The 13th Floor

The Rise & Fall Of EMPIRE PICTURES – An Interview With Documentarian Daniel Griffith

Any of us that grew up in the VHS generation are familiar with the films of Charles Band. Whether it be as a producer or a director, through Full Moon Entertainment or Empire Pictures, you no doubt have rented and discovered one of the crazy movies in his vast filmography. But there is that one pocket of time in the 80’s specifically revolving around the craziness of Empire Pictures, which in itself has a unique and ambiguous story.

Enter filmmaker Daniel Griffith, a documentarian that’s supplied special features for tons of DVD and Blu-Ray releases you’ve probably picked up, including MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE DEVIL and FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM.

Now his focus is solely on the rise and fall of Empire Pictures with the independent documentary CELLULOID WIZARDS IN THE VIDEO WASTELAND: THE SAGA OF EMPIRE PICTURES. He’s currently got a Kickstarter up and running to help him cross the finish line with the project, but we got the chance to chat about why his enthusiasm for these films in the 80’s fueled his desire now to tell the story of this wacky little studio.

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Blumhouse.com: First and foremost, I just wanted to congratulate you on the amazing documentary you did for the FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM Blu-Ray.

Daniel Griffith: Oh thank you!

BH: It’s really great. And I’ve known a lot of the people involved in that movie for years. To me, they’re the unsung heroes of the horror genre, so it’s great to see them get a tribute like that documentary on that disc.

DG: Well, I appreciate that. It was labor of love for all of us. We’d been talking about it for years, and then when Jeff Burr’s brother had passed away, it lit a fire under Jeff and we all became much more motivated to do something exciting and monumental for the film as a tribute to his brother. We found a home in Scream Factory. I don’t even think they realized the magnitude of what we were doing! It was really a production we were in complete control over. It wasn’t something Scream Factory commissioned us to do. We went to Scream Factory and told them we were doing this mammoth documentary. It turned out we were doing 2 feature documentaries, and we put all of our creative muscle into it, and in such a short time and on a non-existent budget.

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BH: You wouldn’t be able to tell from the final result! The reason I’m mentioning it is I really want the people reading this to check it out. Both the anthology FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM and the documentary you did on the disc.

DG: We really hoped that it would find an audience and be rediscovered by fans and analyzed in a different way now that time has passed. Of course, watching the documentary, you have a greater understanding of what went into it and what was at stake. It was important for me just as a filmmaker to convey those struggles and pay tribute to everyone that was involved in that film whom, like you said, are unsung in the film community. But even more so in the horror community.

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BH: So you’re currently working on an extensive documentary about Empire Pictures. For me, I have so many memories of hitting up the video store and discovering things from Empire and Full Moon and just stuff produced by Charles Band. What was your introduction into that world?

DG: I always frequented my mom and pop video store. Every Saturday morning, my grandpa would drop me off and I’d spent 2 hours just reading VHS boxes and connecting names to films. And in that, renting movies and being really attracted to all genres, I started picking up on the name Charles Band. And by renting movies like RE-ANIMATOR and TERRORVISION and GHOULIES, I noticed the logo for Empire. I thought that was interesting. This company represents a really diverse and widely imaginative catalog of films. It sounds silly, but when I rented ELIMINATORS, it solidified my interest, because while the movie seems to be compromised creatively and through its budget, it was still very unique. This was before Full Moon, and they would explore these same avenues of doing sci-fi, fantasy, obviously things inspired by comic books – I just thought it was a cool film that had all these elements that you didn’t see in movies. It was what I didn’t understand at the time, a “direct-to-video” movie. It felt like a motion picture that would play in theaters, but I went on to learn a lot of these movies did make it to theaters, just not theaters in my home town. Only a few did. I did see TROLL in the theater. And I did see ROBOT JOX. But that was after Empire.

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BH: You mentioned in your promo clip that you’d had this idea to do a doc that focused on Empire Pictures for a while now and anytime you’d interview someone for another project, you’d ask them about their involvement in Empire. When did it solidify for you that this was a story that needed to be told? The Rise and Fall of Empire Pictures?

