Features | Written by Nick Spacek 09/02/2021

Phil Hopkins | Fandor

In the middle of January, it was announced that video-streaming company Cinedigm had acquired the indie streaming service Fandor, which hasn't acquired any new content since late 2019. In addition to the impending relaunch of the service with new content, it was announced that the Film Detective's Phil Hopkins would be helping to run Fandor. The Film Detective – a site devoted to finding and restoring lost and forgotten films, many of which are public domain and only available in terrible transfers – was itself acquired by Cinedigm in October of last year.

Also, Fandor will relaunch its Keyframe site, which offered content and writing which did an amazing job of finding film historians, aficionados, and more to really dive deep into the films the service offered and put them into context for viewers. It's a very exciting prospect, so we were equally excited to discuss what this new partnership will offer film fans by speaking with Hopkins...


STARBURST: How did you start the Film Detective? It's always been such a fascinating thing, because what has always really been appealing about it is the idea that you're taking a lot of these movies that are public domain, have been floating around, and popped up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and things like that or appeared in any of the number of bargain DVD sets at Walmart and you're making them into something watchable.

Phil Hopkins: Absolutely, and that's the technology and the ability to get good material. You know, there was a wasteland of junky film prints for so long in the market and it's wrong, because people got this weird perception about movies in terms of what was good and what was not good. Ultimately, a studio made every film. There was always a director, so it's not like these movies just came out of the abyss and ended up in the wasteland, but the care and the love and the appreciation was hard to manage.

Back years ago, when I was collecting film prints – or even collecting movies that were not readily available – you'd have to go to shows like Chiller or you'd have to go to like flea markets and I remember spending probably $ 25 or $30 for a VHS copy of a Coffin Joe film because you just couldn't get it. I spent a small fortune building up a VHS library of rare movies that I thought I'd never see, that I've read about in either Famous Monsters of Filmland or Fangoria or any of the publications that I used to get when I was a kid, going to the newsstand to absorb all this stuff.

It was a big deal to find any copy of anything back then and then when the home video explosion with DVD took place, nobody really bothered to make a huge effort to upgrade from your bootleg-quality VHS and to me it was sort of like, “Well, why wouldn't you?” If you have the movies, why wouldn't you try to make a better version, since DVD is supposed to look better than VHS? And then, when Blu-ray came out, everyone was sort of like, “Well, why do you want to spend the money on a PD [public domain] movie?”

I'm like, “Because it's a great movie. It doesn't matter if it's PD or not. It's still a famous movie that is probably more famous because of things like Mystery Science Theater or the fact that, in the case of Night of the Living Dead, there's a hundred copies out there and it's famous because it's so circulated. It's a strange proposition, but at the end of the day you're still chasing the best material and trying to come up with something that's going to look like the original and that, to me, is the best part of what I do, which is chasing down elements and trying to find an 80 or 90-year-old film and make it look great.

Seeing the restoration of Eegah on the big screen when they used it for the MST3K live tour was one of those cases. It was like, this movie looks great! It's still a terrible movie, but it doesn't look like it.” It wasn't filmed poorly – it is a good looking movie – which is what you're alluding to: the idea that so many of these movies like are downgraded simply because the only way you've been able to see them is from a copy where it looks like it was filmed in the dark or over-saturated or something like that. Is being able to put them out in a version like this, where you can actually see what's going on, allowing folks to re-contextualise and re-evaluate their opinion of the film?

You're spot on. Joel [Hodgson] – who's a friend of mine – when I talked to him, he even said, “I gotta tell you: it was like seeing it for the first time,” because with the junky film print that they used when they did the original broadcast, it's washed out and so you miss all of this information: you miss how cool the cars look or Arch Hall Jr.'s hair or his guitar even just sort of how insane Richard Kiel looks.

Everything just takes a different shape and form when you're seeing it the way it was meant to be seen. I went to a couple of the live events and it was amazing, watching a theater full of people appreciate how good the movie looked and how much more they were able to enjoy it because of the quality.

If not for people like Mike Vraney over at Something Weird, who actually spent the better part of his life tracking down material and preserving and taking care of the stuff – these people are the custodians of all the genre and cult movies, who saved them, literally. Some of these people, including myself, have saved some film negatives out of going into the dumps.

That's absurd, but when the movie labs closed, a lot of these films were orphaned. They were sitting there for years and people just didn't know what to do with them and they were junking film negatives, in some cases. When Movie Lab closed, there's a rumour about a lot of them getting dumped into the East River.

Cinedigm acquired the Film Detective towards the end of last year and now they've announced that they're going to relaunch the streaming sevice Fandor. We know that the Film Detective and Fandor are going to be separate but we see them as dovetailing very nicely, considering that Fandor was known for being the one place where you could go to find all of these movies that nobody else was streaming – which ties in nicely with what the Film Detective does, because every time a new streaming service launches, one of the things that's brought up is the fact that it really lacks historical depth, in terms of what's available. Once you start getting past the '90s, the amount of titles trails off precipitously.

