Saturday, October 08, 2005

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today...

... well, twenty years ago this month, anyway, that "Video Watchdog" was first introduced to the world. What better excuse to launch Video WatchBlog?

Before there was a Video Watchdog magazine, or a "Video Watchdog" column in GoreZone, or the "Video Watchdog" segment of Pacific Arts Corporation's Overview VHS magazine, the concept was first unveiled on the last page of Video Times' October 1985 issue. Video Times was the newly renamed incarnation of Video Movies, a glossy monthly publication where I found safe haven after leaving my previous roost of ten or so years, Cinefantastique.

The idea was born during a telephone conversation with my editor Matthew White (a nice man with whom I've sadly lost touch), when I told him that the tape of HERCULES which I'd been sent for review not only featured a different main titles sequence than the copy I'd taped off WOR-TV, but had different dubbing voices and dialogue, as well. Matt was intrigued and I told him that perhaps the magazine should introduce a column that told our readers about such anomalies as altered content, bad panning&scanning, and what-not.

"Kind of a Video Watchdog," Matt mused.

"The Video Watchdog!" I corrected... and that eureka placed me in charge of compiling it. Every month.

Coming up with material to feed and fuel the column came surprisingly easily, and it ran for ten issues... which is as long as Video Times itself lasted.

After that, the column moved from one home to another, surviving like a bear cub jumping from one ice floe to another... In November 1986, I made my first trip to Los Angeles in order to write, star in and narrate a "Video Watchdog" segment for Overview, an experimental magazine-on-videotape produced by ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith; it was enthusiastically reviewed when it was released in a limited number of cities the following January, but the cost of producing a monthly program, even one periodically interrupted with paid advertising, exceeded the project's likely revenue, so there was never a second volume or a wider release.

Though not specified as a "Video Watchdog" project, I wrote an article called "The Butchering of Dario Argento" for the August 1987 issue of Fangoria that was, nevertheless, in the VW mold. I wrote that article on the occasion of New Line Cinema's release of CREEPERS, a greatly (or should I say "poorly") abbreviated version of Argento's then-latest film, PHENOMENA, whose fate I realised was par-for-the-course with the Maestro's American releases. When the names of the Argento experts are mentioned, my name usually isn't, but that article was arguably the Ground Zero of Argento research and appreciation here in the States. (An earlier, superb pair of articles, by David Soren and Luigi Cozzi, were published in Photon in 1975 but didn't lead to further discussion. I think that's because Argento's films, in their bastardized reductions, didn't inspire much enthusiasm, but once US horror fans realised they were being deprived of full-strength Argento, they became excited to seek it out. The forbidden fruit syndrome.) The sudden interest in Argento led to his films being released here in America in their uncut forms for the first time, and finally available as they were meant to be seen and enjoyed, people like Maitland McDonagh were inspired to write about them. You can find "The Butchering of Dario Argento" in The Video Watchdog Book (still available from; the information it contains may be no longer relevant, but it's an interesting index to how times have changed.

My Argento article led to a new, all-horror "Video Watchdog" column being picked up by Fangoria's spin-off magazine GoreZone, which was introduced in May 1988. It remained a popular fixture of that magazine for its first 21 issues, even after Video Watchdog had been launched as a magazine in its own right in June 1990. I liked writing for GoreZone and its friendly editor Tony Timpone, but the divided workload was difficult (in those early days, I was writing most of VW's content myself), and parent company Starlog Enterprises drew a line in the sand when they starting asking me to sign work-for-hire contracts that would give them ownership of all my future work for them, which wasn't something I cared to sign. So it was a very good thing that Donna and I started our own spin-off when we did.

Today, 15 years further on, Video Watchdog is a monthly, full-color, no-paid-ads publication... so why a blog? Isn't producing a monthly mag hard enough? You bet it is, but my reasons are several.

1. First of all, this blog can perform the commercial function of helping Video Watchdog to reclaim its primacy as THE source of information about new fantastic film releases on DVD. VW is a monthly magazine, but information is unavoidably delayed by being printed. This WatchBlog will enable me to get the word out faster about new releases. In the past few years, the Internet has become a hotbed of mis-information and dis-information about DVDs, because most of the people writing about them are churning out fast food, with all the nutritional shortcomings of fast food. For every exemplar of the craft like DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, there's a dozen or more others who seem to be as clueless about the English language as they are one-dimensional (or one-generical) in their experience of film... and they all seem to use Video Watchdog as their template, whether intentionally or by imitating our imitators.

