Panamint’s Russell Cowe on bringing Scottish classics to DVD

Jonathan Melville 30 March, 2017 1

As seminal Scottish play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil finally arrives on DVD, we meet the man releasing Scottish (and American) classics to home video.

While it’s unlikely you’ll find one of their titles on the shelves of your local supermarket, the West Lothian-based Panamint Cinema label has been quietly releasing dozens of popular films and TV series for more than 15 years.

As owner Russell Cowe prepares to release the rarely-screened 1974 BBC Play for Today, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil on Blu-ray and DVD, we decided to go behind the scenes at Panamint to find out more about the company and Russell’s plans for the future.

Jonathan Melville: Can you tell me a bit about how Panamint Cinema came to be?

Russell Cowe: In 1998 I was President of the Rotary Club of South Queensferry and planned to raise funds towards building a new Scout/Community Hall at Port Edgar.

A friend told me about a film made about the deployment of barrage balloons around the Forth in the wake of the infamous Luftwaffe air raid on Rosyth Naval Base in October 1939. I contacted Jane Fish at the Imperial War Museum Film Archive and she agreed to the Club releasing a limited edition VHS of the film Squadron 992 which was produced by the GPO Film Unit and directed by Harry Watt (Night Mail) in 1940.

Shortly after that I released the first of a series of B-Westerns (a passion of mine) on VHS.

In early 2000, I received an invitation to attend a presentation by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) at the Lumiere in Chambers Street, Edinburgh.

West HighlandDuring the interval I chatted with an elderly gent over wine and cheese, and he was John Gray, a BBC producer – his eyes lit up en I mentioned Squadron 992. “I was a sound engineer at the GPO Film Unit from 1939 to 1939,” he proclaimed.

He had subsequently joined the BBC and in 1960 made West Highland, a homage to steam very much in the style of the impressionistic films of the 1930s British Documentary Movement.

John asked if I’d put it out on VHS and gave me the master matrix numbers and the BBC and agreed to licence the film, which after almost a year’s negotiations (see later) we released jointly with BBC Australia.

That was in 2001, the centenary of the opening on the West Highland extension from Fort William to Mallaig. The Scotsman ran a reader offer and sold nearly 500 in the first month. This was more fun than running my software business, so Panamint Cinema was born.

Panamint, by the way is small town near Death Valley, California, and area where many Westerns were filmed, including Panamint’s Bad Man starring Western Swing star Smith Ballew.

How did you decide on your initial releases?

I sent copies of West Highland to people I thought might be interested, including Janet McBain at the Scottish Screen Archive. Soon after she called to ask if I could help distributing some VHS videos they produced and so began an important alliance.

Janet introduced me to some independent filmmakers, including Eddie McConnell, and suggested I contacted Film Images who represented The Central Office of Information (COI) collection.

My first releases with them were Drifters (John Grierson, 1929) and Waverley Steps (John Eldridge, 1948). Then came Eddie McConnell’s A Line For All Seasons, a perfect companion to West Highland.

Janet then introduced me to Ken Neil, then an editor at STV, and together we restored and edited four titles about farming and fishing, adding commentaries from veteran farmers and fisherman, sound effects and music scores we commissioned.

They all did well on our major outlet The Scotsman, which was to become my biggest trade customer for many years.

How long did it take you to find out what was popular? Is there a genre or title that has been more successful than others?

You find out pretty quickly what the public will go for if you promote well. I also used The Scots Magazine and increasingly my website.

But you can never be sure, so my attitude is to produce titles which I enjoy viewing myself and I take an educated guess at the likely market, e.g. folk who worked or lived in the places of industries in the films.

Nostalgia is a strong marketing tool! Many of the titles I have produced have been suggested by customers, or independent filmmakers who have contacted me.

How do you source your titles? Through the BFI, BBC or the Scottish Screen Archive?

Early titles were licensed from those mentioned and often best material was accessed at the BFI who hold master material for the COI, for example, and telecinied at the BBC or a number of labs in London.

