Two weeks ago I ended on a bit of a cliffhanger regarding why it took until now for the DVD release of 1976 telefilm “Farewell to Manzanar” and how it finally, almost improbably, was released commercially.
You can visit the Rafu Shimpo’s website if you missed my last column and want to read it, but here’s the gist of it.
Ever since its January 1976 NBC telecast, “FTM” on VHS or DVD has been MIA. The book upon which it was based, however, has become a modern-day American classic, taught in many schools around the nation.
But other than film festivals and in some California schools, the telefilm version of “Farewell to Manzanar” could be neither seen nor purchased. In this post-VHS (and nearly post-DVD) era of video on demand and DVD on demand (WarnerArchive.com, for instance), it was a mystery as to why, especially since so many people — not just Japanese Americans — wanted to own a copy.
Yet, why that was, no one seemed to know — and until recently, “FTM’s” present-day owner, NBC Universal, wasn’t talking. “They were not giving any answers, and we just sort of accepted that,” said Maria Kwong, director of retail and visitor services at the Japanese American National Museum, regarding the inquiries directed toward the movie’s rights holder.
“Farewell to Manzanar” as a home video was, in fact, the most-repeated request customers of the JANM gift shop had in Kwong’s 12 years in her position.
The commercial absence of “FTM” was also a mystery for its director, John Korty, an Oscar-winning director whose works have also won him Emmys, Directors Guild of America kudos and the 1976 Humanitas Prize, which he shared with the book’s authors, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston, for the telefilm’s script.
Speaking to me from his office in Point Reyes Station, Calif., Korty said that over the years he had tried various means to see about getting “FTM” released for the home market, but his efforts were for naught. People would also call Korty asking to buy a copy of the telefilm, but he’d have to refuse. “I’d have to say, ‘I’m legally prohibited. I have one or two VHS copies and I can’t duplicate or sell them.’ ”
So other than the occasional film festival, “Farewell to Manzanar” literally stayed on the shelf in the ensuing decades.
Through sheer serendipity, Kwong had a good friend, Jane-Ellen Dawkins, who worked in Pittsburgh for Universal’s library, which is based there. One day, she asked Dawkins about “FTM” — and she told Kwong that yes indeed, it was there. Not only that, she had the name and number of her boss in Universal City for Kwong to contact. This is when the cold case began to warm up.
Through this Universal Studios Home Entertainment executive, Kwong was directed to another executive named Shelli Hill, VP of NBC Universal Television Consumer Products. Via an email introduction, Kwong was finally able to talk to the right person — and because of her association with the nonprofit Japanese American National Museum, Kwong was the right person for Universal.
Finally Kwong was to learn why “Farewell to Manzanar” had stayed on the shelf these many years — and like in most matters of this sort, it came down to money.
Yes, even though home video had grown into a steady revenue stream for Hollywood since the introduction of the Betamax, it came down to what businesses call ROI or return on investment. From Universal’s perspective, the costs involved to make “Farewell to Manzanar” available on DVD would not be profitable enough to justify the investment of making it available.
We’re not just talking replicating DVDs, of course. When looked at from a mass production standpoint, DVDs are cheap to produce. In a conversation with Hill, Kwong got the real reason why Universal had never made “FTM” available commercially: music rights.
According to Kwong, Hill said the reason that it had not been released was because Universal didn’t have the rights to all of the music. Kwong asked, “Well, how much would it cost to get those rights?”
The cost was not insignificant; according to Hill, it was about $140,000. Hill also told Kwong that Universal believed that “FTM” lacked the potential to pay for it to be released commercially.
Kwong finally had the answer. Now that she knew what the problem was, Kwong asked, “Has anybody ever thought of replacing the music with something else that cleared?” Hill said that could be done, though it still might cost as much as $65,000.
Kwong told Hill that JANM had a professional media arts department and access to Japanese American musicians and composers, that maybe this approach could be tried, especially if they could obtain a grant to pay for some of the costs.
Hill said she’d send over some boilerplate licensing papers and check on things with Universal. At this point, however, Kwong thought the music in question was the score. It turned out not to be the case. The music in question, totaling less than five minutes, was snippets of “In the Mood,” “China Nights” and “Everybody Loves My Baby.” Getting Hiroshima to come in and lay down some replacement tracks wasn’t going to work!
Universal helped connect Kwong with a company they used to come up with replacement music in similar situations. Universal also assigned an attorney, who Kwong said was very helpful, especially since the contract paperwork was for one of its big-budget feature films, not a small-potatoes, decades-old telefilm.
Once the attorney knew what JANM’s intentions were and the resources they had, he was able to downscale things and ease the way to actually make “Farewell to Manzanar” a DVD, with JANM as the exclusive rights holder for five years.
And, as it turned out, the original music was kept intact. But that also took some extra effort, and Kwong gave credit to John Esaki, JANM’s director of programs. “John really felt strongly that John Korty would want his film to be intact,” said Kwong. At this point, Korty was completely in the dark about all of these behind-the-scenes machinations. Kwong felt that until they “knew it was absolutely going to happen,” there was no point in getting his hopes up for “FTM’s” release and possibly not having it come to fruition.
Esaki eventually did, however, speak with Korty, who directed him to a nonprofit called the Rights Workshop regarding the music clearances, and confirmed that they offered different rates for different groups depending upon their goals. The museum was successful in negotiating a price that, while still substantial, was far less than $140,000 — and the original music was saved.
With the exclusive (and renewable) DVD rights to “FTM” for five years, JANM will presumably be able to pay off the music clearance fees and once that happens, have the DVD become a revenue stream for the museum. Sounds like a win-win situation, with Universal getting goodwill for making available a property it considered moribund, JANM making some money and consumers getting what they’d quietly wanted for years: “Farewell to Manzanar” on DVD. Not only that, there are some extras on the disc, including an interview with author Jeanne Houston, that supplement the movie and, presumably, her book.
Kwong herself had never seen “FTM” until a few months ago. She had heard from people that it didn’t hold up. But when she did finally see it, she was “pretty moved by it.” She’s not alone. Turns out that the years of “FTM” being out of sight have given the movie a patina to the performances and performers it might not otherwise have acquired, especially since so many of the cast have died.
Korty, for his part, was “especially happy” upon learning that his telefilm that was out of circulation for so many years was becoming available. Korty told me “I sort of gave up hope on it” getting released and that he was glad it was the nonprofit JANM that was instrumental in making it happen.
“For me to be promoting it could come off as being very self-serving. I mean, you know, ‘I’m the director, it’s my film, I want it released.’ It would sound very selfish,” Korty said. “I think it’s much better that it was a nonprofit organization. I think that’s what made the difference. It wasn’t a career move, it wasn’t a commercial move on anyone’s part.”
And in a nice coincidence of timing, a retrospective of Korty’s works will take place beginning today at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, Calif. “Farewell to Manzanar” is among his many film that will be shown. “FTM” will screen for free at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4. (Visit http://www.cafilm.org/rfc/films/1614.html for details.)
According to JANM public information officer Chris Komai, the DVDs will be arriving soon and will be ready for shipment to those who preordered it. Visit JANM’s website for details, or call them if you also would like to buy a copy (about $25 before tax and shipping). At least now if you ask whether “Farewell to Manzanar” is available for the sale, the answer will, after all these years, be “Yes.”
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)