President of Panik House Films Interview

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Panik House is the new kid on the block but they bring some serious talents to the table. Their first two releases are Asian Horror films from Danny Pang best known here for The Eye. We had a chance to talk to Matthew Kennedy the President and learn all about his company, his history and what we can expect coming soon from Panik House.

Hello, First of all I would like to say thanks for talking with us about your great new DVD distribution company, Panik House.

MK: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

Bringing Asian DVDs to the masses. To begin could you tell us a little bit about your company?

MK: Sure. Panik House is a boutique label distributed by Ryko. Our specific focus is bringing the best and most diverse films from the Asian continent to North America. I decided -even before the company had a name- that this company would specialize in one area of cinema, and stick with it.

Since my area of interest has always very strongly been Asian cinema, it seemed like a natural fit. In DVD distribution, I've seen a lot of companies that start out with a specific goal and then seemingly lose the original focus, and as a fan, I would be somewhat disappointed. By casting such a wide net from the start, I run into less pressure to leave my niche. I'm free to explore all genre's without actually abandoning my core philosophy.

I understand you have some history in the distribution business tell our readers about your past experiences. Good, bad or otherwise in the industry.

MK: I worked for Blue Underground from the tail end of 2001 until September 2004, so I was there before Blue Underground was releasing it's own DVDs -back when we were the special features producer for Anchor Bay. It was a really good time to come on board, as things were happening at a brisk pace, and I got see the company grow from a small division of another entity to making a really big splash in the business as an independent label. Ironically the number of employees steadily decreased as the company "grew", which required all the employees to wear a lot of hats. It was a great education, sort of a "DVD 101".

I was hired to assist the directors and editors in the featurette division, and later I handled all of the still galleries and research, but ended up working on all of the special features in one capacity or another. I primarily worked with David Gregory, who directed the featurettes, and Joyce Shen (who now runs No Shame films) who was the production manager. If you've enjoyed the special features and the work that goes into Blue Underground's DVDs, these are the two people you should really be thanking, and who rarely get credit.

I had previously worked in movie memorabilia and as an independent video supplier before that, so I had access to materials and first-hand knowledge of the titles that video stores were constantly requesting, and I had also served a brief stint at Troma where I assisted David Shultz (who now runs Vitagrapah films) with publicity and film booking.

 I remember that we booked Tromeo & Juliet as a Midnight Movie, and I must have promoted it in every nightclub in Los Angeles. It did so well that we started getting daytime bookings, and it became really successful. We did the same thing with Dario Argento's Stendahl Syndrome. David really taught me a lot -he actually got me a job as a film critic at 97.1 KLSX, which opened a lot of doors for me. My wife does a lot of translation work for him, actually.

What makes your company Panik House different from the other distributors?

MK: I don't think it's one thing that separates us from the competition, but a combination of things. There are other labels who cater to specific markets, and there are labels who are known for their packaging, and there are labels that do extensive restoration, but there aren't any labels that do all of those things. Panik House does. We specialize in Asian film, we special package all of our releases for the initial offering so that early buyers are rewarded for their early support, and we go through a lot of time and expense to make our releases definitive.

One thing that has proven unique to Panik House is that our first two titles have completely bilingual menus, which present all the navigation in both English and Spanish. I was told by my emulation facility that this was the first time this has ever been done in America. There are plenty of discs that feature Spanish subtitles, but nobody has ever gone through the process of listing chapter selections, essays, bios, and navigation instructions in two languages -which can be chosen from a front menu upon inserting the disc.

With BANGKOK HAUNTED and OMEN, when you insert the disc in your player, you get the FBI warning, then the Panik House motion logo, and then a language menu allowing you to choose English or Spanish, and from that point forward all features are presented in the language of your choice. This was to be standard on all Panik House releases, but I ran into some red tape with a Japanese licensor, who would not allow a second language option. But aside from that one studio, all of our releases will be handled in this fashion.

It sounds like you guys are really passionate about the films you distribute which is not a typical trait for most distributors your size. What do you think is the reason you and your team have such passion? And how does this translate for the films you distribute?

MK: I think a lot of it has to do with being a fan myself. I am the prime target audience of my releases. I was a huge laserdisc collector, and I remember shelling out $150 for special edition CAV laserdiscs back in the day. Come to think of it I remember buying and trading rare Japanese LDs in collector newsgroups that cost a lot more than a hundred and fifty bucks! I live in Los Angeles, but I had a membership at Scarecrow video in Seattle, and I would fly up there with an LD player in my luggage and spend the weekend in a hotel room watching rented films. I've been film obsessed for as long as I can remember.

The people I've surrounded myself with are no less passionate than I am, but they're also very professional. I think one factor that has crippled a lot of other genre labels in the past is that they're passionate about films, but they don't understand the business side, or the marketing or even production side, and they find themselves in over their heads. My prior experience in the industry really prepared me for the many things that can happen between licensing a film and putting it in stores. On our first two releases, BANGKOK HAUNTED and OMEN, we discovered that the aspect ratio information supplied by the licensor (and proliferated by every prior licensee) was incorrect.

