Let’s say you wanted to make a living by playing music for silent movies. In terms of employment prospects, that might put you somewhere between a lamplighter and the drummer on a Viking ship.
Or so you’d think. Ben Model has been making a living at it for several years, and between regular gigs at the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress’ Packard Preservation Campus, plus traveling to various festivals, he averages 15 shows a month.
Now he’s wearing another hat: video entrepreneur. With funding from KickStarter, he publishes DVDs on demand through Amazon’s CreateSpace. It all started in 2013 with what was in his closet.
“I had acquired 16mm prints over the years that were either the only existing copy of a film or were very rare and never shown,” says Model. They were mostly comedies starring people who’d had real careers but aren’t famous today–“not Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton but still entertaining and funny.” He also had animation and industrial movies.
“I felt these films should be seen. If I have them but nobody else can see them, they’re still lost,” he says. “I knew there were definitely fans who wanted to see this sort of stuff.”
So he paid attention to KickStarter, especially when CreateSpace suddenly became easy and affordable. Says Model, “I liked the idea of not having to find a distributor and then not getting the funding anyway when you find one. There’s always a problem when you know there’s an audience for something but there’s no way of funding it.” He felt inspired by Louis CK’s successful self-distribution of a concert video “to do an end-run around the standard distribution model.”
Through KickStarter, he raised the funds for Accidentally Preserved, Volume 1, which he put out in June 2013. By year’s end, he sold over 700 copies and raised enough profits for a second volume in February 2014. In March, he issued a 1927 feature, Flying Luck, starring Monty Banks in an up-to-the-minute parody of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Model transfers and scores the prints.
Model points out that commercial labels need a threshold of at least 2,000 units before they’re willing to release a classic film. Now, he says, “there’s a new business model where things other companies wouldn’t put out could get a release.” When a friend asked how many units he’d have to sell to break even, Model answered, “Zero. I’ve already raised all the money it costs to do it.”
He explains the appeal of crowd-funding, where the donors get free copies. “People always ask why hasn’t somebody put that out on DVD? Now you can be a part of that somebody. You can get to help with something that should be available. That’s a lot of fun for everyone.”
Later projects grew out of his association with the Library of Congress. The Mishaps of Musty Suffer is a collection of offbeat comedies produced as a serial in 1916-17. They star Harry Watson Jr., once famous as a Ringling Bros. clown and star of the Ziegfeld Follies, now forgotten.
The Library preserved 24 out of 30 films in the series when it got original nitrate prints from the producer and made preservation masters in the ’50s. Model made new HD transfers and scored them. “They look fantastic,” he says of the eight “weird and hilarious” films chosen for the DVD, which have been obscure for almost a century.
Also worth discovery are the forgotten comedies of Marcel Perez, who made many films in Europe and America from 1900 to the late ’20s. His dapper hero with a funny walk, bad teeth, and big triangle nose was called Robinet in Europe and Tweedledum in the U.S. He used other names as he shifted from company to company, even making a few films in San Antonio. This confusion, plus the scarcity of surviving films, has kept him obscure.
Model is rectifying this with The Marcel Perez Collection. With ten shorts dating from 1911 to 1921, half Italian movies and half American, we see a whimsical, often surreal comic with an excellent command of film technique, as in his seamless use of multiple exposures to play several roles in A Busy Night. Model also offers a handy book, Steve Massa’s Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker, that lays out his research with lots of pix. Both DVD and book were funded by Kickstarter.
The silent joy continues for Model, as now fans are coming to him with their rare copies. His September 2015 release is Accidentally Preserved: Volume 3, nine films from 1915 to 1929 featuring such obscure comedians as Joe Rock, Bobby Ray, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, and slightly more well-known actors Arthur Lake (Dagwood in the Blondie series) and dwarf Billy Barty. There’s also a laxative prank film whose origin stumped the attendees at last year’s “Mostly Lost” conference at the Library of Congress. All films are transferred in HD with Model’s new music.
“Collectors liked the idea of the DVDs, and felt as I did that these obscure gems deserve to be seen in a quality physical package,” says Model in the accompanying press release. “What’s encouraging is that more of them turn up every year. In fact, one of the films on this DVD was won on eBay last year by a silent film collector here in NYC who’s in the 7th grade.”
That’s not all, folks. Model’s co-branding arrangement with the Library of Congress, where he often performs, allows him an October 20 release of the Library’s restored print of The Family Secret (1924), a feature with child star Baby Peggy. It will also be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies on 25 October, one day before the 97th birthday of the still-living Diana Sera Cary (Baby Peggy). The disc includes two Peggy shorts restored by the Museum of Modern Art.
To give you an idea of what’s involved, the Library restored the feature from a 35mm archive print with Italian titles plus two abridged 16mm prints. One of the shorts was restored from 35mm prints found in Prague and Amsterdam, and the other was digitally reconstructed by Model from MoMA’s Czech 35mm reel and a newly discovered American nitrate reel from the Library.
“The appeal of silent films is ironic because the thing that keeps people away from them is what makes them appealing: the silence,” says Model. “People think it’s like sitting in a library, but it draws you in. Your imagination is engaged. I think it’s the same reason that video games outsell movies. It’s something you play along with to a certain extent. That’s what makes it a satisfying screen entertainment. Younger people discover silent films all the time now on Youtube or Netflix, and the audience is growing every year.”