Directors Capra, Kramer packaged as class acts

All studio-based home entertainment divisions have personalities — generally echoes of the libraries in their possession. For Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, that personality might be likened to the shy teenage girl about to blossom into womanhood.

For years, Sony was derided by critics and cineastes for neglecting the library of Columbia Pictures titles under its stewardship. Many important films languished in a kind of limbo — still accessible on VHS tape but unscheduled for DVD release — and many that did make it onto DVD suffered from poor transfers and low-quality sound, to say nothing of high retail prices.

But under the leadership of David Bishop, the unit’s president for just over two years, the situation seems to be changing. With the release last Christmas of “The Premiere Frank Capra Collection” and the upcoming debut of a five-film tribute to producer-director Stanley Kramer, the door to the Columbia catalog vault is slowly being pried open.

“We’re looking to mine the library deeper than in the past,” Bishop says. “The company sets a threshold for profitability in terms of titles, but I think there’s room for more releases in that area.”

The Capra set is especially gratifying in that it offers spiffy new transfers of such early Academy Award winners as “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) — in addition to commentaries and interviews. And word has it that the Kramer box will be similarly generous.

“I think if you polled the buffs recently,” Bishop says, “you’ll see we’ve turned that reputation around. The titles have been receiving stellar reviews. We realized we came up short.”

And it’s not just B&W pics that are receiving more attention. The division’s major film reissue for the fall season is “Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition,” a three-disc package arriving in November that includes three versions of the movie and a new interview with helmer Steven Spielberg.

It follows the recent reissue of another major Columbia film of the mid-1970s, “Taxi Driver,” a two-disc set overflowing with such extras as commentary by scribe Paul Schrader and interviews with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

And with “Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show,” released in April, SPHE has expanded expectations for reissues. This four-disc survey pairs 23 episodes of the series with exhaustive, newly created bonus material.

“We almost treat the marketing efforts like (they’re) new releases,” says Bishop of the special reissue packages. “And sometimes you can do the same film or series a number of times if you can come up with enough material to make it meaningful to the consumer.”

That’s clearly the thinking behind the complete “Seinfeld” set scheduled for this Christmas. In addition to all nine seasons of “the show about nothing,” the package delivers more than 100 hours of extras (yes, for real), including deleted scenes, bloopers and a newly taped hourlong roundtable with the cast and co-creator Larry David.

Bishop’s division also has emerged as a leader in foreign titles, securing nearly 40% of the market for such fare domestically, and leading all rivals in terms of quality, with Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower,” the Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others” and Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” released recently. And speaking of Almodovar, “Viva Pedro: The Almodovar Collection” bowed in January, boxing eight of the Spanish helmer’s most important films along with a bonus disc of interviews and features.

Bishop promises more such things to come. And though he’s hesitant to offer specifics, he does say, “I think as release opportunities come up, you’ll see us really set a new tone in the market.”

So who knows? Maybe that shy schoolgirl will be prom queen someday. This is Hollywood, after all.

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