A scene from "Belladonna of Sadness"

Difference Makers: Dennis Bartok & David Marriott on Restoring Film and Film Culture at Cinelicious Pics

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“Before you leave, we will force you to tell us your five or 10 favorite undistributed movies,” Dennis Bartok mentions not long after I arrive at the offices of Cinelicious Pics in Hollywood, existing physically as it does in the minds of cinephiles as a haven in the midst of the rest of the movie business just blocks away from the Paramount lot on Melrose.

The question has grown into a custom for Bartok, the Executive VP of Acquisitions and Distribution at the burgeoning distributor ever since his celebrated tenure as the head of programming for the American Cinematheque, presiding over two of Los Angeles’ top repertory houses in the Aero and the Egyptian. Despite boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of movies himself, Bartok would make a point of drawing upon his equally thorough awareness of local film buffs’ tastes, reaching out to spaghetti western fiends when trying to include titles that no one had ever seen before in a survey of ‘60s and ‘70s oaters, or asking directors who would appear for Q & As to list their favorites he could track down — a lunch with “Clouds of Sils Maria” director Olivier Assayas led to the two scrawling the titles of obscure French movies on napkins. When the question was posed to Cinefamily co-founder Hadrian Belove, Bartok actually learned of what would become Cinelicious Pics’ most recent release.

“Hadrian came over for lunch, so he was a captive audience or victim, depending on how you look at it,” laughs Bartok. “I was like, “If you had carte blanche to restore [any film], what would it be?” The first thing he said was ‘Belladonna of Sadness.’”

Although being indescribable is part of its allure, Belove tried his best to paint a picture of Eiichi Yamamoto‘s psychedelic 1973 Japanese animated film involving sex, witchcraft and giraffes born of human genitals all brought to life in florid, hand-painted detail. It was enough to launch Bartok, Cinelicious Pics’ Acquisitions Director David Marriott, and the company’s small, dedicated staff of cinephiles to chase down the film in a years-long quest that was anything but easy. Belove’s mere suggestion led to an international search involving the rights holders in Japan, whose original camera negative was found to be missing eight minutes that were edited for a rerelease, and the owners of a 16mm print in Canada that proved too faded to take on before the Cinelicious Pics team discovered an uncut 35mm print at a Cinematek in Brussels. As an offshoot of a post-production house, Cinelicious Pics has an unusual ability among distributors to create its own digital prints (DCP) of the films it releases and a trade was brokered with the Cinematheque, which did a 4K scan of “Belladonna,” and in exchange will receive a DCP for their collection. But really, it’s movie lovers who will see the biggest return.

“You can literally see the brush strokes of the original paintings in the new version,” marvels Bartok. “You want to do right by it because it may be the only release that ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ sees. After our license on it expires, will somebody else pick it up? You don’t know. So you want to make sure this could be floating out there for the next 20-30 years as the only way people can see ‘Belladonna.’”

Bartok’s own enthusiasm about “Belladonna of Sadness” has proven infectious, in no small part because of the effort put into its release as much as the film itself. After creating fanfare on the festival circuit with stops at Fantastic Fest and Sitges, Cinelicious Pics has been pulling out all the stops for a film that even hardcore animation fans might not be familiar with, naturally having a blowout premiere party last week at Cinefamily as a precursor to theatrical runs across the country. The release will be followed by the publication of coffee table book from Hat & Beard press, featuring interviews with the filmmakers, who have never before done so for an English language release, to go alongside art from the film and eventually a Blu-ray with all the bells and whistles.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Jane B. Par Agnes V."While such treatment would be extraordinary even for the most famous of classic films, it has become the standard at Cinelicious Pics, which has been as bold in championing daring work as the filmmakers who created it, both up-and-coming and established directors alike, which is saying something when they proudly take on a film like John Magary’s raucous and audacious black comedy “The Mend.” When the company acquired a pair of Agnes Varda gems from the late ‘80s — “Kung Fu Master!” and “Jane B. Par Agnes V.” — they enlisted Miranda July for a conversation with the legendary French filmmaker over Skype that started a new wave of buzz for the films earlier this year. They worked similar magic on Josephine Decker’s “Butter on the Latch” & “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” separate films from the actress/writer/director that they shrewdly sold as a “Double Decker,” each given additional weight as a pair introducing audiences to her intuitive, immersive and elegiac style.

“Every film we’ve learned is different,” says Marriott, who mentions the head banging Norwegian drama “Metalhead” Cinelicious Pics released last spring as an example of tailoring a rollout to a specific film, hiring a heavy metal-centric PR firm to raise awareness among fans of bands like Megadeth and Riot. “You don’t just turn on a machine. Because they’re so unique, each one of them needs a specific approach when you’re rolling them out.”

