Our Favorites 2018: Richard Lorber on Building a Sustainable Home for Classics of the Past and Future at Kino Lorber

This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the past year possible.

Around this time ten years ago, Richard Lorber and Donald Krim were finalizing an agreement to merge their respective film distribution companies, Lorber Films and Kino International. The financial crisis of 2007 had reared its ugly head into the film business and Lorber, a shrewd home video exec, and Krim, a pioneering arthouse distributor, had long helped each other on a number of releases over the years, having been friends ever since meeting freshman week at Columbia, sharing exquisite taste for world cinema and complementing each other’s skillsets, though there never had been a formal partnership.

“We had conversations over a period of 15 years, ‘Oh, should we get our companies together in some way – should we figure out a way to blend and merge these things into a bigger and better business?’” Lorber said. “We finally did that and it was only because the business got tougher and tougher.”

Sadly, Krim passed away only a few years later of cancer in 2011, after having introduced such filmmakers as Wong Kar-Wai, Michael Haneke and Andrei Zvyagintsev to American audiences, but in Lorber, he found a worthy steward who kept on Kino’s staff and increased it three-fold and grew their shared library from 300 films to 2600. The deal would mark the beginning of one of the most forward-thinking film distributors in the business, embracing the past as a foundation for the future. Lorber, who speaks with a seen-it-all New Yorker’s pugnacity, hardly appears to be one to shy away from a fight and since inoculating the company from the Great Recession a decade ago, he has weathered many more storms at Kino Lorber as arthouse theaters closed left and right and the market for DVDs, the bread and butter for a company with such a strong back catalog, all but collapsed. However, Kino Lorber’s business model made a lot more sense than most heading into an era of chaos for other film companies grappling with corporate consolidation and digital disruption.

For larger distributors, the rewards of releasing a black-and-white lesbian vampire western might not have made enough of a dent in the bottom line to risk the thoughtful, deliberate rollout it required, but nonetheless Lorber’s intimate familiarity with the entire financial life-cycle of a film allowed him to pick up Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” an attitude that has since led to backing a number of bold new filmmakers who are not yet brand names such as Iram Haq (“What Will People Say?”), Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (“Let the Corpses Tan”) and Xavier Legrand (“Custody”). The company’s home video side has also benefitted greatly from a more risk-averse marketplace as major studios that can’t justify putting out more of their archives for the collector’s market, particularly investing the resources to create special features, have loosened their grip on rights, resulting in Kino Lorber scouring the Fox, Universal, Studio Canal and Touchstone libraries for gems and lavishing much-deserved attention to films ranging from William Wellman’s 1937 screwball comedy “Nothing Sacred” to the Chris Elliott’s 1994 cult classic “Cabin Boy.”

Richard Lorber of Kino LorberIn fact, Kino Lorber has taken some of its game plan from the studios as well, locating a steady revenue stream from amassing a library where titles that can be licensed out just as there’s been renewed interest in repertory cinema, whether it’s streaming services craving high-quality content or the new wave of arthouses eager for event screenings of classics such as the Metrograph and Quad in New York. That has enabled the company to take risks elsewhere, stepping up to distribute Bi Gan’s 3D sensation “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” this coming April after finding previously rustling up the screens and an audience for Jean-Luc Godard’s stereoscopic “Goodbye to Language,” as well as continuing to invest in the longterm health of the medium with such projects as the “Pioneers” series, which have brought early films from African-American and female filmmakers to the masses, and putting restorations of such films as “The Atomic Cafe” and Paul Wegener’s silent classic “The Golem” back into circulation. They have also used their considerable muscle to lift up other specialty labels, forming a strategic alliance with Nancy Gerstman and Emily Russo’s indispensable Zeitgeist Films and serving as American distributor for the European arthouse labels Raro Video and Carlotta Films.

When I spoke to Lorber in November, he was clearly dismayed by the abrupt announcement just days before our conversation that FilmStruck would be phased out after the AT&T-Time Warner merger as a loss for the film culture he’s devoted his life to building, but having seen other distributors come and go during his four decades in the business, he remains bullish on Kino Lorber’s mission and its long-term prospects as one of the great tributaries of cinema and candidly discussed the past, present and future of the company.

