Home Video was ostensibly dismantled. We were all gathered in a
small screening room at the studio and told we were fired. The
company would be shut down in 60 days, and we could leave on that
day and still get paid for the next two months or we could still
come in to the office until they officially locked the doors. We
were all stunned, and in a state of shock. This happened on a Friday
afternoon, but the following Monday I was at my desk, still watching
over my laserdisc business. Warner Home Video was taking over
MGM/UA's worldwide home video distribution. MGM was still
responsible for the marketing of the product under this new deal,
but the people who had bought MGM and made the Warner video
distribution deal hadn't really thought it out very well, and they
hadn't considered that they did need a staff even if it was
skeletal. So technically I was fired, without a job
still came to work.
And it turned out at the last minute they decided to un-fire me.
They kept me and I was the only person left after 260 people had
been let go, and it was my job to work with Warner Home Video, (who
had assumed all sales, operational and distribution functions) to
deal with this huge library, and it was my responsibility to
maintain MGM's marketing functions within the deal, working with the
folks at Warner.
The people who had purchased MGM had the French bank that financed
the deal call in their loan, and Alan Ladd, Jr. soon became head of
the studio again (he had been running it from '86-'88, but returned
in '91) and incredibly we ran a very small, but efficient home video
company, aided by the expertise and outreach of Warner HomeVideo's
fine sales and distribution organization. I tried to continue to do
on laserdisc, and of course on VHS, what I had been doing ever since
I had joined MGM Home Video in 1986 to start marketing the library
When I first came to MGM, it was to excavate the great classics in
their library, really for the first time, on videocassette. As a
film fan, and avid video collector, it was obvious to me that the
company didn't have a clue with this great goldmine of films they
owned. Instead of putting out films like Father
of the Bride or Camille,
they were acquiring pictures from companies like Cannon and
releasing movies like Hospital Massacre
and Hot Chile.
So someone got the idea in the late '80s that you could price a
movie at $29.98 and make it affordable as opposed to $59.98 or
$79.98. Thus "sell-through" was born, and I began putting
together videocassette promotions from the enormous MGM/UA library.
The laserdisc journey followed soon thereafter.
My background up to that point had been primarily selling the Fox
and Paramount libraries to repertory theatres in 35mm prints
RAH: That was the Films,
GF: Yes. They hired me out of
college. It was a great job and really was my 'grad school'. I made
sure that new 35mm prints were struck on dozens and dozens of films.
Not just classic American cinema, I was handling a lot of other
the Truffault films and Jacques Tati films. I
even made a deal with Warner Bros. for the Looney Tunes. I put
together programs of 35mm Looney Tunes
and sent them out to rep houses where they made a fortune, being
marketed to adults. A forerunner of things to come!
I was their national sales manager, and it was a wonderful business
and I started right out of SUNY Purchase at age 20. Everything was
going great until literally one day the phone stopped ringing around
1985 because the revival theatres were all closing because of home
video and pay television.
So in 1986 I sent a resume over to MGM, and they told me the next
day that they wanted to hire me
yet it took eight months
before my first starting day. The reason there was such a delay was
that Ted Turner had bought the company, and then sold back the
company, but the video company had retained a license for several
years to continue to distribute the classic MGM library that Ted had
RAH: Well, the message here to
the folks who are buying DVDs is that you're passionate about your
and you're passionate about what's coming out on DVD,
which really shows itself in the market place. You can see it, and I
think what's going to happen is that as time goes by, and more of
the classics start coming out from Warners on the MGM titles, is
that the audience is going to know what the signature "Feltenstein
GF: Well thank you, on behalf
of not just myself, but all my colleagues as well. I hope we will
continue to make people happy with our releases. For me personally,
it's great to have a larger candy box because it isn't just the MGM
films or the pre-49 Warner films that I worked with for so many
years, now it's also the WHOLE Warner library, it's virtually all
the RKO films and all the MGM films up through 1986
and then little jewels of independents that we own such as Gun
Crazy which just came out
RAH: Which I love
GF: I love it too, but it had
even been largely ignored on VHS. It was one of those films which
just slipped under the radar
The key to what I do is that I am not only a studio executive, but
as well I am a DVD consumer. I buy the product of other studios, and
get excited about the new releases, just as I did when I was a
laserdisc and a tape consumer. I'd like to think that I know what
the consumer wants, because I am one of them. I feel one of the
reasons that I have been fortunate enough to have had the
opportunities in this industry that I have, is because I rose
through the ranks at MGM and eventually ran the company and now have
a very nice position here at Warner Home Video as a Sr. VP of
Marketing for Classic Catalog. I have the passion and the knowledge,
but I also have the ability to balance it with a business sense, and
it breaks my heart sometimes when I get around other film fans and
they say "Why aren't you doing another DVD boxed set like "such
and such" like you did on laserdisc", and I have to tell
them the truth. The reason is we'll sell 2,000 copies (we didn't
even sell that many on LD!) and WHV would lose a ton of money, and
that my job here is to contribute to WHV's continued success as an
What I'm trying to do is find a way via which we can get things out
there and make it profitable, and we're doing things now that would
have been unheard of just a few years ago. Two examples of this can
be found as part of our new marketing initiative with Turner Classic
Movies. TCM Archives releases.
