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Kino Lorber Chairman Richard Lorber on Quality, DVDs: Interview

Kino Lorber Chairman Richard Lorber on Quality, DVDs: Interview

When it comes to the indie movie business, you don’t get more old-school than Kino Lorber. The New York outfit, founded as Kino International in 1977, has been the first source of independent cinema for U.S. audiences. It was the first to distribute films from Yorgos Lanthimos, Aki Kaurismäki, Wong Kar-wai, Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni in U.S. theaters and the first to restore and rerelease silent classics like MetropolisThe Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

In 2009, when Richard Lorber’s home entertainment company Lorber HT Digital acquired and merged with Kino International, physical media got added to the mix, and the newly minted Kino Lorber became known for its home entertainment releases, ranging from classic (NosferatuThe Sacrifice) to cult (Mad MaxEmmanuelle). The Kino Lorber library now counts more than 4,000 titles and the company is continually adding to the list, acquiring festival hits like Bruno Dumont’s Berlinale Silver Bear winner L’Empire, 2023 Cannes Golden Eye and Caméra d’Or winners Four Daughters and Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, and Sundance success Scrapper.

The company releases some 35 titles theatrically each year and more than 350 titles annually to the home entertainment market. 

But old-school does not mean stuck in the past. Kino Lorber has two stand-alone streaming services: MHz Choice, which specializes in international TV series (Babylon BerlinThe Killing) and which merged with First Look Media’s Topic platform earlier this year; and Kino Film Collection, an all-movie platform programmed largely from its back catalog. Kino Lorber is now 10 times the size of the company Richard Lorber bought back in 2009. “Our library is what has given us staying power, it’s allowed us to build a sustainable business model that gives us the confidence to take some risks.”

Lorber talked to THR about the company’s past, present, and future, and the state of the overall indie film business.

Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Is it true that it was Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis that launched Kino Lorber? 

That’s a bit of a simplification and it predates my entering the game with Kino Lorber, but my dear friend, departed since 2011, Donald Krim, who founded Kino International around 1979, basically staked his fame and fortune on bringing Metropolis to market and over a period of probably 30 years, until I acquired the company in 2009. I met Donald in the ’60s when we were freshmen at Columbia, and he was a great lover of international film, and silent films in particular. For a while, he was distributing the Janus library. He was working for United Artists in charge of non-theatrical, and he developed a kind of passion for these movies. Under him, Kino International became synonymous with great classic cinema, silent films, early works of the history of cinema. My interests were sort of on the other end of the spectrum. I was trained as an art historian and I was a professor at NYU and really dealing with very contemporary art and contemporary video, with new films and cinema history of the most recent sort. 

We found a connection based upon our differences and our commonalities and over a period of probably 15 years, over innumerable pizzas in Cannes, we talked about how we might put our companies together. In 2009, I basically bought out Don’s position in Kino International and we rebranded the company as Kino Lorber. Now, 15 years later, the company is 10 times the size: in the number of titles, our staff, revenue, everything. And we accomplished it while maintaining the same focus on quality as in the past. We look to the classics like Metropolis as a staple, but we are always trying to find those gems that will be the classics of the future. I jokingly say the company may be 45 years old but it’s 15 years new, and we’re making it anew all the time.

Since you acquired the company, there has been incredible disruption in the independent film sector and a lot of companies have fallen by the wayside. How has Kino Lorber managed to survive? What are you doing differently? 

I’d just say it’s been the combination of passion with discipline that’s allowed us to steer the course through very challenging times. We’ve kept the focus on a bigger idea: that we are a for-profit cultural enterprise, focused on media curation and dissemination. We’re looking at the broad spectrum of the so-called entertainment world, but we’re also looking at the value of the creative output of filmmakers and television makers that rise to a level of quality that we think has enduring value, like the classics that we revere. We’re always looking at films we think will have enduring value going forward. We’ve steered a careful course. We’ve avoided the temptation of production. We’ve respected the limitations of scale and size while we’ve nurtured our leadership in targeted areas, in the niches. We’ve sought to aggregate those niches to build a more substantial and sustainable company. Listen, the term entertainment business is something of an oxymoron. We’re not deluded by the idea you can come to these crap tables and pick hits. We aim to be as proud of our misses as we are of our hits. The quality of what we release is the throughline. 

Kino Lorber releases a lot of films on DVD. Why are you still betting on physical media? 