We had to go back and contact the films' producers and the original Thai laboratory to ascertain the real aspect ratio -the filmmakers preferred ratio- which we've restored to the films. Even though these films are relatively new, we still had to perform a lot of DRS, and other technical sound and picture restoration. I think that most companies would probably have walked away from the deal, or lacking experience would have allowed these temporary setbacks to overwhelm them, but I stuck around and walked them through the restoration process because I think these films are worth it. I did so in an informed manner, and I was able keep costs from spiraling out of control. The other extras on the discs are just extensions of that commitment to quality.

On your website you refer to yourselves as the most dynamic new distributor, can you explain this to our readers?

MK: I think bringing a fan's perspective to the table, and bringing a great deal of production experience as well helps to make the product the best it can possibly be, but when you throw a distribution company like Ryko into the mix, you really break the mold wide open.

One of the true geniuses of home video is a man named Jay Douglas, who was a big part of the success of Anchor Bay, who was instrumental in the success of Blue Underground and who now is part of Ryko. He and his sales team are every bit as enthusiastic about Panik House as I am, and we are constantly in contact. It's my feeling that good films make good discs, but the presentation is every bit as important as content. If you've got good films, good presentation, and a good marketing team, well, I'd say that helps to build a dynamic presence.

I have always been a huge fan of Asian films which began with older Shaw Brothers films to the more recent horror boom that seems to be coming out of Asia. What genre of films to you plan to distribute to the states?

MK: Everything. I love all kinds of films, and I don't limit what I watch, so I don't want to limit the types of film or genres under the Panik House banner. The great thing about stamping my company as an Asian imprint is that "Asian" isn't a genre; it's a classification, yes, but only a geographical one. I'm free to release Thai horror, Japanese exploitation, Hong Kong action, Korean comedy, Indian musicals, Iranian drama and anything else that would qualify as Asian, even including Asian American indie film. Esthetically, I think that audiences will know what to expect from Panik House as the collection grows, and there won't be any films that don't somehow fit with the others; in other words, I'm not going to include any film that would seem fundamentally out of place on a shelf next to the others.

As one fan to another, Everyone has been wondering who will step up to the plate and release Battle Royale in the states. Do you know what is going on with the distribution rights to that movie?

MK: I do know what is going on with Battle Royale. I've recently signed a licensing deal for a collection of films with Toei, who own and produced Battle Royale and it's sequel. I first inquired about BR in 2003, and I was told that Toei were waiting for prospective buyers to meet their asking price, which they did not disclose to me. When I closed the deal on my first set of Toei titles over a year later, I was told by their sales manager that somebody had met the asking price, but it was declined because Battle Royale is viewed by Toei as one of the ten best films in Japanese history, and they wanted to have complete control over the film's marketing, requiring that they be absolutely sure how to handle any licensing agreements.

They had previously been afraid that a copycat killing would launch a wrongful death lawsuit against the film (ala Natural Born Killers), but in the unlikely event of such a suit it is near impossible that Toei could be named -all blame would fall to the American distributor. Since the film has been licensed in England, it is obvious that they are less afraid of a British law suit. It's interesting to me that a company very concerned about the possible parallel importing of their titles from one region to another (hence not allowing a Spanish subtitle option for films released in the US) have done nothing to stop the import and wholesale bootlegging of a film that they consider as important as Battle Royale.

The longer they withhold the rights, the less valuable those rights become. By the time they release the film for sale in the US, everybody who wants it will already have it. I heard a while back that somebody had licensed the rights to the novel for an American film, so the whole point may be moot soon enough anyway. The novel didn't take place in any particular country, and as much as I love the original, I have to admit that the idea of watching the students of Degrassi High in an English language free-for-all makes me giddy.

I noticed that you are bringing two of the Pang Brothers films stateside. I was wandering if you will continue to distribute their future work such as their unreleased Re-Cycle?

MK: Yes, the inaugural Panik House releases are BANGKOK HAUNTED, which is an omnibus horror film co-directed by Oxide Pang, and OMEN which was conceptualized, written, edited and produced by both Danny & Oxide. I am a huge Pang Brothers fan, and I have in fact licensed some additional films.

I apologize that it's a bit premature to announce the titles, but I'll keep you posted. I'm unfamiliar with Re-Cycle, but if you can get me a screener, I'd love to see it.

What films are you eyeing right now that you would like to distribute under your company? I have always been a fan of Takashi Shimizu and of course Takashi Miike, do you have some favorite directors whose films you would like to distribute in the future?

MK: I like Takashi Miike, and there are several of his films that may possibly be released by Panik House. My wife actually recently translated into English one of his very recent films, Demon Pond, for the Japanese licensor, and she had directed the commentary tracks on the US disc of Happiness of the Katakuris.

I did some voice-over on that commentary track; I'm the English voice of Tokitoshi Shiota. I was recently offered a Hideo Nakata film, a quite good, non-horror film, but it doesn't quite gel with the overall Panik House esthetic, so I've presented it to another company who will probably wind up releasing it. There are so many great directors whose films I'd like to distribute that I quite literally wouldn't know where to begin...