We present high quality presentations worthy of TCM's fine name,
with loads of extras for a reasonable price. I'm very proud of the
line and the potential future we have with it. Quite a change from
where things were at Warner about 3 years ago.
No one here would have considered doing a film noir collection
three years ago
No one here would have thought of going near
the Tarzan films
just to give two examples. They were totally
off the radar screen. And no one here was doing what needed to be
done in terms of saying "Okay, we want to release Yankee
Well, in order to do it they had to commit to it at least eighteen
months in advance, because they needed a year to restore from the
original nitrate negative to make a new fine grain, and then to do
telecine. That all takes advance planning and a great deal of money
and no one was willing to set up a business plan that looked out to
Right now we are tentatively programmed and scheduled
working now on titles for 2006 and 2007.
That's always the way that I ran the business at MGM, programmed at
least 2 years out for library promotions, and it's the way that
we're doing things here now. We have a great team of talented folks
here at WHV who are very dedicated, and we all agree that it is
imperative to carefully plan, analyze the marketplace, and make
those significant up- front cash advancements to provide a quality
product and satiate the collectors. There are enough people that
want these really, really great films
We're not talking about an obscure Warner film like Broadway
Hostess, we're talking about films like White
Heat and Public Enemy
RAH: Which are not obscure
GF: Which are not obscure and
which are coming
really soon! They would have sat on the shelf
if someone hadn't come along and said "Okay, let's get moving
on this." So we have literally 150 - 200 titles in some form of
production going out towards 2007 right now. I also have to add that
Warner Bros. as a company, has a large financial commitment to film
preservation, with a hefty annual budget committed to nitrate
conversion to safety. At this point it may be shorts or cartoons or
trailers, but we want everything protected.
RAH: So what's actually
occurring is that the studio is being forced, and I don't mean that
in a negative way, to go back to original materials and create new
safety preservation elements because of home video.
GF: Exactly. Or in some cases,
if pay television initiated an order, the same process would have
occurred. A division within Warner Bros. Studios had to initiate the
request. The way we work it here, and this is what people don't
understand is we're not going to release a widescreen or anamorphic
film as 4:3 matted using a laserdisc master that was created in
So we have to go back and re-do everything. People say to me about
Meet Me in St. Louis
laserdisc in 1994 was restored." And I have to explain that
what we're doing now is even better. The technological bar is raised
and so is our task as to what to release and what it will look and
sound like. Of course, every once in a while something will come out
that is imperfect or is less than what we'd hoped, but we shoot for
the highest possible quality, and I'm very proud of what we are
There are dozens and dozens of people who are involved in these
decisions all along the road, and who are physically involved with
touching the product before it gets to the customers. I can't stress
And everyone on our team is very excited about the classics and the
success we are having with them. It's energizing them, and many of
them that had no interest in the older films are discovering them as
we begin working on them, and it's nice to know their timelessness
is infectious. I've helped create another gaggle of film buffs. We
are all clear on another basic fact of this business: You can't just
release a title, not market it, and then expect people to find it.
