The Tipping-Point Teeter-Totter

In 2012, I was lucky enough to get to see Napoleon (1927) in a rare theatrical run in Oakland, Ca.  It was a wonderful experience that I’ll always treasure.  Even better, I got to have dinner with Kevin Brownlow, an unexpected benefit.  I had been struggling just to continue doing the work I was doing and, as often happens, was at the brink of giving up.  But I thought, hey, maybe this is all starting to work out.  I was excited.  And, as usual, something happened to bring me back down to earth.  A friend called me just before my plane left and told me his computer had crashed.  He wanted me to come right over and fix it.  I told him I couldn’t, because I wasn’t even in town.  I hate fixing broken computers.  It was my old job.  Maybe I had taken a step into the larger world, but I wasn’t there yet.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about a tipping point in his book where an idea starts to take off like wildfire.  The principle is that you add a little bit to it slowly and nothing happens, but suddenly, unpredictably, the whole thing goes viral.  I realize I’m taking Gladwell out of context, but then again he probably would take me out of context as well.  For years, I’ve been trying to get the idea of classic films to tip.  I’ve also been trying to tip the idea that I’m a viable person to do this kind of work.

And it does tip.  Except it tips backwards too.  I guess I’m right on the edge.

Now before we go on, let me warn you that this blog will be another in my series of blogs about how I’m trying to market what I do.  I know some of you hate these… it’s like a Meg episode of Family Guy.  So if you’re one of those, click past this one.  And before you ask, “Why are you writing about this stuff when you should be working on King of the Kongo?  Well, I am working on King of the Kongo even as we speak.  I’m rendering three reels of it in different programs! 

Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), WKRP’s head of cheesy, in-your-face marketing.

I never quite get the idea of marketing and I see those who are successful at it are much more ME ME ME LOOK AT ME than I can stand to be.  It just bugs me.  I think of Herb Tarlek on WKRP in Cincinnati.  If you don’t know that reference, stop now and watch a bunch of episodes.  It was a great show.  I’ll wait.

It’s occurred to me that I’m trying to sell a concept (older films) that’s tipping away from relevant while I’m trying to tip myself toward relevance.  I’d like to see both of those tip toward relevance, but what are ya gonna do?

There’s an increasing idea in society that movies and music are “free goods,” meaning that there’s an unlimited supply and we don’t have to pay for them.  Sorta like air is a free good.  We all need it, we all want it, but we don’t pay for it.  Movies are getting like that.  So the idea that I can introduce and discuss movies is rather like tuning an air guitar.  What’s the point?

This was brought home to me the other day when I got an email from a guy I often hire to do scores for me.  He’s a local fellow, a very good pianist, and he shows up on time.  All good things in my book.  He asked me what the run time on the 1925 Ben Hur was.

I told him I didn’t know off the top of my head.  He said that he needed to know in order to get an estimate on how much to charge a local non-profit organization.  He and I had run Little Orphant Annie there and he did a live score.  Except I didn’t know they were running Ben Hur.  They hadn’t told me.  They only wanted an accompanist.  I can imagine the staff meeting.

Lest you think I’m being cynical, I’ve actually been in those meetings before and many times I’ve heard the results reported to me.  These all end up in one of two ways:


“Let’s hire Eric.”
“Eric’s films are making money!  Let’s do more!”
“Wow, we’d make even more money if we didn’t have to pay Eric!”

“Let’s download stuff from”
“Oh, no one is showing up now.  I guess they are burned out on movies.”

“I guess movies don’t work here.”


“Let’s hire Eric.”
“We hired Eric to run cheap films because we didn’t have any money.”

“Eric is bringing in crowds.”

“Wow!  Now we have money!  Let’s run popular stuff!”

“Eric specializes in classics and older stuff!”

“Who cares?  It’s Disney and Harry Potter from here out.”

The idea of showmanship, the idea of getting a print of something and running it on a projector, the idea of showing quality old films the right way is lost on these folks.  The problem here is that what they’re doing is ultimately self-defeating in either case.  People won’t support old films unless they look good, unless they can’t see them elsewhere, and unless someone gives them the inside scoop of what they’re seeing and what they’re looking for.

I’ve often said that if a movie is more than about 15 years old then you need to give it some context before you show it.  People just don’t get it.  And that’s what kills these shows.  I know people are cheap and they don’t see the value in what I add, and that’s fine, but what I’m doing is often what saves those shows.  I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but without that extra oomph, people are just going to stay home and download the film from for free.  They need something special to show up.

None of this is particularly new.  I’ve seen it for a long time.  I am only now slowly being seen as a film expert (one of the things that helped me do that is to quit doing projection-only jobs as much as I can… for whatever reason projectionists are seen as societal idiots!)

