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Criterion Collection President Peter Becker on Storytelling, Bergman vs. Godzilla, B-Movies

LYON, France  —  The Lumière Festival’s Intl. Classic Film Market (MIFC) kicked off on Tuesday in Lyon, France, with a keynote address by Criterion Collection President Peter Becker.

The exec discussed the company’s storied history and evolution over the decades into a leading publisher of classic and contemporary films from around the world in high-quality editions and award-winning, original supplements.

Making his devotion to film culture clearly evident, Becker noted that Criterion’s focus was squarely on its films and less on the company itself.

“I never do this. We never come out and talk about Criterion. This is very rare. We did this for [Lumière festival director] Thierry Frémaux. … Everybody wants to see the movies. We let the movies carry the brand into the market place, so we don’t talk about the company very much.”

This year the group launched the Criterion Channel, a streaming library of more than 1,000 classic and contemporary films, plus a constantly refreshed selection of Hollywood, international, arthouse and independent films from major studios and dozens of independent distributors.

“It would be a mistake for the company to be static and not to be constantly evaluating what it’s advocating, what its impact in the world is, how it can improve,” Becker said, stressing that most importantly the company must stay true to itself.

“The story is the story that we are telling to our audience, it’s the story that we are telling to our filmmakers and it’s the story that we are telling to our licensors. If you’re not telling the truth about what you’re doing, you can’t keep telling those stories to all those different people and not trip it up. You have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

He added: “The idea basically is that it would be wrong to treat Bergman the same way as we treat Godzilla, but it would also in some ways be wrong to treat Godzilla with any less respect than we treat Bergman with.”

Criterion last year released its “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema” Blu-ray disc box featuring 39 films and a book featuring critical essays on each of the films.

Its new “Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films, 1954-1975” collection, which comprises 15 digitally restored films and a book featuring newly commissioned illustrations by high-profile artists, is scheduled for release Oct. 29.

Becker stressed that publishing was not just about bringing products into the world but rather “about how you’re putting it into the world. What it looks like, what it feels like. Even just the finish on “Godzilla” feels a little bit like skin, it’s nice. It’s little details like that that you need to pay attention to – those are all part of publishing.”

What makes films special are the stories they tell, Becker explained. “People always ask us what is the criterion for the Criterion Collection, and we always say a film should be an exemplary film of its kind, it should be something we want to talk about, it should be a rich point of entry, but we try not to be snobby about what kinds of films can actually be exemplary. There are exemplary B-movies.”

As a prime example, Becker pointed to Jack Woods’ 1970 creature feature homage “Equinox,” which featured the early work of future nine-time Oscar-winning visual- effects artist Dennis Muren.

Becker described it as one of his favorite Criterion releases despite it being “really a quite terrible movie from a certain perspective. … But it was so important as a piece of storytelling. It’s a film that was made using stop-motion animation in a garage in California by the people who would go on to start DreamWorks and ILM, Industrial Light & Magic, who would be working at LucasArts and Lucasfilm, and they’re using the technology of Ray Harryhausen in their garage to make a monster movie.

“That moment to me, what’s happening in that garage, that’s a really interesting story. And I think for anybody who pulls that release off the shelf and takes a look at that movie, they’re going to have a great time because the movie is a riot, it’s hilarious, they were having fun in the garage, but it’s not arthouse greatness — it’s not that. It’s a great story. So yes, everything is storytelling for the company.”

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