Specifically, we're talking about That's
Entertainment today. You'll see ads for the That's
Entertainment Collection in most of the major
publications. You'll also see it in targeted magazines like Playbill,
where we know there are a lot of people who go to the theater who
also like musicals, so
this is what it takes. It takes
careful, calculated marketing planning, and risking the finances of
spending the money on the preservation and restoration.
So everything we do
It's not just creating a tape master,
it's starting from scratch in the photochemical realm, creating a
new film element from which the tape master can be made unless we
already have something that's top-quality from the recent past that
is still acceptable by today's standards, and I'll give you an
On The Nun's Story, there was
a new element made in 1995 that's beautiful, so we're going to
release The Nun's Story at
some point in the future, and we don't have to bear the very heavy
cost of creating a new film element. Someone else paid for it a
while back, thank goodness.
But, generally, on most of these pictures, we have to spend money.
It is WB policy that we will NEVER transfer off of original negative
because it could get damaged in the process, so a preservation
intermediate element has to be made if it has not already been done.
We have to start on the right foot.
Then some people will say "But don't you have a beautiful
master that was used for the laserdisc?" Well, that was a D-1
made 15 years ago, or worse a D-2
..we don't feel it's good
RAH: Let's move on to That's
Entertainment. I saw it in 1974 at the Ziegfeld. It was a
great experience. The audio was wonderful. I'd not seen much of the
footage before, and the film was just a remarkable experience to see
on the big screen.
One of the problems with it however, from a technical standpoint,
was that what was considered to be the "Original negative,"
was in fact not. All of the extracted footage was duped from
whatever was available at that time to the film stock du jour, which
at that time was color reversal internegative (CRI), which had no
archival qualities whatsoever, and a shelf life on a good day of
probably seven years.
GF: Normally in our system if
you're looking for an original camera negative you'll see it listed
as OCN. But for That's Entertainment,
if you do a search for the OCN, you won't find it. You'll just find
CRI, and then in the notes portion it says
this is the actual
camera negative of the feature
EK sections of the host
portions are cut in, but the main body of the film is CRI.
RAH: So here we are, thirty
years down the line and when Ned Price and his team went back to
pull that negative, what did they find?
GF: Well, there are actually
two negatives because there was a theatrical negative, and there was
a television negative. The television negative is 4:3. The
theatrical negative was composed for 1.85:1 theatrical projection
and for blow-up for the 70mm roadshow engagements.
They found the CRI to be
well CRI are three of the scariest
letters in the English language to me
RAH: To me also.
GF: One of the things that's
interesting about the whole CRI situation is when MGM began its film
preservation program in the '60s, they began with the black and
white nitrates in converting them to safety, and when they got to
the color films, they made an "archival" CRI and a
RAH: An "archival"
CRI is an oxymoron, of course
GF: and then they also had
safety masters created from all of the original three-strip
Technicolor negatives. So they considered the films preserved, and
everything was fine, and what started to shine light on how awful
that was, was that in 1987 or 1988, The Museum of Modern Art
requested a new print of Meet Me in St.
Louis for a Vincente Minnelli retrospective they were
going to tour around the country.
And they looked at the print that came out of the lab and they were
horrified. It looked terrible. And they were willing to fund the
original YCM negatives of Meet Me in St.
Louis going to YCM Laboratories to make a new
interpositive and a dupe negative from which prints could be made
that would restore the color to that film.
And when we saw how great the results of that were, Roger Mayer,
who was the president of Turner Entertainment Company said "Okay
We need to go back to all of the Technicolor films in the Turner
library and preserve them all over again, properly, making new IPs
and INs from the three-strip originals.
But in the intervening years, some of the three-strip originals had
burned at the fire at [George] Eastman House, most notoriously all
but one reel of Singin' in the Rain
and the last two reels of An American in
Paris, the last two reels of Annie
Get Your Gun.
It's heartbreaking. All of In the Good
Old Summertime, I believe. We lost so much. Thank God
Gone with the Wind was spared
and Meet Me in St. Louis and
The Wizard of Oz, but we did
lose a lot.
The safety masters that were made, if they were made correctly, can
usually save us, but
RAH: Normally people made them
and never looked at them.