Scotland's X-FilesI’ve also completed a number of projects with the Imperial War Museum, including Fisherman at War and Scotland’s X–Files, rare Second World War propaganda films made in Scotland.

For many years I have used the excellent TK-One and they now do all my 2K HD scans, including The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil and Venus Peter. So I’m continually working with the rights owners, the material archives and the labs to get my productions out.

Lately I have produced titles with Universal and 20th Century Fox and been able to access their restored 2K masters.

Panamint Cinema no longer has a relationship with the Scottish Screen Archive after Janet McBain retired and a new curator was appointed in 2011. This is of little consequence as I’d already covered most of the genres for which they had suitable material, and am now working on rare and neglected feature films and television.

Which title has been the biggest labour of love for you?

I produced a dozen very successful titles from the COI under the banner “40s Britain”, including 24 Square Miles directed by Kay Mander in 1946. Kay was one of only a handful of women active the British Documentary Movement.

Soon after it was released I was contacted by Adele Carroll, who had produced a lovely film about Kay’s life and work in 2001 entitled One Continuous Take. After a long illness put me out of action for a spell, I began to research Kay’s films and decided to produce a retrospective of work along with Adele’s film.

This took nearly a year to put together and was published a a two-disc set in 2010. The first disc contains One Continuous Take and several of Kay’s films on war-time training, sourced from the Imperial War Museum and the Shell Film Library.

The second contains films on social issues, a passion of Kay’s, including Highland Doctor. The material for these was sourced from the BFI. They were licensed from ICI Film Library (now Akzo Nobel), Trinity Mirror (film sponsored by the now defunct Daily Herald) and the BFI themselves.

It was a nightmare putting all this together and I almost gave up over one short film which proved elusive. The problem was that some of the licensors had never licensed material to a third party, so I took sometime for the legal departments to figure out what to do. In a couple of cases, I wrote the contract myself and sent them unsolicited to the companies concerned and was delighted when they were both returned signed.

So this is my favourite, most frustrating, difficult and expensive, project – up to that date. Kay, by then suffering from dementia, was delighted to see her old films again and her nursing home, in Palnackie, Castle Douglas, arranged for a DVD player to be installed in her room.

Brian Pendreigh got a superb half-page review in The Herald and on the day it was published her former landlady saw it and came to the home with a big party cake!

Kay died in December 2013, aged 98. Isobel and I attended her funeral near Castle Douglas. There were only 11 mourners, not many for someone who gave so much.

A close second project would be Battle for Music suggested to me ages ago by David Meeker, acquisition officer at the BFI.

The release of Laxdale Hall generated a lot of publicity for you on its release in 2010, can you talk a bit about that title?

I’d not seen Laxdale Hall, and had a number of enquiries from readers of The Scots Magazine. I approached Hollywood Classics who represented the Group 3 library (John Grierson’s short-lived company), and eventually released the DVD in 2010. The Glen is Ours was added as an extra – another film about the importance of standing up to authority.

Shortly after the DVD was produced I was contacted by gentleman who used to work with Rikki Fulton – Rikki has a small role in Laxdale Hall. Rikki’s widow Kate had given him some memorabilia, including two silent comedies made privately by Rikki and sound recordings of a Francie and Josie concert in Rothesay and a play, Charlie is my Darling, perhaps intended for radio.

Even after being interviews on Reporting Scotland with Tony Roper, I am no closed to find out about the origins of this play, which had obviously been professionally recorded.

It’s about a Lord Provost seeking re-election, only the discover he may be descended from Bonnie Prince Charlie and the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland.

Brian Pendreigh wrote the booklet notes, and the DVD has been so successful that I produced a new addition last year with Rikki Fulton’s Emma’s Dilemma. Both audio programmes are now available on CD.

As well as Scottish titles you’ve released some classic Hollywood titles – how did those come about?

As a youngster coming to the pictures in the 1950s, Rhonda Fleming was one of my favourite stars, so I contacted Hollywood Classics to see if they had any of her films. (I’d been in touch with Ms Fleming via her web site in recent years.)

