The first part of Schlockmania’s mega-interview with Michael Felsher deals with the formative phase of his career, starting with video projects in his high school days before moving on to discuss his work with Anchor Bay Entertainment.  There’s some interesting insider info to be gleaned from this installment, particularly the stuff about the DVD release of the Aussie-exploitation classic Escape 2000.

It is interesting to note that you spent a lot of time directing video projects during your school years. Do you intend to make a feature one day?  If so, what kind of film would you like to make?

Oh in high school, I was part of a very special drama department whose teacher/director (who I swear was a real-life inspiration for Corky St. Clair from WAITING FOR GUFFMAN) allowed us all a great deal of creative and social latitude.  We would hang out in the auditorium between classes…sometimes during classes.  And a friend of mine was interested in doing a sketch comedy show for public access TV with the members of the department, and I worked on that as a performer but also did short films on the side which were highly rewarding experiences in a number of ways.  There was RETURN OF THE LIVING DOUGHBOYS, THE BREAKFAST CLUB GOES TO HELL.  A whole slew of ‘em.  They were just sort of experiments.  Throw somethin’ at the wall and see what sticks…that sort of thing.

After a project collapsed on me shortly out of high school, I didn’t pick up a camera for nearly ten years.  I haven’t returned to narrative filmmaking since that time, but I am definitely itching to get back to it.  As much as I have loved the documentary work I’ve been lucky enough to do over the past few years, I feel the need to just get some of my original ideas out there.

As for what types of films?  Well horror for sure, but not strictly that.  I have an idea based on some experiences in my twenties that would be more of a drama than anything else but I have this werewolf story I’d love to tackle someday.  Anybody got $100,000,000 just lying around that they don’t need?  I’m attracted to horror, sci-fi, and fantasy because you can simply your mind free and create your own realities.  That’s pretty fertile ground for a filmmaker.

You started your career at Anchor Bay Entertainment as a webmaster.  How did you make the transition into working on the DVD ’s themselves?

Well when I did the Anchor Bay website, it was originally something I did as a fansite on my own.  Anchor Bay, back in the late ‘90s, didn’t have an internet presence at all, so I set up a special page for them on my Widescreen Central website which promoted letterboxed features on VHS.  Then I went and bought anchorbayentertainment.com and began running it on my own.  I would call in to Anchor Bay and get updates, and eventually they decided to take control of their own web destiny, and thanks to a couple of supporters in the company, namely VP of Acquisitions Jay Douglas, I was asked to come up to Troy, MI and be the webmaster.  Since I was, at that time, working in Charlotte, NC at a tape replication facility that duplicated Amway sales presentations and deer hunting instructional videos, I accepted the offer pretty f#$#ing quick.

Quickly though, once I was on the job in mid 2000, I became kind of a utility infielder there.  I did the website, but I would also answer consumer questions, work with acquisitions on finding new titles, attend marketing meetings, consult on cover art, and eventually attended horror conventions for the company as well.  I wrote liner notes and did research for a ton of titles there, and I helped out the featurette producers with any research whenever I could.  I didn’t have any direct involvement with the production staff in L.A. that Bill Lustig was in charge of back then, but I pitched in wherever I could.

My involvement in the featurette side increased more once Bill had moved on to Blue Underground and the special features production moved more in-house.  But I didn’t actually film anything on my own until 2004.

Have you ever recommended titles to Anchor Bay or any other DVD distributor?  If so, what titles got picked up?

Oh that became one of my chief duties at Anchor Bay after a while…finding titles for acquisitions to pursue.  I remember making the initial contacts for a ton of projects over there including everything from THE HILLS HAVE EYES to THREE’S COMPANY.  But of course I had the easy job.  I would find out who owned the title, contact them, determine what elements (they said) existed, and then pass it along to my boss who would then spend months negotiating a contract and determining the actual condition of the elements that were available, or sometimes not that available.  They had the hard part!  Other times when large catalogs would become available, I would evaluate what titles were worth releasing and which ones were not.  A fun job to be honest, but you had to be careful not to miss something important.

I did place some titles with Synapse Films including EFFECTS  and CHRISTMAS EVIL, but lately with my production work being so time consuming, I’ve kinda retired from the acquisitions business. It can be an unbelievably frustrating and tedious process with sometimes heartbreaking results, and I just haven’t had the time to dedicate to it lately.

In this interviewer’s opinion, one of your great achievements during your stint at Anchor Bay was bringing the uncut version of ESCAPE 2000 to the cult-dvd viewing public.  How did you get involved in the process and what kind of role(s) did you play?

Don, thank you for asking this question, as this title has remained very close to my heart from my almost five years at Anchor Bay.  It’s an amazing group of people over there still, and although some of us have left for other projects and companies, it was always a team effort there.  People don’t realize how much hard work from so many dedicated people it takes to put out DVDs week after week, and Anchor Bay has been and is a crack team of professionals and film lovers that has made that company what it is.  I was happy to be a part of it for almost five years.

I contributed to dozens of releases from Anchor Bay over the years in various capacities, but if I did have to step up and say I was a driving force behind any one title, it would be ESCAPE 2000.  This one was buried in the New World catalog that Anchor Bay has had for years, and I loved this movie from years back.  It is beyond bizarre, over-the-top and crazy as hell, but it just works like a mother#$ker.  I remember pestering my bosses at AB about this constantly, and when they finally decided to proceed with it, a number of problems came up…primarily there were no elements for the uncut version of the film to be found!

I had to call around for weeks and finally Antony Ginnane, the film’s producer put me on to a small film vault in the UK that had the last remaining inter-negative of the film housed in their system.  We did a QC and sure enough it was the uncut version of the film and hadn’t been taken out of the cans in nearly 20 years.  Of course the company that had vaulted the IN there had long since gone bankrupt and there were thousands of dollars of storage fees still levied against the title.  Usually any film lab will demand payment of these fees before even touching the elements they have, but this place was amazing.  They offered a trade, they’d let us access the IN if they were the ones who did the initial transfer.  It was done soon thereafter, and turned out great.

Meanwhile, the production folks over in LA tracked down director Brian Trenchard-Smith for a commentary and I worked out an arrangement with a company in Australia who had interviews with the cast & director for an ESCAPE 2000 release of their own, so in the end, the Anchor Bay DVD ended up being the best of both worlds.  A great new transfer and all the extras that could be made within the limited budget afforded a smaller title like that.  We even sneaked in a 5.1 as well!

I ended up working closely with the graphic designer on the cover and wrote liner notes for the release as well.  Again, ESCAPE 2000 was a team effort as was everything else, but I did feel like a proud father when the finished DVDs arrived in the office.  I think I may have passed out cigars…

Hope you enjoyed this introductory chapter of the Red Shirt Chronicles.  You can expect another in the near future and it will deal with the beginnings of Felsher’s DVD supplement production company, Red Shirt Pictures.  In the meantime, you can click over to the Red Shirt Pictures website for information on all of Felsher’s DVD-related projects or become a fan of Red Shirt at its Facebook page.