It feels like you’re putting out more films than ever, but earlier this year in an article about the closure of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, a key venue for arthouse films in New York, you spoke about possibly cutting back on acquisitions. Where do things stand now?

There are different meanings to cutting back and there’s certain opportunities that are going to be harder to come by with the demise of Lincoln Plaza. But at the same time, there’s been an expansion of new screens – many of them are repertory screens where they’re not really opportunities for week-long runs, but they are actively programming films for two or three days at a time and with our large library now – we have over 2600 titles, we’re emphasizing the repertory part of our business as much some ways as the first-run. There are at least 20 new screens coming online in New York City in the next 12 to 36 months and they’re not all going to be able to find those high-value, first-run arthouse films that some of our bigger competitors are snaring – and we do occasionally. So what they’re going to fill their screens with are quality repertory films that may be a few years old or bonafide classics and we have many in both categories. Our core first-run business has varied between 20 to 35 films [annually] and I think we’re probably going to be stabilized at around 20-25 films, but it’s dependent upon what’s available, what we really love and what we can make work.

This may two separate questions, but you still very much support the theatrical experience and physical media, which have both been said to be in decline. What’s bolstering your ongoing belief in them?

We are very committed to cinema – our mantra is “Experiencing Cinema,” and theatrical is the beginning of the value chain for a work of cinema and film that doesn’t have a chance to shine on the big screen never quite gets the respect, frankly, that it deserves. It doesn’t self-select the audience that will come out to find it in the ancillaries based on the surplus promotional value generated by the efficiencies of theatrical releasing and even though some films can be loss leaders theatrically, they create benefits throughout all of our different channels.

The physical side of our business is an interesting phenomenon in that it’s growing, even though there’s decline overall in packaged media. We’re finding more and more people who are collectors – who both want to see a film and they want to own it. They want to be able to watch it again and to share it. You can do those things digitally as well, but with physical, it has more substance. At the same time, it should come as no surprise that the growth part of our business is digital and we have licensing agreements and ongoing relationships with over 40 different [over the top services] including all the big ones, but at the same time, there are niche SVODs starting up and coming, knocking on our door.

We’re all grieving at the loss of FilmStruck, but we’re actively in business with Mubi, Sundance Now and three or four other specialty cinema services and our films are being made available on many new niche services, everything from StageNet, which is for theater and performing arts, to Kweli TV, which is African-American cinema. We’re actually very selective with who we’re dealing with, in terms of financial commitments, the marketing approach and the quality of the company itself and there are many, many subsets of categories that don’t even rank on the Netflix search lists and we think that there are going to be more and more services, [some could even] take the place of FilmStruck or maybe FilmStruck will be resurrected in some new form. We don’t know yet. We’ve got our ear to the ground.

You’ve been able to bring in a number of specialty labels under one umbrella over the years as far as home video distribution and even theatrical, in the case of Zeitgeist. Has there been strength in numbers? And how do those deals work exactly?

We have a joint distribution agreement with Zeitgeist where we brought them in-house and we cover all of their overhead, but we did not buy them corporate, so at some point if they want to pick up their marbles after a certain period of time, they could do that. But I think it looks like our relationship will grow even closer and closer and we finance their theatrical release of four to six films per year where we contract for the rights, so we own the titles and we share the distribution and we’re really working intimately as a team. It’s worked out really well and they’ve maintained their identity as Zeitgeist, which we really revere. On the other side, there are deals that we typically call just distribution deals that we have with Carlotta Films USA, Raro, Adopt Films, which is currently inactive on the theatrical side, and there’s other companies we’re talking with now. I think there are some interesting smaller specialty labels that appreciate we are not only dealing at the retail/physical level, but also we are direct to consumer and distributing through our own catalog. Our e-blasts have been a unique competitive advantage for us in the physical media business in that we’ve been doing it for 20-plus years and we have a fantastic list of customers who are very loyal. When we send a mailing out, [we have] approximately a 10 percent conversion rate from people who are on our core list, which is an extraordinary rate of return for a physical mailing list.

