For around 20 years, Phil Hopkins’ name circulated through the home media industry. Growing up obsessed with film, beginning with the advent of 16mm home movies, it was a natural transition to begin his own distribution company.
“I got into the home video business almost by accident. I met someone looking to finance a film for himself, and he knew a collector with a ton of 16-millimeter [films]. We started a home video company and then I’ve been at it now for two decades,” said Hopkins in a phone interview with DoBlu.
That company was Film Movement, which Hopkins started in 2002. After selling that company a few years ago, Hopkins continued to feel the lure of cinema, home video, and preservation. Now, he’s heading up a new label, Film Masters, and their first release is a Blu-ray two-pack that includes The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews, due on September 26th. Here’s the first early look at the restoration work:
Directed by Ray Kellog, Gila Monster and Killer Shrews seemingly entered the public domain at the dawn of home media and never left, meaning anyone with a copy can produce their own disc. That doesn’t change with Film Masters Blu-ray, but there is an important distinction. Nearly all – if not all – home releases of those two films were sourced from crummy 16mm prints (at best), and many DVD copies were merely rips of VHS editions.
Film Masters scanned Gila Monster at full 4K from a 35mm release print. For Gila Monster, that’s as good as it gets. Asking whether the camera negative exists, Hopkins said, “I think that if it was out there, it would be.” But the 35mm release print is workable.
“We had to start with resolution. When I purchase or license films, we have to look at how much resolution there is to justify $1000s in additional restoration. It’s a judgment call. If I had a 16-millimeter reduction print, I probably wouldn’t have put that on Blu-ray. But if you have 35-millimeter, and it’s in decent shape, and you can get it through a 4K scan, you can make these things really shine,” explained Hopkins.
Killer Shrews, the companion film in this release, was given an HD scan and will have its own disc.
Being public domain films, and this being physical disc media in 2023, it’s a wonder what the market is, if there even is one. Hopkins sees one. “Right now we’ve got this interesting renaissance of genre film boutique labels in the past five years. The mainstream physical media is definitely declining. I think the boutique, the genre stuff is actually very healthy,” explains Hopkins. “The cool thing is if a boutique label is successful, they can take chances and you’re not going to always sell the same number of pieces for each release.”
Then comes an additional question: With so many crummy, ugly-looking releases prior, where did the 35mm print come from to restore Gila Monster in the first place? Thank film collector Wade Williams, who unfortunately passed away recently. “Williams was a pretty eccentric individual who lived in Kansas City,” began Hopkins. “He was a massive film collector. He also made the film The Other Side of Madness, the Charles Manson movie we released several years ago when I was at Film Detective. And he was one who, for some reason, people felt he was holding films or playing games with copyright.”
Beginning in the ‘60s, Williams would track down film producers and acquire prints, whether 35mm or 16mm, or whatever else he could get. “He continued doing it pretty much up until the past 15 years or so, before he started to slow down and get sick,” said Hopkins. “Now I’m working with his estate and trying to get all of his films into an institution, and a lot of them restored and released on Blu-ray.”
Giant Gila Monster is one of them, but the search doesn’t end for Hopkins. He told wild stories of finding these movies and prints, hopefully settling on a centralized location like the Library of Congress or the Academy. Up until now, it’s often been a struggle, if not outright dangerous, as Hopkins explained: “For the longest time, when I was doing film collecting and going on these adventures, there were people who were just holding film. And then, like anything, if somebody gets old and passes away, what happens to the film? I’ve been in that position where I’ve taken 51-foot semis halfway across the country, with 35-millimeter film that has vinegar syndrome all over it and nitrate mixed into it.”
Nitrate is the most combustible film stock (comparable chemically to gunpowder), burns at temperatures hotter than gasoline, and the resulting fumes are deadly. A trailer full isn’t practical anymore.
“It’s a mess. I think that if we can get ahead of this stuff, people don’t pass away and have some sort of panic where you have to remove things, then collate, and figure out if you have two or three rolls of nitrate mixed in. That’s pretty risky. You don’t want to have your building implode,” explains Hopkins.
For Gila Monster’s 35mm print, Hopkins is looking for the place where the value in that film stock is appreciated. He’s adamant about ensuring these films preserve properly rather than rot. Film Masters’ upcoming Scarlet Letter from 1934, along with Gila Monster and Killer Shrews, are being produced with the help of UCLA Film & Television, and that likely will be their permanent home.
“My thing now is, there are 1000s of films still sitting in private storage locations, and they really shouldn’t. My goal is to get a lot of these into institutions, get them scanned into 4K or 2K, depending on what format they are, then start releasing the stuff to help other boutique labels make them more available,” said Hopkins.
While the discs are at the forefront of Film Masters’ plans, streaming is critical too. There’s additional revenue potential beyond licensing these masters to overseas boutique physical media labels (but to note, Gila Monster is region-free). “We were counting on [streaming] to generate revenue. We can’t survive on physical alone. In addition to licensing to streamers and broadcasters, we’re also open to licensing them to other territories and countries,” explains Hopkins.
That doesn’t mean the disc release isn’t a focus. Hopkins’ efforts led to a lavish special edition, with an upfront cost almost certainly eclipsing Gila Monster’s original $138,000 budget, with or without the adjustment for inflation. “There’s enough people who were monster kid fans from way back who have been waiting to see both of these films and in decent resolution. But you can’t just press the film’s onto a disk and expect them to recoup your funds. You have to make it really special. In addition to the 4k scan, we have a lot of extra bonus stuff,” says Hopkins.
That includes a commentary from C. Courtney Joyner and Larry Blamire, a full booklet with essays/liner notes by Jason Knight, and a documentary on director Ray Kellog. For something like Gila Monster that languished in bargain bins, having never been seen in its original quality since the first 1959 theatrical showings, that seems like a deserving special edition.