What is new is that this syndrome seems to be getting worse and that people are more blatant about ignoring me for doing shows.  They ask for “an old war horse picture that people know” and there are only so many times you can run Phantom of the Opera for Halloween.

It has gotten me cynical to the point of not really pursuing live shows much these days.  That’s too bad, because I enjoy doing them and I think the audiences agree.  It’s always the money people I have to hassle with.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I like to work with small non-profits.  I like to help get them going.  I like the chip-in can-do spirit that many of them have.  That’s a sword that cuts on both edges, though.  When I work for them for small cash, it tags me as a low-rent not-very-good act.  When I help them get successful, I’m left in the dust.  I’m remembering Ernie Kovacs’ dictum of “Charge them through the nose or else they won’t think you’re any good.”

And before you think that this is relentlessly negative, it’s not… because I said the balance is flipping (remember that?)  Some of you are probably aware that I’m doing a series of articles for the magazine Classic Images.  I have always liked CI, glad to support a place like this.

But it was funny… they approached me very carefully and asked me to write for them, as if I were some “superstar” in the film world.  It’s great to be considered that way, and I appreciated it, but I don’t take myself very seriously.  I thought, “Are you kidding?  My accountant laughs at me!”  But Classic Images was quite serious.  They’ve treated me respectfully.  I loved it since I’m so often given a brush off.  Later, another venue changed management and asked me if I would “consider” letting them premiere King of the Kongo at their theater.

Whoa!  This was the same place that a couple of years earlier had said, “Oh, yeah, if you want to run your boring old movies here, we can talk, maybe.”  I realized that somehow, somewhy, my reputation/awareness/brand recognition had suddenly changed.

I’ve been working on this very thing for years.  You see, you can’t just put yourself out there as a film expert.  People don’t care.  You have to be “known” as a film expert, and this is hard.  I always struggle with this, because, as I’ve said before, I’m the guy who likes to sit at the back of the party and eat ripe olives while talking to no one.  Alas, in order to be known, in order to actually get work, I can’t do that.  

And it’s paying off.  If I knew what I was doing right, I’d do more of it, but it’s happening.  It’s happening without me turning into Herb Tarlek, which I just can’t do.  I can’t tell you how exciting it is.  After being told NO consistently since 2004, it’s moved to “well, maybe,” and occasionally “hey, help us out!”  That’s real progress.  That doesn’t mean I still don’t get ignored a lot, but it’s gotten better.

I’m not exactly sure why this happened.  I’m not exactly sure when it happened.  It’s a great thing to see, because now when I talk to these places, I don’t sound desperate for a job.  And, in fact, although I can always use cash, I really need to get some of this work off my plate, so I’m not as anxious for a cheapie film job as I had been.

I think maybe it’s the work with King of the Kongo that’s putting me over the edge, although I’m not sure.  Little Orphant Annie should have. I thought it was a good restoration, and a fun film, but the nasty review by Movies Silently is killing it.  It’s the first one you see on IMDb.  (I keep hearing people tell me they didn’t want to see it because of this review.)  Well, I’m not sending her a review copy of Kongo, because next to it, Annie is Lawrence of Arabia.  My goal is not to release good or bad films.  My goal is to release stuff that’s been ignored and is hard to find.

So Kongo is getting me recognition, and I haven’t even released it.  I’m now employing 3 helpers with no money.  It’s a weird world, folks.  I’m an unknown success, a manager with no company, a businessman with no business, a label with only two releases, and a guy who has too much work to do but no money coming in.

What I do is a contradiction of a contradiction, and I realize that for what it is.  I know that no one else quite does what I do, and so it’s hard to quantify.  Shows?  Sure.  Restorations?  Yeah.  Articles?  OK.  I have so much work backed up here that it will take me years to get through it all.  King of the Kongo has proved to be so much of a challenge that it’s taken way longer than I would have anticipated.  But it’s an odd combination of a rare film and one that people want to see, so I guess it’s getting some interest.

I seem to be right at the tipping point, but it’s still back and forth.

Has this taught me anything?

Yes.  I don’t charge enough for small non-profits.

The Road Ahead

I touched on this a little in my newsletter, and if you didn’t see that, then you’ll want to sign up for it by emailing me.  No, it’s not on my website yet.  I know it needs to be.

A good friend of mine who runs a candy shop told me that he was at an impasse once.  He either needed to expand his business or close down.  I know exactly what he meant.  If that intrigues you, keep reading.

Some of you have complained about my blogs on these topics and called them “existential whining,” and if you’re in that camp, go ahead and skip this one because it’s going to be one of those.  On the other hand, many of you follow this just to see the struggles and successes of a guy who does this work.