Just from my own experience ordering from the catalog, I find myself buying a recent indie like “Fort Tilden” alongside one of the “Studio Classics” like “Miracle Mile” or “Zaza.” Have the newer titles bolstered the interest in the older ones or vice versa?

There is a kind of halo effect in that we’re releasing classics or near-classics, but at the same time, we’re creating the classics of tomorrow. We really admire Criterion Collection and Peter Becker’s a long and old friend, but the fact that we’re committed to the theatrical side of the business, which Janus is to [only] some extent, but it’s still largely repertory – our commitment to find those unique films that will stand the test of time, whether it’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” or “Diamantino” or the new Godards that are coming out from us, gives us a unique position in the market both with the tried-and-the true and taking the risks to discover the ones that will be classics 10, 20, 50 years from now. That rub-off effect works in terms of the catalog library titles, along with the new titles. We have a lot of really sharp cinephiles in our company whose job is not to acquire films, but we draw on that brain trust for almost every decision we make, particularly with the catalog acquisitions.

One of the things I’m proudest of is how we’ve been able to assemble a team of really talented people working together and breaking down silos, even in a small company. We have 30-plus people, but even though the office is small, people can become stuck in their own spheres. So it is gratifying overall that we’ve been able to build a brilliant and beautiful and expansive library and assemble a great team, cross-fertilizing our conversations and decisions. I’ve now been in this business for 35 years, and it’s never been more challenging, but I’ve never had so much fun. That’s partly because the company’s successful and we’re making money doing what we really love, but we’re not doing it just for the money. I try to explain to people that we’re almost like a cultural institution. We think of ourselves as gallerists in some ways.

That’s especially true of what I feel should be one of Kino Lorber’s proudest achievements of late – the “Pioneers” series, which began in 2016 with a boxed set of early African-American cinema and was followed up this year with female filmmakers. What’s it been like to allocate resources for that size a project?

One of our secret weapons, so to speak, is our senior vice president and executive producer Bret Wood, who has been with the company for many, many years. He manages our Kino Classics line and is both the brand manager and the initiator of some of these concept releases where through his longstanding relationships with some of the most important film archives in the country, like Library of Congress, first and foremost, George Eastman House, UCLA and many others, he’s been able to put together collections and launch his Kickstarter campaign to help lubricate the process [since often] it’s expensive upfront to do all the restorations and assemble the materials and bring on the consultants. Bret does all of that almost single-handedly with obvious input from me, but the “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” is something we’re really proud of and “First Women Filmmakers,” [which is] even larger in scope, is equally significant. We have two or three more coming up that you’ll be hearing about soon, but that’s something that goes beyond just a movie in a little plastic box. This is really something that will endure and there are schools and libraries that want this, and people want to acquire these collections, almost as lifestyle accessories. They want them because of the identification with something that’s important in culture and in their own personal lives, and we think they like to watch them too, so it’s a continuing series that we’re branding as “Pioneers” in various categories.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to in the new year?

Every year we put together our little release schedule with the films we’ve acquired from Cannes and Toronto and Sundance and I have to say every year, I feel like the lineup is better than it’s ever been. A film like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by Bi Gan is truly a work of cinema adventurousness, cinema style and formalist invention, just a totally mindblowing experience and at the same time, we have in release “Chef Flynn,” [which] every time I see I realize the depth and the poignance of the relationship between mother and son, apart from all the food porny stuff that makes people initially interested. So I couldn’t imagine two more different films, but each one has a unique place in the cinephile scope of interests and it’s exciting to work on films that have that breadth of difference and engage different kinds of audiences on different levels. It’ll be the same thing when we come out with Godard and “Of Fathers and Sons,” which is something we’re very excited about and I think has to be taken seriously in the run-up to the Oscars. So there is a sense of continuity and a sense of continued growth opportunities. Weathering the disruptions is always going to be gut-wrenching, but at the same time, even when there’s the great forest fire, there’s regeneration.

Photo credit: Julie Cunnah

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