Historic Films dips into its bag of clips

Pic library transitions from supplier to producer

From Dylan to the Depression, Historic Films has found an artistically and financially rewarding path. It all starts in the library.

When Martin Scorsese assembled the Bob Dylan doc “No Direction Home,” the archives of Historic Film supplied about 80% of the footage, much of which had been rarely seen, even by Dylan devotees.

“We know where the bodies are buried when it comes to clip-oriented films,” notes Historic president Joe Lauro, speaking during a break from editing scenes shot at Chicago dance marathons in the early 1930s.

In the wake of the Dylan film’s success, Lauro created a production arm in addition to his catalog of 40,000 musical performances from the 1920s up to 1990. It has allowed Lauro to bring inhouse a string of productions, including DVDs on Motown stars from the 1960s and ’70s, a box set on the Great Depression and a feature film on the history of African-American gospel music.

The Depression project, “The Panic Is On,” will be released as a CD-DVD box set from Shanachie Entertainment. In addition, Lauro is producing and Don McGlynn is directing “Singing Praise to the Lord,” which Magnolia Pictures will release.

“We began a production arm to deliver these films at a reasonable price,” says Lauro, whose vaults are focused largely on Americana. “When we make the decision to do a project, we try to suggest areas in which we have at least 50% of the footage that will be used.”

Ownership, Lauro notes, can mean a savings of up to 50% vs. licensing, as budgets for music docs can often spiral due to publishing and sync licenses. A lip-synced performance, for example, requires the involvement of the record company that owns the recording in addition to a fee for the performer and publisher.

“I have been finding that publishers are willing to talk a deal,” he says. “(Some execs) opt for a per-copy-sold rate.”

One of Historic’s biggest successes has been its DVD series on Motown artists that Universal Music Enterprises has released (Universal owns Motown). Docs on the Temptations and the Supremes have sold more than 100,000 copies each. The latest Universal Music release is “Rick James — The Definitive DVD.” Of the 30 performances included, nine come from “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” which Historic owns, and five are out of the Motown promotional vaults.

A music fan and guitarist whose taste runs toward American roots music, Lauro finds that his passion is gaining increased acceptance on the business side: “More and more people are realizing this keeps the heritage alive.”

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