The film I decided on was Inferno made in 1953, also starring Robert Ryan and directed by Roy (Ward) Baker at 20th Century Fox. The film was made in 3D, during the short-lived “Golden Age” of 3D filmmaking. Fox, however, would not agree to licensing the 3D material, only 2D.

I had thought about doing just a regular “flat” edition anyway as producing a 3D Blu-ray is extremely expensive, but asked Fox to reconsider. I was at the time being discouraged from the 3D route by Hollywood Classics, and my authoring lab and friends, saying it would never work financially. Well, this was like a red flag to a bull and eventually Fox agreed to providing the restored 3D (Polaroid) Technicolor masters.

Special software is required for 3D authoring and this was carried out by Sony in London, not without a good few problems aligning the left and right eyes, due to errors in the timecodes on the masters.

The result was a truly stunning, well-received 3D edition of one of the most sought after 3D films and has been my most profitable title by far, with huge sale to the United States, where there is a good following for 3D films.

To cap it all, Rhonda Fleming wrote some notes for the booklet, and I released the Blu-ray on her 91st birthday, August 10, 2014. Ms Fleming also wrote notes for Abilene Town Blu-ray, her first Western, which I produced from a 35 mm fine grain master held at the BFI. It was released on her 92nd birthday.

You moved into Blu-ray titles a few years ago, how popular are they?

The Inferno Blu-ray has outsold the DVD edition by about 10 to 1. I’ve been delighted and surprised by how well the Hollywood Blu-rays have sold – many to film buffs with elaborate home cinema systems, and I think the detailed booklets, and extras have added to their success.

All future titles will be on Blu-ray where suitable material exists. It is just the best way to present films. There’s still a strong market for DVDs, and while the Hollywood titles do well on Blu-ray, films like The Gorbals Story and Battle for Music appealing to the less internet savvy customers, relying on mail order catalogues sell better on DVD.

You’ve just released The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil but you originally mentioned its release a year or so ago – what has the process been behind releasing that on Blu-ray?

I first approached the BBC in April 2016. Films made before the home video era are always difficult as the “non-theatrical” (i.e. home entertainment) rights of all the contributors have to be cleared – and the release agreed.

I am not privy to these negotiations, but I expect this was made more difficult as some of the contributors are deceased and the executors of their estates had to be contacted. Permissions were finalised just before Christmas.

The film material had then to be serviced and an HD transfer performed. It arrived late January, by which time I had arranged for booklet notes including the Gaelic song lyrics and English translations to be done, so then comes the quick bit – BBFC classification, subtitling, disc authoring and manufacture – just a few weeks.

The Blu-ray is out now and DVD will be released in April.

Are there any other titles you can announce here or give any clues about?

All I can say is that I am now working on Scottish material which has not be released before on home entertainment. I am also hoping to finalise details on a wonderful Canadian Western, which I have been banging away at for over 18 months. Saw it on BBC television in the 1980s, and have been looking for it ever since!

Is there a dream title you’d like to release, either from Scotland or outside the country?

One from Hollywood would be The Great K & A Train Robbery (Fox, 1926). Tom Mix plays a bandit holding up trains in Royal Gorge Colorado. Fabulous stunts performed by Mix on his beloved horse Tony, drama and comedy and great dialogue, well intertitles: (to frightened girl): “Don’t be alarmed Miss Cullen, I’m just a young bandit trying to get along!”

I have an iffy public domain copy and I’m not sure if Fox still have the masters – one day I’ll get round to asking them.

Also Riders of the Purple Sage, from a novel by my favourite Western writer, Zane Grey. There have been five versions, including one by Tom Mix, but I’d go for the Ed Harris and Amy Madigan production from 1996, filmed in the beautiful colours of Utah.

Also one Scottish – but I’ll keep that under my hat until negotiations are complete!

Thanks to Russell for his time. Find out more about his releases on the Panamint website.