GF: Yes, well in the case of
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,
nobody ever looked at them, and for the scope version the
separations were made incorrectly.
And when the original negative got damaged during the 1968
re-issue, blown up to 70mm, we were in big trouble.
So that's why that new DVD looks as good as it does, it is a result
of a tremendous amount of work by a lot of people to try to get it
to be the best it can be
despite the limitations of the early
Scope optics and
GF: Yes, Ansco. You've got a
lot going against you.
But getting back, during that period the MGM lab was all about CRI.
And CRI was subject to color breathing, excessive grain
sometimes it could look pretty good
every once in awhile.
RAH: When it was new.
GF: Precisely. When it was new
and then it was subject to fading.
We wanted to put out the That's
Entertainment films, but we were very afraid. I was
terrified about what this project might entail. I knew that it would
be an enormous amount of work, because I also know what the
the DVD consumer expects in terms of quality. It's
what I myself expect in terms of quality.
And when you have your "original negative" of a feature
which is already at least one generation away from the original in
terms of the clips, that frightened me.
And then there was the whole issue that the original aspect ratio
of projection and presentation of That's
Entertainment and its two sequels should be in the 16:9
format replicating how you and I saw this film at the Ziegfeld
RAH: In 1.85
Yet, if that's
your only transfer, those people who are not fortunate enough yet to
have 16:9 televisions would be watching a postage stamp. Like the
16mm prints of the film were, with the 4:3 images within a black
square, and the only times you'd see image on the side is when it's
a scope clip, which is very rare.
So I made two basic decisions. I have to make it clear here that
all of the technical work is done by Ned Price and his group, so I
went to Ned and told him that I really wanted to do the That's
Entertainment movies, and his eyes kind of rolled to the
back and his head and he said "George, that's going to be a
And yet everybody's been screaming for these movies
hasn't Warner put them out?"
And I wanted to do it, as Louis B. Mayer would have said
wanted to "do it big, do it right, and give it class."
Now that it's all done, I can say with confidence and pride that
we've done that
RAH: They're beautiful
GF: but to get there required
a lot of decisions, so the first decision we made was that we would
present the films on DVD-18s, with a 16:9 transfer representing the
original theatrical presentation of each of the three films, and on
the other side we would have a full frame 4:3 presentation for
people who don't have 16:9 TVs, so they didn't end up with a postage
stamp, but that the letterbox clips of films like Love
Me or Leave Me and Hit the
Deck, and Seven Brides
and so on would be original aspect ratio of photography.
RAH: The nice thing about this
concept is that most people, at least who can afford it in the next
couple of years will probably be moving to wide screen monitors,
they can basically have the best of both worlds.
and I wanted
it to be something they wouldn't have to go out and buy again. That
is actually a very serious issue; a lot of people have a cynical
view of home video companies
there are companies out there who
are notorious for 'double dipping' come out with a certain special
new edition of a film that just came out or something. I can't say
that WHV has never done it
there have been one or two
instances where for producer reasons or whatever, that we've come
out with a second edition of a contemporary film, but we try to get
it right the first time and avoid that kind of practice wherever
These movies are very important to me. Our entire library is
important to me, but these films hold a special place in many
people's hearts. I wanted a disc that wouldn't become obsolete.
Those of us who frequent the DVD websites and the home theatre
many people think that everyone has a 16:9
TV. The totals are growing daily, and two or three years from now it
will be more commonplace than not, but right now I wanted to have a
product that would please both consumers.
RAH: And it does perfectly.
GF: And there's also another
aspect in that I knew there would be some people out there
know some people aren't happy unless they're unhappy about a DVD.
They look for what can they find wrong with it. What can they
and I know that some people who hadn't seen
That's Entertainment in the
theatre and didn't understand the use of wide screen, and the
widescreen optical work, which was a dazzling effect in the theatre,
and I'm so excited to finally be able to replicate that in my home,
but it does violate the OAR of the original photography of a few
specific clips. So if somebody is so upset that they're not seeing
the full frame of action of On the
Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe, they can turn their
disc over, watch the 4x3 version and see it there.
RAH: Or they can put in their
copy of the entire film.