However distinct each film has been from one another, they’ve cumulatively added up to a label that has worked hard to earn the trust of adventurous film lovers, which no doubt was part of the vision Cinelicious’ founder and CEO Paul Korver had in initiating it in 2014. Having started his post-production business out of his garage nearly a decade earlier, Korver saw an opportunity to get into distribution as the steady stream of scanning and color grading work on films such as “Boyhood” led to conversations with producers and various rights holders about films they might like to have restored. Through a mutual friend, that led to Korver having a chat with Bartok about the lack of American distributors for art house films, particularly with the capacity to restore films in-house, create DCPs (the digital files that are equivalent to film prints) or author Blu-rays, often the priciest part of the process for indie filmmakers. It turned out the two shared a taste for the eclectic as well.

Says Bartok, “[We’re attracted to] things that are left of center that push the envelope in terms of both the content and the style. The metaphor we always use is that if somebody would send us a documentary where the subject of the content was really interesting but the style of the film was not that compelling, we probably wouldn’t be interested because we want the film itself to be as compelling as what it’s saying.”

Cinelicious Pics made that much clear with their first release out the gate, “Giuseppe Makes a Movie,” a surreal nonfiction slice of life from Adam Rifkin which tracks a former child actor (Giuseppe Andrews) scrapping together a 48-hour film shoot with his fellow residents at a mobile park. They followed it up by starting the restoration process on “Belladonna” and bringing the Indian 2012 Cannes Directors Fortnight selection “Gangs of Wasseypur” to America, an unlikely prospect given its five-hour running time spread across two parts.

As bullish as the distributor has been about giving their films the best presentation possible, making theatrical platform releases a priority followed by comprehensive Blu-rays to follow, they’ve also been nimble in seizing upon all the new distribution channels that have opened up recently. They’ve partnered with the streaming site Fandor for a number of their releases and for “Gangs of Wasseypur,” Cinelicious Pics were approached by Netflix with the offer to repurpose the film as a miniseries, something they were able to do after director Anurag Kashyap and producer Guneet Monga agreed they could rework it without compromise to get it to a larger audience.

“We’re constantly in communication [with filmmakers] so they feel very involved,” says Marriott. “Very truly, it is a collaboration. We’re not going to bring you on board and tell you what your one-sheet [posters] are going to look like and this is how we’re going to get rolled out here. It’s an ongoing conversation and that’s been a really big part of how we’re trying to build our identity.”

It’s notable that many of Cinelicious Pics’ staff are filmmakers themselves, whether it’s Bartok, who spent the fall in Ireland in production on his feature debut, the horror film “P.O.V.,” their remastering colorist Caitlin Diaz, whose avant garde shorts had screened at the Echo Park Film Center just before my visit to Cinelicious, or Ei Toshinari, their distribution coordinator, who gleefully mentioned to me he was “going out on a shoot” the weekend after.

While Marriott made shorts in film school, it was his acumen for film preservation, restoration and programming that impressed Korver and Bartok, the last of which he was already doing as a student at UCLA when he overheard Korver might be starting a distribution arm. His burning ears while at UCLA also led to Cinelicious Pics’ next major archival release, Leslie Stevens’ 1960s sun-soaked noir “Private Property,” which he saw as a test print made off a dupe negative that was the last existing element of the film while interning at the school’s photochemical lab.

A scene from Leslie Stevens' "Private Property"A satisfying, hard-boiled thriller on its own merits, the film wrings even more intrigue from the fact it marks the first leading role for Warren Oates and the first feature from Stevens, a protege of Orson Welles who went on to greater fame as a writer on “The Outer Limits.” Featuring cinematography from “East of Eden” and “The Sound of Music” director of photography Ted McCord (with future Oscar-winning “American Beauty” DP Conrad Hall as his camera operator), “Private Property” recently wowed audiences at the TCM Festival in Los Angeles where time appeared to finally catch up to the provocative themes Stevens was laying down five decades earlier – with the story of a bored housewife driven to madness by a pair of intruding drifters five – when it was just the second film after “The Man with a Golden Arm” to fail to receive the MPAA’s approval. Getting the film a gala screening in the heart of Hollywood seemed like some measure of justice for not being afforded one before, but the locale was equally fitting for the way in which Cinelicious Pics is actively pushing forward a cultural rebirth in the city, both in the film community and otherwise, where what’s old is new again.

“One of the nice things about being one of the few micro-distributors based in Los Angeles [is that] we’re next door to the Academy up the street, UCLA down the way, and all the studio centers,” says Marriott. “There’s a huge archival scene here, so that’s another place you’re going to be finding a lot of these lost things in the vaults.”

With the collection of films they’re building, Cinelicious Pics is making some history of their own.

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