The physical media business is still an important part of our business, even if it’s in a transitional phase right now. When we entered, it was a $7 billion to $10 billion business; now it’s struggling to be a $1 billion business, but it’s still a $1 billion business. And we see opportunity there, particularly in a world where there’s a rapid deterioration of the availability of titles online. When Netflix had a rental-by-mail business, I did some of their first deals, back in the early [2000s]. Back then, there were about 100,000 titles available from Netflix for rental by mail. As of the latest report, there are probably 3,000 titles film titles available to stream on Netflix and probably, in total, no more than 7,000 or 8,000 to stream across all of the services. 

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For collectors who love cinema, and I’m not just talking about the extreme cinephiles, I’m talking about film lovers who recognize the fact that physical media is a way for them to have the films that they love in the best possible versions — we release in 4K UHD — and have them forever. Those little plastic discs will probably outlive all of us. So we’ve cultivated those customers and they sustain our business, even as we recognize the deterioration of that business on a macro level. It’s a curated approach, a targeted approach, but there are many, many really good titles out there, even with the strictest curation standards. Films that really deserve to be made available again. 

I’ve heard you say that DVD is the new vinyl, that physical media is set for a revival. Where do you see evidence of that? 

You’re using DVD generically, of course, but what we’re really talking about is the newest standard, which is 4K UHD. You won’t see anything in as good a quality as you can see on a 4K UHD copy now. And it allows for including a range of material beyond what you could put on a DVD or even a Blu-ray. It is going to become the collectible of record. People who really care about preserving their own cultural collections are going to be embracing 4K. We heard that at the Oscars. I had a great chat with Christopher Nolan, who has been a big champion of physical media. He loves our stuff and maybe we’ll do some things with him from his library, but he’s embraced the physical media business. [Quentin] Tarantino was certainly one of them who raves about the importance of preserving cinema culture in physical media. Whether the comparison with vinyl is exactly on target or not, it’s close enough.

What criteria do you use when you’re picking new films to add to your collection?

Our curation is composed of various components. We buy films that are the top prize winners at major international festivals. Coming back from the last Cannes, we bought Four Daughters, which won the prize for best documentary and went on to be an Oscar nominee. At the same time, we bought the film that won the Caméra d’Or, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, a three-hour Vietnamese meditation on spirituality and mortality, which was one of our surprise theatrical hits. At Sundance a year ago, we bought Scrapper, which won the grand jury prize. But we aren’t buying films because they win prizes. We’re buying films that go on to win the prizes. When we go to a festival, we’re not there in isolation. We’re there with exhibitors or friendly art house theater owners, we’re there with key press and critics. We’re there with our competitor colleagues. We look around the room and see who’s walking out and who’s staying put. We are closely evaluating the characteristics of the film that gives us some confidence in success. But as I said, we’re as proud of our misses we are as our hits, and we are keen to build an enduring value in our library and in our catalog. And the library, with a total of 4,000 or so titles, is one of the largest in the U.S. in the art house sector. 

You guys are also very active in restoring and rereleasing old works. We mentioned Metropolis. To what degree do you see yourself as a preserver of cinema culture at a time when thousands of films are being wiped off of online catalogs? 

The happiest surprise we’ve had in the past year and a half, with all the well-reported challenges to theatrical distribution both for the studios and the independents, is the rediscovery of classics in restorations by younger audiences. One of our biggest theatrical successes a year ago was [Bernardo] Bertolucci’s 1971 film The Conformist. The biggest success we’re having at the moment is Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, which did about $100,000 at the box office in the first two weeks it screened. I’ve asked theater owners and they say: “Yeah, we’re surprised. The older audiences may not be coming back, but the younger audiences are showing up for the old films.” They’re seeing something that they remember hearing about or maybe studying at one point. And they’re seeing it in radiant, beautiful, luminous, restored versions that look as good as when it first appeared in 35-millimeter decades ago. So we’re dipping into our library and we’re working with our international partners and other sources. And we’re going to continue doing that. We’re also working with leading archives and preservationists around the world. We recently rereleased Stanley Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire, in a restored version with new material that had never been seen before. It’s playing in theaters and available on our site in a 4K UHD edition. These are the kinds of things in are in our arsenal, and we supplement them as we go to the festivals and take risks on the little three-hour Vietnamese film, or the Tunisian documentary. We’re able to balance the risks against sustainable business practices in areas that we know and have depth of experience. 

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