The thing with Fandor is that it came out so early and the concept of editorialising and contextualising the films was so perfect but the reality was that it was still an early adopter, when even Hulu and Amazon Prime Video and whatnot were still looking to get studio titles and most of the studios wouldn't give streaming companies content because none of them paid. It was all a matter of “Who's going to participate and wait for your revenue?” so that was the big challenge, in terms of the entry point.

The studios were unwilling to participate early on in the on-demand game, so Fandor was in a great position to get cinephiles editorially and build something that really spoke to the genre and cinephile audience. Sadly, as a lot of these streaming platforms exploded, all of a sudden they're owned by major media companies. They didn't want content like this: they were making their own content. They were the new Hollywood studio, so we became nomadic. All of our indie friends that had shit up on Hulu and other platforms needed to go someplace.

Then, a couple years ago, my friend and mentor Sam Sherman reached out to me and said, “Listen: Fandor's going under. They're in receivership right now. They've got a transitional company. You should reach out to them. You should try to run Fandor. We can't let them close: it's one of the few places to go.”

So, I started talking to them two years ago and I spent the better part of the last two years trying to find investors and trying to roll up this whole concept of Film Detective managing Fandor and building a whole kind of indie coalition. Of course, all the major companies were just looking at Fandor as a liability asset that didn't really have any growth potential but Cinedigm, thankfully, is really forward-thinking and they totally understood what the opportunity could be if it was handled with a little TLC and given some life support.

They agreed when they purchased Film Detective and I told them about what I've been trying to do with Fandor. They were very supportive and it was great timing. It was really a perfect situation. We're really optimistic in terms of getting back to market as it's been in limbo for two years, so there hasn't been content added to it. There has been really no marketing and promotion, but there's still a very impassioned group of people that want to see it continue, so we're psyched.

It seems as though like a big part of this is – as you mentioned earlier – the contextualising of everything. A key part of that is the fact that Keyframe will also be returning and that is so crucial to older or international films: to be able to put it into context of the time or the place where it was made, and also where it fits in terms of a grander cinematic history. So many people, it seems, watch old movies and have that reaction of, “Oh, they're doing that? That's such a cliché!” because they don't understand that was the first movie to do it and it had never been done: this is where it all came from and you have to look at it in that context.

Oh, absolutely. We did a restoration for Turner for Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe three or four years ago and I'm telling the kids at work, “Now, this is where Star Wars got the scrolling concept” and they're like, “Oh, my god: you're right! That's so amazing!” so, immediately, you get 20-year-old millennial kids excited to watch a 1930's serial because now they have a connection to it, opposed to, “Oh, it's black and white.”

So many people are just like, “Well, but it's black and white!” and you kind of have to be like, “You lost your mind over The Lighthouse! Why is something like Kiss Me Deadly all of a sudden a turn-off?”

Right? Why would you want to colourise something like Kiss Me Deadly? Why would you want to make it look like what you're accustomed to seeing and not appreciate what film noir is and understand it. I appreciate the whole deliberate side of making something look interesting artistically, opposed to, “It's in black and white and my brain is going to shut off.”

Looking at the success of something like the chrome edition of Mad Max: Fury Road or Logan Noir – when you take a colour movie and you put it out in black and white, it's going to make you focus on all kinds of stuff that you didn't know.

I think that's not what the directors necessarily had in mind. With noir, it was all about light and shadow and kind of atmosphere and creating an anonymous feel for the movie. I think that the education and once you engage people and you come up with a clever way of introducing something, sky's the limit.

It seems that you're very excited about this, and it also seems that folks are going to be very excited about the fact that Fandor – much like the Film Detective – will have an ad-supported way to watch it.

I think so. I am, certainly, and I know that a lot of other fans of the platform will be – once we start getting out to all the producers and the rights holders in terms of making sure that they know now that they've got an alternative. They're not beholden to Netflix or Hulu or Amazon to get an audience for their movies. We're going to try to be a voice in the landscape to support the stuff that it will have.

It's all about the curation because there's so many platforms where you just have a sea of titles and nothing makes sense. You go onto the site and it's just like, “How do you even navigate this stuff?” so I think the curation, the editorial – those are critical. Even more so now, because there's so much competition and so much content and so much crappy content. Just because you can you can make something doesn't necessarily mean it's worth making. I would rather watch like the worst Ed Wood movie than watch a superficial romantic comedy that's formulaic that doesn't have any meat to it. It has no depth.

Fandor will relaunch sometime this spring, and more information will be found at the service's website.

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