I have been trying to figure out just why I am not being very successful doing film restorations.  Tommy Stathes ships my products, and he’ll be the first to tell you he’d like to move some of my stuff out of his cramped apartment.

I’ve gotta tell ya, I was super disappointed in the turnout I got for the free movies I did during the early part of the pandemic.  I was getting 20 and 30 viewers for some and 80-90 at the best.  I don’t think we ever topped 100.  Then, Ben Model keeps posting that he’s getting 1000 or more!  You’ve gotta hand it to Ben. He’s been doing the longest-running free movie show during the pandemic, and people love it. This was my big clue that  I must be doing something wrong!  I mean, for heaven’s sake, I’m doing free movies, and rare stuff, during a pandemic, and I can’t get any views?  I was hoping to do a public service by doing these shows, and I thought they were good, but I eventually suspended them because they were literally more work than they were worth.  They weren’t helping my “brand,” I wasn’t getting donations, and it was taking time away from projects that DO pay.

So instead of becoming insanely jealous of Ben, which is tempting, I did what Ben does.  When Ben has a technical question, he sends me an email asking about it. I’m probably a good guy to consult with technical problems (especially if you want a long-winded answer.)

But you should never ask me about marketing problems.  Because I’m a marketing moron.  I consulted Ben, who is a Marketing Genius! and asked him for some tips. (In fairness, although Ben is really good at this, I’m way behind the curve on this kind of thing, so you can’t expect me to pull out of a dive immediately. My failures are my own, so don’t blame Ben for my goofiness.)

Ben steered me to Seth Godin, a marketing legend, and to Michael Boezi, who does his own podcast.  Now, I am frequently in the car and listen to podcasts (now even more often because I am shuttling disks between helpers working on my projects).  I started reading Godin’s blog, and I will freely admit that Godin annoys me.

I’m an engineer.  We deal in facts.  We want concrete answers.  You know, science.  Godin’s blog is all, RAH, RAH, you can do this!  Well, I don’t need RAH RAH, I need ideas!!!  If there are concrete ideas in there somewhere, I’ve missed them, because I got lost in the cheerleading.  I gave up. (I should probably reconsider this at some point… Godin annoyed me a lot less than Michael Bay has with his awful movies.)

I did a Godin spoof on my podcast.  (Please note that I also spoof ME a lot, which is one of my saving graces… like WC Fields, I make fun of everyone; no one is immune.)  Still, Boezi kind of crept in to my brain.  Remember, as an engineer, I have a pre-trained bias against marketing.  It’s not science: it’s squishy social stuff.  In fact, one of the guys who was helping me told me that I was a disloyal engineer for even listening to such a thing.  Marketing people, in his view, are evil.  They’re all Herb Tarlek.

What I like about Boezi is that he does have a fair number of concrete ideas.  I would say there’s a fairly low signal to noise ratio (translation for non-geeks: there’s not much content I find usable per episode), but that’s mostly because no one else really does quite what I do.

Wait, I hear you cry.  There are surely others.  Well, sorta.  I do high-end restorations at 2 and 4K. Many of them go back to archival film!  I go overboard on it. I focus on stuff that’s not out there, terribly damaged, or incomplete, and I do in-depth restorations of things I think are cool. In other words, if I don’t do it, it will never happen.  I know that I’m the only independent consultant goofy enough to go for National Film Preservation Foundation grants.  How do I know this?  They told me.  Yes, I’m nuts!

This is my take-away from listening to a bunch of shows, consulting with a bunch of people, and thinking a lot:

I need more product out there.  I know that I need more stuff to sell, but for one reason or another, it hasn’t happened.  This ridiculous King of the Kongo project has been on-again off-again for 8 years.  I have more projects than I can count that ALMOST happened, and I had literally given up on Kongo when Steve Stanchfield convinced me to go for it one last time.  I then thought that all my grant prospects had fallen through, but I swung for the fences and got it.  Now I’m obligated to finish it and all my other projects are on the back burner.  For notes on which projects I have going, see the end notes here.

I should blog more often and make them shorter.  Well, good luck on that.  I don’t think in sound bites, and I don’t write short blogs.  I think about things.  It’s like when Hitchcock was pressured to use a pop score for Torn Curtain, and Bernard Herrmann told him, “I don’t write pop scores.  You don’t make pop movies.”  If you want two-paragraph platitudes, I recommend Seth Godin’s blog.

