OLDIES BUT GOLDIES! Fred Olen Ray Discusses His DVD Label Retromedia!

Photo © Fred Olen Ray.

Fred Olen Ray is a name most genre fans associate with his plethora of cult classics, ranging from Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) to Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (1995). To this day, Mr. Ray remains one of the busiest and most prolific directors working in the business. His DVD label Retromedia Entertainment, Inc., is just as prolific, having released numerous genre classics from countries all over the world on DVD. In 2004, Mr. Ray answered Brett Homenick’s questions about Retromedia in the interview that follows.

Brett Homenick: What got you interested in the kaiju genre?

Fred Ray: I think my first awareness of this sort of thing was catching King Kong vs. Godzilla and Godzilla vs. the Thing as a youngster in the early 1960s. From there on out, it was a parade of stuff like Latitude Zero, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and others.

BH: You were a writer for Greg Shoemaker’s Japanese Fantasy Film Journal. How was that experience?

FR: Well, I ruffled their feathers as a bit for the sheer delight of it and had some fun with them. I really enjoyed that fanzine and thought it to be one of the very best.

BH: How’d you get your start in the film business?

FR: Well, like many kids, I dreamed of being Roger Corman — almost made it too, but really, there’s only one Roger Corman, regardless of what some might think. He’s definitely the perfect combination of business and art. Certainly my role model, to some extent.

BH: What led you to create Retromedia?

FR: I wanted to license my library of films to DVD, but people really only wanted to cherry-pick the good titles and leave the so-so ones behind. That wouldn’t work for me, so I began my own label, but soon needed to acquire more titles to stay in business. So here we are.

BH: What decisions go into choosing which movies your company releases?

FR: I break them up into three categories — films I would personally like to see on DVD, like Garden of the Dead, Shriek of the Mutilated, and Night of the Blood Beast, then films I think the fans would like to see (like Gamera, et al.), and then there are those oddball titles that I really just take a chance on because I believe they have potential but need to find an audience. I definitely do pay attention to what people are asking for, either in person or by their emails (which we do answer). Sales and availability of good materials also dictate what kind of things we will release.

BH: How have Gamera and other kaiju titles your company handles sold in stores and online?

FR: I think they have done very well — well, enough that other companies have taken to grabbing our films right off of our DVDs and putting them on their labels! I’ve also always tried to put out double features when I can to add extra value for the viewer, and I think people appreciate that.

BH: Speaking of Gamera, Gamera vs. Viras (a.k.a. Destroy All Planets) actor Carl Craig, who played Jim Morgan in the film, expressed interest in doing a commentary track for one of its DVD releases. Would that be something you’d like to pursue?

FR: People tend to believe that commentary tracks pay a lot of money, when in reality I’ve never been paid a dime for all of the ones I did for Paramount and Fox. This sometimes leads to an embarrassing situation for me, but yeah — I’d consider it for a re-issue or box set.

BH: Alpha Video is another fine distributor who specializes in releasing hard-to-find films on DVD like Retromedia does. Do you feel you’re in competition with them, or do you appreciate what they do?

FR: Actually, we’re in litigation with Alpha right now for appropriating Destroy All Planets off of our protected DVD. I would think they’d do better to continue grabbing Sinister Cinema’s VHS tapes and bumping them up than to be ripping our DVDs off.

So far their counter-suit against us was thrown out of court (as being without merit) and their motion to have our charge dismissed was also given the high-road by the federal courts, so we’re doing very well, I think.

BH: Have you thought about working with Toho in order to release some of the studio’s more obscure films?

FR: I approached them about licensing (Attack of the) Mushroom People, but they wanted an outrageous $50,000 for it — a fee it would never make back on DVD at a small company like ours. So the future looks dim with Toho. We went to Toei for Magic Serpent and just got blanks stares, so we put that out from an AIP-TV source. Not great, but good if you’ve never seen it. We are working on acquiring Thunder of the Giant Serpent from IFD, so that might happen, and we are working on Kamen Rider.

BH: How about releasing widescreen releases of kaiju films? Would that be feasible? There seems to be a market for releases like that in the U.S.

FR: I’d jump at it. In fact, if I had access to some great letterbox prints, I might would reconnect them with the AIP soundtracks. Otherwise, I’m not sure how they would do in Japanese with subtitles.

BH: What are your plans, if any, for releasing future kaiju titles?

FR: We work four months ahead of time, and I’m generally loath to say what we’re up to because other companies jump out ahead of us with a DVD mastered off of an old VHS tape and ruin it for everyone.

BH: What are your preferences when it comes to Japanese monster movies? Which do you think work best, and which ones just don’t work for you?

FR: It really comes down to what turned me on as a kid. I flat-out love The Green Slime and would die to have a widescreen version of it. Also enjoy King Kong Escapes, Destroy All Monsters, and Monster Zero. Gamera’s fun, but mostly because I remember them from the old AIP-TV package days. Really used to dig the old Ultraman series. Would really like to license that!

BH: Do you have any parting words?

FR: If anything, please understand that we are all trying our best to present to finest version possible, but a lot of films are slowing disappearing and nearly impossible to get good materials on. We’re trying hard, so bear with us.

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