DG: It’s kind of strange, but I wanted to find the right story that would take place in the 80’s and it would be completely encapsulated in the 80’s. Not a company that was founded in the 60’s or 70’s and then found its second wind in the 80’s. It would really be a story about the rise and fall of some creative force that was a part of my childhood. I was doing documentaries for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER, and I was documenting movies that were of different generations, whether it be my parent’s generation or even my grandparents generation. I was telling the story of movies I was interested in and certainly exposed to, but they didn’t tie to my childhood in the sense of being contemporary film. And I thought as I’m making these docs, I have an opportunity to tell the story of my B movies, the B movies that touched me as a kid. Empire is basically the American International of the 80s, it just didn’t last as long. My thought was Empire would be a great subject. By this time, Scream Factory didn’t exists, but Shout Factory was releasing MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER and a lot of cult TV shows. They were releasing some cult movies. There wasn’t a company digging into the now-MGM titles. They own a lot of the Empire titles now. Nobody was digging into those archives and making bonus features about these movies. So I just started the process as I was working on documentaries for other companies. I would pick up new interviews here and there. In that, I collected enough where I decided to make this happen. Thanks to Scream Factory, they’re making these films available again and they’re finding a new audience. I felt that a documentary that gave you the full range of the history of the company and seeing its successes and what led to its failures was something you couldn’t get from a bonus feature documentary. Those usually don’t have the drama. So I decided to put this out there and it’s purely a nostalgic experience. It gives you a unique perspective what it takes to create a company from the ground up, and what someone will do along with other elements that will jeopardize that companies longevity and stability.

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BH: How receptive have people been to this? People like Charles Band and some of the director’s you’ve spoken to?

DG: Charles Band was on the fence from the beginning. However, as time went by and I would continue just discussing the project with him, we would carry on a dialogue that would lead to him understanding my point of view of the story. Just to be clear, I wasn’t going to make a documentary that was anti-Charles Band or pro-Charles Band. I wanted to tell an honest story, and you go into it thinking that what went wrong was a total mismanagement on Band’s behalf, but as you get deeper and deeper into the story, it really isn’t that simple. There are lots of elements that went against the company certainly from its conception, but also as it was developing. With any success that happens, these things lead to a lot of other obstacles. That was the challenge in telling this story – making sure that all that information would be delivered in a way that people would understand it, because it is a lot of the business aspects of cinema versus looking at it from just a creative point of view. I was able to get a lot of the people to talk and be up front and honest about things that happened. That includes Charles Band, who in his own way harbors a lot of the blame, even though as I started gathering the story, my thoughts and opinions had changed from what I gathered. It’s hard to answer this question without giving away too much! It’s the climax of our story!

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BH: The industry has changed so drastically over the last few years. One of the only options these days in finishing a doc like this is to go the crowdfunding way. Why did you choose to go that route?

DG: Originally, I thought I could fund this on my own in between doing different documentaries for other companies, but it got to a point where I thought the project had grown to such a magnitude that I could no longer support where it was going. The vision had changed and I began to see the potential to tell a story that had not been told before, but do it in a way that might change the way we look at the medium of a documentary. I had a lot of ideas and started to incorporate them as I went along. It became very important to me that this be a nostalgic experience, and in that it becomes more personal. When it becomes more personal, you end up having something more unique to say. A unique vision, a unique approach to the material. I entertained the possibility of going to other companies and seeing if they wanted to chip in what was necessary to making this film a reality. But in that, you’re inviting more cooks into the kitchen, and you never know what’s going to come up. Thus far, I’ve had a lot of help from the Empire alums, they were all excited and willing to send me stuff from their archives. Things they had in storage or their attics. Big scrap books of materials. I’ve got a wealth of material, so that support has been great. But since the beginning, I’ve been doing it on my own. Finding that person or company to partner with, I was nervous about where they’d want to take the story. And I certainly didn’t want to compromise this story. There’s nothing in this that is too harsh, but there are things that are going to be brought to light that I don’t think a lot of people are aware of, and I think it will shatter their own misconceptions of what really happened at that company. To go the Kickstarter route was really a way for me to say to fans out there, whether you love Empire movies or Full Moon movies, or whether you’re obsessed with Charles Band – positive or negative, you’re a person out there, a kid at heart that has a special place in your heart reserved for all things 1980’s. I thought reaching out to those people and saying help me make this awesome project come to life would be the best way for people to support it. They’re the people that I need to tell this story.

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BH: Well, I want to see this doc, so I wish you the best of luck with it. Looking forward to the whole story of the rise and fall of Empire Pictures!

For more details on CELLULOID WIZARDS IN THE VIDEO WASTELAND, visit the official website here, and learn how you can contribute to its completion right HERE.

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