A case in point about my reference to "the English language": VW contributor Tom Weaver e-mailed me today that his audio commentary for BEDLAM was criticized somewhere online as being "too academic... so academic as to be almost impossible to listen to." Tom is a well-informed guy, intelligent... but hardly academic, so he wrote the reviewer and asked what he meant. He was told "I guess I phrased it badly. What I was trying to convey was that you talk too fast, and it's exhausting to listen to. I'll change it." So here we have one of the more brilliant horror films produced by Hollywood and the particulars of its presentation on DVD being appraised by somebody who doesn't know the difference between "academic" and "loquacious"!

2. There are so many online DVD reviewers that it has become harder for VW to obtain screening copies from some companies. VW's monthly circulation figure is approximately 10,000 copies -- which is very healthy for a serious print journal devoted to movies that most people don't take very seriously. (If any of our competitors publish more, it's because they need to pump up their numbers to attract advertisers and don't mind scrapping close to half their print run.) It's also a huge annual cash commitment on our part, in contrast to the negligible costs of publishing something on the Internet. For its efforts, VW has won the Rondo Award for "Best Magazine" every year that award has been presented, but we don't reach 100,000 or more people like many websites, so we can't score screeners from some companies -- like Universal, whose product we have nevertheless featured on four of our last five covers. (In all fairness, Universal has been providing us with selective product -- for example, we were sent THE BELA LUGOSI COLLECTION... but not THE HAMMER HORROR SERIES, an important title for us, which I had to buy with my own money so that VW could have the privilege of promoting it.) Thus, another important reason for this blog to exist is to extend VW's territory, the range of our available readership.

3. In addition to editing and co-publishing Video Watchdog, I have experience of working within the DVD industry. I've written liner notes for 50+ releases (tape, laserdisc and DVD), have recorded several audio commentaries, and I know many of the people behind the companies, which ought to give this blog more of an "inside track" than other web pages you may frequent.

I was speaking yesterday to a DVD producer who was lamenting to me about the harsh realities that are coming into play as a result of Internet reviewers. He was predicting that we will likely see the end of "special edition" DVDs from middle to smaller companies within the next couple of years. The reason? The professionals are getting fed up, starting to cut back. It costs in the neighborhood of $20,000 to produce a single DVD; those are production costs that don't include the additional costs of acquiring the material, making sure that it's complete, tracking down participants and flying them into town to record audio commentaries, et cetera. After devoting sometimes a year or more of your blood, sweat and tears to a single project, it's possible to find all your hard work thwarted before it even streets, with Internet reviewers gossipping that a day-for-night scene on their advance screener isn't properly tinted, that a brief cutaway shot of someone is missing, or that something is too dark or too bright... and, before you know it, someone inevitably pipes in with the dreaded word "Boycott!" With the medium to smaller labels releasing such marginal cult product, often generously loaded with extras, is it any wonder that the prime movers behind such titles might be feeling a bit discouraged?

Of course, it's important to know about such shortcomings, but it's also important to know the reason for them, and whether such complaints are truly legitimate or not -- and I will use my access to the players in this industry to inform what I say here, before I say it.

4. Lastly, I've been wanting to resume the journal-keeping that was my daily practice prior to starting VW, but I have found myself persistently hesitant to write in a blank book. E-mailing has made me a dyed-in-the-wool typist. Therefore, I am also initiating this blog as a discipline and as a means of forcing myself to be more attentive to things at play in my daily life.

You won't find any in-depth reviews here; that will remain the province of Video Watchdog magazine. But I will post here daily, or as often as I can, about the releases and other subjects that presently interest me. I'm calling this page "Video WatchBlog" for obvious reasons, but I also intend to write about daily life, what I'm reading or listening to, or whatever other blips happen to cross my radar. The author of this blog will be Tim Lucas the film critic, but also TL the novelist, the screenwriter, the reader, the music-lover, the DVD-R burner, the reluctant traveler, the guy who loves sushi and Morningstar Farms spicy black bean burgers, and all my other guises too.

And don't worry if you're on a tight schedule, future entries won't always be this long. I'm just getting started.