GF: Of course, that's another
issue too. I fondly remember when the film first opened. My parents
took me to see it at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan
about 14, I guess, and it was one of the most significant
life-changing experiences for me on a number of levels
of which because I hadn't seen most of that material, because most
people couldn't see most of that material. Broadway
Melody of 1940 had never been shown on New York
television, because WCBS, which had the broadcast rights, thought
that Broadway Melody of 1940
sounded too old, and that the 1940 in the title made it
unmarketable. They never ran it even though they had the rights. So
I had never seen Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell do Begin
the Beguine. I had also never seen Make
'em Laugh from Singin' in the
Rain, and the reason is that my experience with Singin'
in the Rain was as it was shown by WNBC on the 4:30 movie
in a 90 minute timeslot.
RAH: Which is about 72 minutes
GF: 72 minutes of film, of a
103 minute movie
RAH: And what do you do? You
cut out the musical numbers.
GF: They cut out Make
'em Laugh, Good Morning
virtually all of the Broadway Melody
I had never seen any of those things
and in those
days also, repertory theatres virtually never ran the classic
musicals. There weren't prints for them to show. Needless to say, it
was 2 hours and 15 minutes of amazement for me from start to finish.
It still is.
RAH: The other interesting
and this came up when we were watching the George and
Alana [Hamilton] piece
from the opening
that whole five
or seven minutes of clips looks so horrible, and I turned to Joanne,
who was watching it with me and said "That's what many films
looked like on TV in the '60s."
GF: That's what virtually
everything looked like.
RAH: Unless you had a network
GF: Right. The '60s, the '70s,
and really until the mid-'80s.
RAH: They were syndication
GF: They were 16mm syndication
prints that had been run through a meat grinder. and with the
exception of WPIX in New York, which actually did show 35mm prints,
the usual results were very poor.
Every station showed 16mm prints that were derived from dupe
negatives. They had splices, they had scratches, and gouges
RAH: And cue marks
GF: Yes, and cue marks
and songs were taken out and scenes were taken out and dissolves
were cut out
You may remember this
the way that some New
York stations would remove the main titles and run them at the end
instead of the beginning.
The reality is that most people didn't ever see these films, so it
was a revelation to see this material on the big screen
was being presented with style, panache, and class to a whole new
audience. That's Entertainment
opened to massive box-office success. Totally unexpected. You had
young people going to see this film as a brand new movie
and they were thrilled by it, and it was the sixth top
grossing film of 1974, surrounded by Blazing
Saddles and The Exorcist
and the like.
RAH: With all of the technical
problems, what did you change in the film? What did you replace? Did
GF: The 16x9 transfers are
very, very faithful to the original films.. We worked very hard to
reconstruct the entire film without having to depend exclusively on
the CRI, but had to use it as a basis. To work without it, straight
from individual elements, would have been a multi-million dollar
expense. So where we had the Ultra-resolution Singin'
in the Rain, we inserted that. Where we had the newest,
cleanest transfer of The Wizard of Oz,
we inserted that. Situations like that were the exception rather
than the rule, but we upgraded where we could.
Society looked like it was
GF: Precisely. High
Society was from our new 16:9 high definition transfer
from the VistaVision elements.
RAH: Which is gorgeous.
GF: And even more importantly
than that we should talk about the sound for High
Society. It's now 5.1 stereo. The stereophonic sound in
That's Entertainment in 70mm
was one of the most thrilling aspects of the movie for me. And yet
High Society was originally
released monaurally because it was in VistaVision, and VistaVision
didn't have true stereo.
So when they showed the clips
actually only one clip from
High Society in the original
version, which is the Sinatra / Crosby number, the audio was mono.
This is the first time where That's
Entertainment has stereo audio for the High
Society clips, and I say clips plural, because the
European version of That's Entertainment
had True Love in it. So we
have now traditionally put that back into all versions of the film
going back to the laserdiscs of the early '90s.
Now interestingly enough, for That's
Entertainment Part II, they went back to the original
stereo recording sessions. It was probably Saul Chaplin's idea,
since he worked on High Society,
but the two High Society
numbers in That's Entertainment Part II
did have stereo audio in the theatre.
to Part Two
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