My first experience in Asian horror much like a lot of Asian horror fans was Hideo Nakata's "Ringu". After that on advice from a friend I was told about Battle Royale and I completely fell in love with Asian cinema. What was your first experience with Asian films?

MK: I think the first Asian films that I saw were the Kaiju (giant monster) films like Gamera, Godzilla and Rodan on "Creature Double Feature" when I was very young. After that would probably be the Chinese Bruce Lee imports, and the Shaw Brothers chop-socky films that followed.

I was also a big fan of Gatchaman, which ran as Battle Of The Planets, and Force Five, which was a repackage of various Japanese animated TV series (mostly from Go Nagai) including The Spaceketeers, UFO Robo Grendizer, Danguard Ace, Gaiking & Getter Robo G (Dragon, Raideen & Poseidon).

Should I mention that I was a big-time "jumbo machinder" collector for years? I love Japanese toys! I then discovered Shogun Assassin, which opened my eyes to the Samurai film, and I eventually dove headlong into the Kurosawa catalog. By then the worm had turned, so I've been relatively obsessed since childhood.

What films can fans look forward to seeing in the near future coming out under Panik House Entertainment? Any details?

MK: After BANGKOK HAUNTED and OMEN in July, Panik House will be releasing two Reiko Ike films from Toei's PINKY VIOLENCE collection in September. These are the two "Elder Sister" films, which are better known as SEX & FURY (co-starring Christina Lindberg of THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE) and FEMALE YAKUZA TALE: Inquisition & Torture (directed by Teruo Ishii). Then in November we'll release a box set of PINKY VIOLENCE films which will include DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS: WORTHLESS TO CONFESS (Japanese title: Zubenko Bancho Zange No Neuchi Mo Nai), GIRL BOSS GUERILLA (Japanese title: Sukeban Gerira), CRIMINAL WOMAN: KILLING MELODY (Japanese title: Zenka Onna Karoshi Bushi), and TERRIFYING GIRLS' HIGH SCHOOL: LYNCH LAW CLASSROOM (Japanese title: Kyoufu Joshi Koukou Bouroku Rinchi Kyoushitsu). These are the absolute cream of the crop of Japanese exploitation cinema.  It's already been announced that Panik House will be releasing UNINVITED, considered by many to be the best of the recent Asian horror films.

UNINVITED may also play in a handful of theaters before the DVD is released later in 2006. What hasn't been widely announced yet is that we will be releasing TOKYO PSYCHO, which was directed by Ataru Oikawa, who directed TOMIE. We're also releasing two more Teruo Ishii films: SCREWED which was adapted from a manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge, and BLIND BEAST VS. KILLER DWARF which is adapted from an Edogawa Rampo story. There's also Junichi Suzuki's SAND CASTLE, which is a scathing social critique of reality television that was shot in 1988, and stars a cast of Junzo Itami film regulars, and TRACING JAKE which is an extremely unconventional live action / animation blend, starring an ensemble of Japan's biggest stars and highlighting the animation of 2003 Oscar nominee Koji Yamamura. As diverse as all of these sound, there is definitely something very Panik House in all of them.

Finally we have alot of film makers who read our website. What do you reccomend as being the best way to get distribution and more importantly distribution that counts. Not some backwoods distribution nobody sees.

MK: The first step to getting good distribution is by making a good film. If you make a good film, you're chances of getting a distribution deal are a hundred thousand times better than if you make a mediocre film. I think a lot of people are mistakenly under the impression that making films is easy.

Making bad films aren't even easy, so making a good film is going to be downright difficult. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for an independent production company to get their film into wide release. If a film isn't picked up by a major studio or theater chain, even if you've got a film that won at Cannes, it is almost a guarantee that it will lose money theatrically if you go it alone. The marketing and advertising costs are astronomical.

The best avenue available to the novice or independent filmmaker is the film festival. Submit to as many festivals as possible, and make sure to actually attend them. If nobody sees the film, nobody is going to buy the film, and a film festival is an economic way to ensure that the maximum potential buyers see the film with a minimal number of screenings. Obviously a win at Sundance will vastly improve the chances of a wide release, but even a win at a smaller festival will increase the film's profile for bigger festivals which up the ante on salability.

Are you a reader of Horror-movies.ca?

MK: I check out Horror-movies.ca once a week, but I'm still mad that I didn't win the signed High Tension poster.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

MK: Please check out www.panikhouse.com and sign up for our mailing list. Also, we're looking for street team members, so if you know anybody who loves Asian cinema, and wants to help spread the gospel according to Panik House, please have them contact us via the website and drop us a line!

I want everybody to know that emails sent to the info box DO get read, so if you've got questions, comments or want to send us your film, we want to hear from you.

I would like to thank you again for taking the time out to do this interview. The staff here wishes you the best of luck and we hope to hear alot more coming from Panik House.

MK: The pleasure was all mine. Thanks for everything.

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