I should do more podcasts and make them longer.  (Irony noted that my blogs are seen as too long and podcasts seen as too short!) The podcast is something I’ve seriously thought about discontinuing, and I have great trouble doing them regularly, but some of you really like them.  Oddly, the ones that get listeners are the ones that I do that cover stupid goofy stuff.  We sorta morphed into old-time radio sorts of things and both Glory and I enjoy that.  I guess the six of you who listen to these do, too.  The “straight” podcasts get about half the listeners (yeah, three).  No, seriously, we get maybe 50-75 listeners for an episode, which isn’t fantastic, but not bad.  The one thing I can say that is somewhat encouraging is that we do distinguish ourselves by making a podcast unlike any other film podcast.  Someone called it “the weirdest film podcast on the web!”  Who else would have a spoof of 2001 or an episode with Claude Rains playing a satanic lawyer?  We do.

My website needs re-tooling.  This is a fair call.  Boezi has several good ideas about optimizing web sites, none of which I’ve implemented.  I last updated my site a year or two ago, after learning that my text-heavy site alienated viewers.  (Just like my text-heavy blogs.)  I’m currently re-thinking this.

I need an email newsletter.  Ok, I hate email newsletters.  As I said in my first one, they always seem like they’re trying to sell me something and I HATE that.  I struggled a lot with doing a soft-sell one and I think I did it OK.  Of course, it was probably too soft-sell because I sold zero products!  But I get that it’s important for a lot of reasons, so we’ll do it.

I should sell stuff directly from my web site.  I agree.  My opinion of Amazon would not be fit for a blog that is supposed to be PG.  It might not even fit into an R-rated blog.  I don’t like them at all.  I will do this.

I take on too much work myself and need helpers.  Boy have I learned that this year.  Now I have two helpers.  But the problem is I can’t pay them anything.  I also learned that I need an uber-macho computer, so what I did was buy these guys fast computers with grant money and then have them pay the grant back in work.  It’s going OK.  The backlash here is that I need to do more work than I can pay for or that sales justify, so I’m looking at forming a non-profit.  

My own self-assessments have proven wrong and that continues.  I was thinking that I was a total loser at this stuff and had screwed up everything I’d tried.  I also thought I was reaching a sum total of NO ONE and that people didn’t really care about my work.  What’s been very touching this year is the outpouring of support I’ve gotten from a lot of you, including some cash (blush) that I didn’t expect.  (I should probably do a whole blog post on this. I did an outdoor movie show and a woman came up to me, crying, thanking me for bringing my movie shows back. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had this year.) I have also learned that a lot of people have trouble setting up web sites, Amazon stores, blogs, and podcasts.  Well, I’ve DONE all that.

It’s just that I built it and no one came.  I’ve got to fix that.  I’ll work on it.  The upshot of the candy store analogy is that I realize now that I’m not really successful here, so either I have to finish Kongo and hang it up, or I need to get some funding to have 3-4 people helping me.  Like the candy store, I have to either expand or close.

Now, just FWIW, here’s a partial list of stuff that I couldn’t get off the ground before Kongo:

The White Tiger (1923) I wanted to merge my print with UCLA’s.  No traction with UCLA.  Universal did it recently, probably without my print.  I had mine scanned for archival use and nothing happened. Thanks, UCLA.

Rocky Jones Lost Pilot (1951) I scanned this.  We only have 2 of 3 reels, but it’s cool.  I’m hoping to get a 3rd helper to get this out for me.

Willis O’Brien shorts (1915-30). I love these and they’re hard to find.  Got them scanned, no time to clean up at this point.  Considering skipping them: this got the lowest rating of any of the shows I did, even with brand new scores.  Sometimes you guys don’t love the same stuff that I love!

Lupino Lane shorts (1920s).  This ALLLLMOST happened.  I was planning to collaborate with Dave Glass on this right before Kongo showed up and then I couldn’t do it.  Some of the prints are warped in such a way that I can’t easily fix them.  I still have a bunch and it’s near the top of the list.

Ella Cinders (1926) this has never been put on Blu-ray in a good way.  I tracked several prints (original Kodascopes) and was arranging to have them scanned.  I’ve also found some stills and the original score.  I think we could do a decent reconstruction of what this was including missing footage.  No budget, no time.

Alice in Wonderland/The Horror (1931/3). Several people are pestering me about this.  I was about to get Alice scanned before the pandemic started, but we ran out of time.  There’s also a print of Intolerance of 1933 at MoMA which would be a perfect thing for triple feature.  All Bud Pollard, one of the most bizarre filmmakers ever.

Thunder Over Texas/I Can’t Escape (1934/3) Edgar Ulmer double feature!  Immediately before the pandemic, I had Thunder scanned, but I will need another print because some of it was warped fairly badly and didn’t scan well.  We had most of I Can’t Escape scanned, but not quite ready.

Dynamite Dan/The Midnight Girl (1924/5) Karloff and Lugosi before sound!  I commissioned a new score for Dynamite Dan (Kodascope) and I was never able to get Midnight Girl scanned.  I think this would be a cool one.

So you see, I had a lot of irons in the fire.  They just all got cold!