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Kino's 25th Birthday: Metropolis and More

Donal Krim, President of Kino International
Donald Krim, President of Kino International

July 29, 2002 | In the world of film distribution, few companies have the kind of devotion to preserving classics and introducing the world to new films for which Manhattan-based Kino International is known. Over the last quarter century, Kino has developed its catalog to the point where it contains a mind-bogglingly great list of silent and foreign directors, from D.W. Griffith to Wong Kar-Wai, as well as a huge sampling of modern classics. To honor Kino's 25 years in the business, The Film Society of Lincoln Center will stage a 15 day festival, featuring 24 films from Kino's catalog. The festival begins on August 2nd and runs through the 15th.

An event of such magnitude would generate enough vapors for most small companies to run on for years, but it's not Kino's only accomplishment currently on display. Their painstaking restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, perhaps the most celebrated of all silent films, recently opened at New York's Film Forum and will be playing across the country on its way to a deluxe DVD release. The road to Kino's current stature, however, has been a twisty one. Cinema Gotham recently sat down with Kino president Donald Krim to discuss the company's past, present and future.

"When I finished law school I went to work at United Artists," explained Krim. "That was in 1971. I ran the non-theatrical film department, which rented films out to colleges." In addition to their own classic library, United Artists also owned all pre-1948 Warner Brothers films, including Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood. After a few years, Krim worked on the formation of United Artists Classics, the first major distribution company-owned theatrical classics division, and the granddaddy of companies like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics. Eventually UA also added the distribution rights to the MGM library (including films like The Wizard of Oz) to its roster and started distributing new foreign films. Krim combined all of these libraries under one roof and helped create something unique. Then, in 1977, he took all the insider knowledge he had accumulated and struck out on his own.

Fritz Lang's M
Fritz Lang's M

While Krim was at United Artists, Bill Pence was working at Janus Films, which held the rights to an amazing library of films including M, La Strada, Rashomon and Beauty and the Beast, and should be familiar to DVD fans as the company that currently releases their films under the Criterion Collection banner. In 1976 Pence came up with the name "Kino" and set out to distribute that library among the nation's many repertory houses. In the years before cable, video, and DVD made film libraries commercially viable, rep houses were the only places to see the classics. Krim easily rattles of the ten or so rep houses in New York in the 70's. After a year, however, Pence decided he'd had enough and opted to sell the fledgling business to Krim. Pence later founded the Telluride Film Festival.

Once in control of Kino, Krim immediately started to expand. "Within a few months of taking over Kino, we made a deal to handle the Chaplin films, like Modern Times and The Great Dictator. [Our rights were for] theatrical. We weren't getting home video, which was just in its beginning, and television. Then we took on the Selznick films, including [Alfred Hitchcock's] Rebecca and Notorious. The next year we took over the Alexander Korda library, including Thief of Bagdad."

Julia Dash's Daughters of the Dust

Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust

Over the years the rights to various films have come and gone (Kino no longer works with Janus Films, whose library was the foundation of the company), but they've never stopped changing and moving forward. The next big step that Kino made was to start releasing new films. "Around 1979 we started being offered new foreign films," Krim recalled. "I took a flyer for a Japanese film from a director named Masahiro Shinoda... My wife liked it and we decided to do that... The film was [renamed] The Battle of Orin. We opened it at the predecessor to the Lincoln Plaza which was the Cinema Studio theater. It got some decent reviews but didn't do any business. But it was a nice film and we weren't discouraged. Also, around that time I started going to the Berlin Film Festival looking for new films and we began acquiring one or two films a year."

Kino's launches into film restoration (including adding 20 minutes back into Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear) and home video distribution were the final ventures in turning the company into the film buff's paradise that it is today. Their constant search for new acquisitions has led them to a catalog that includes films from 30 countries in more than 25 languages. In addition to the current Metropolis restoration, they've breached the mainstream's resistance to unconventional programming a number of times: Entertainment Weekly named their The Art of Buster Keaton box set the best home video release of 1995 and many of their theatrical releases, including Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, the cinematography documentary Visions of Light and Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, have generated both significant box-office and a lot of respect among film critics.

Making sure that audiences see these films – both new and old – is the most important part of what Kino does. "It's important that someone takes the responsibility and brings film heritage where it belongs: into the cinemas," says Martin Koerber, who headed the Metropolis restoration. "Without specialized distributors such as Kino it would be impossible to see classic films outside an archival context, which is to say virtually nobody could see them. If nobody would see them, there would be no support for film archiving, let alone film restoration, I believe. So Kino and similar distributors are doing the archival world a favor in existing and trying hard, as I know they do."

Time Regained

Time Regained, which stars Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich and Emmanuelle Beart (above) will screen at Lincoln Center

The Lincoln Center program has a special resonance for Krim. "We've been doing a festival for the last two years at the Anthology Film Archive, "Kino in January," and then it occurred to us this is our 25th anniversary so maybe we should go uptown with that. It's not a total survey of Kino by any means, but it does have some of the highlights." Lincoln Center's programmer Kent Jones was more than enthusiastic about the idea. "They have such an incredible selection of movies," says Jones, "the hard part was winnowing it down. It's hard not being able to include everything. They have one of best catalogs around." Jones, who's known the Kino crew for years, applauds "any distributor that stays independent these days without financing from a major corporation or studio and really sticks to their guns in terms of picking up really independent movies. Those guys have really done that. Lots of distributors buy things because they think they'll be popular. They [Kino] buy things because they like them."

While Krim may not be interested in producing his own films ("Too risky," he says), there will always be films – both new and old – in need of the kind of knowledgeable attention that Kino can deliver. With Metropolis and the Lincoln Center program (which includes masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Blue Kite, The Bicycle Thief, and 8 1/2) it seems likely that Kino's biggest days are still to come

Kino International
Film Society of Lincoln Center Kino Festival
Metropolis Playdates
Film Forum's Metropolis page

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