Friday, January 19, 2007

Closing Up Shop

A number of years ago I got quite a number of videotapes of Nagisa Oshima films. Though they were awful quality they were subtitled and, thus, rare as heck. I got them from Professor William Van Wert, an Oshima fanatic. In return, I helped him track down some of the Oshima films that he couldn't put his hands on: PLEASURES OF THE FLESH, THREE RESURRECTED DRUNKARDS, et cetera. Over the years we struck up a nice friendship and I shared in his love of Oshima as well as the Japanese New Wave film movement of which Oshima was a pioneer.

When Oshima's films started coming out on DVD in Japan I got the bright idea of trying to figure out how to use those old English subtitles and marry them with the beautifully restored DVD images. In a life of too many projects the Oshima marriage went onto the back burner. It resurfaced years later when chatting to another Oshima fan -- let's call him Fred. I told him of my proposed project and, foolishly, he asked if he could make this his own.

Many moons passed and the project started growing whiskers when something lit a fire under Fred's ass. I think it was meeting a native Japanese speaker who agreed to help him out. Fred wasn't happy to just parrot those old English subtitles. He wanted freshly minted and completely accurate English translations. With me feeding him my DVD originals and subtitled VHS tapes as a starting point and his Japanese friend at the ready, Fred gave birth to Japanese New Wave Cinema Classics.

Fred gathered to him a flock of other Oshima fans and scholars which he pared down to a handful when some didn't meet his exacting standards. I was nearly out of the fold despite my "senior status" when I proved my worth as a bootleg film distributor and website developer. I made way for Japanese New Wave Cinema Classics, the website and the phenomena. I started planting seeds across the World Wide Web and boning up on proper site mapping, strict XHTML coding and Search Engine Optimization.

This was around May of 2005 that I thought the ball started rolling. Fred took charge of the group with Napoleonic zeal. When I thought it’d be a good idea to start a Yahoo group to promote the site he sent me pissy emails to tell me that I was inviting the “wrong crowd” to the site. Here I was digging up and inviting David Desser, Maureen Cheryn Turim, Donald Richie, Roland Domenig, et cetera, but he felt threatened that they might catch wind of “his” project and try to do legally snatch up the rights to “his” Oshima films and scoop him. Fred quit that Yahoo group and started his own, hand picking who he would allow to be invited. And, rather than private pissy emails he could humiliate and belittle fellow members of the JNWC group in front of everyone else. It was perfect.

In early 2006 I was unemployed and chomping at the bit for something to do. I decided that this would be the perfect time to secure a domain, learn PHP, and create the long-delayed Japanese New Wave Cinema Classics site ( Now I got to learn what a terrible web designer I was and that I really should just completely copy the Eureka Films site. I mean, literally copy it and paste in our own graphics. I refused. After my public chastisement and some more pissy private emails in which I had to defend my decade in web development and information architecture, I was finally allowed to put together a site that Fred pretty much designed.

Now began the fun part of trying to explain database-driven sites to Fred. He loved the self-important “JNWC” spine numbers of the covers he designed for the DVDs. He also loved to change these “catalog numbers” at the drop of the hat. Thinking that these were set in stone, even if sedimentary stone, I had built the entire site around these numbers as the database keys. Each change of these numbers would throw the entire site into disarray and mean a revamp of the database. This didn’t just happen once. It happened every time I got an email from Fred and every time he wanted to add or remove a future title. Then began the fight over release dates, nomenclature, image resolution, body copy, and more.

If that wasn’t enough, I was put down for my idea of making the site multilingual. Here we were, adding English, French, and occasionally German subtitles to films but not having a French or German version of the site. Even when I managed to find translators on my own and did the work of setting this functionality up it still wasn’t satisfactory, especially when I suggested that we also have the site in Italian and when I found a person who wanted to create Italian subtitles for the films. Apparently Fred felt that the Italians just don’t get Oshima and the subtleties of Japanese cinema. So, fuck the Italians, I guess. It’s only a Romance language. Good thing I didn’t inquire about Spanish.

The one thing that I wanted to talk to Fred about as the day of Japanese New Wave Cinema’s first line of films being available approached was money. I had spent a boatload on DVDs, hosting, a secure transaction server, and more. I knew that Fred would want a slice of the pie if we ever became profitable but didn’t know how big of a slice he wanted. He poo-pooed the idea of talking finance but I told him that I split all money that the site generated with the person who burned and mailed all of the orders we would get. This silent partner had a sweet dubbing set-up and was highly concerned about customer service. “We’ll talk money in the future,” Fred told me.

Nearly a year after the JNWC project got off the ground was the first batch of films ready to go. The site was a success. I found that it got a good number of hits and was highly visible to search engines. You couldn’t google “Japanese New Wave” or “Nagisa Oshima” without getting us pretty high in the rankings. I was happy. I took orders, put them into my automated order system and did the occasional complete revamp of the database and all images that were tied to catalog numbers when Fred would send me updates. He continued to belittle me when I tried to mention the PDF files that we were including with our releases – little did I know that he hadn’t obtained rights to reprint the articles he had collected in these PDFs. Woops. Those same aforementioned Japanese New Wave scholars might get a bit mad if they learned their writing was being ripped off.

Speaking of being ripped off… Fred was absolutely bonkers about peer-to-peer (P2P) sites and eBay sellers “ripping him off” by publicly sharing or selling our bootleg films. He sent death threats to anyone he “caught” sharing or selling. How dare they?

Mentions of the PDFs removed, the site continued on. Adding the second batch of movies in September 2006 was a challenge but it finally happened. Of course, I was on Fred’s bad side when I couldn’t add the DVD-9 versions of “his” releases due to my “limited” technology. Had I known and planned for this, it might have been different. Also, dual layer DVDrs aren’t the most universally accepted format. But, Fred didn’t read or respond to the customer inquiries, I did.

Around the time of this second wave Fred finally asked for some cash. A few hundred dollars to appease his Japanese friend for all of their time he was taking. I’m sure he was probably quite the task master with this translator. I wonder if he talked down to her on her ability to speak Japanese.

I knew that things were going to get very bad very fast when, over New Years, Fred asked for access to all of the sales records of the site. He wanted to run some “statistics.” Uh-oh.

In early January I got a note from Fred saying that he would be quitting the JNWC project at the end of 2007. He was tired of being ripped off by P2P sites, was working too much on the project, and wasn’t happy with the other members of the JNWC group. Also, he didn’t feel that we had made enough profits to legally obtain the rights to these films. I never knew that was a goal.

Things quickly reached a head when Fred then demanded his “fair share” from the website sales. When I reiterated the situation with my silent partner and that he could get half of what I had gotten from the site (a quarter of the profits), he proceeded to call my silent partner “not so bright” and claimed that I was treating him as if he was also “not so bright” especially since I didn’t have the money for him just laying around.

“Please tell me when you will have something to send. And I will wait with sending you finished masters until I have the feeling, that your offer is serious.” So, there were other masters suddenly available unbeknownst to me and they were being held hostage. Had I known that Fred would want this kind of a pay-out I would have been making payments to him all along the way. Money doesn’t stay in my checking or savings account for long as I’m constantly reinvesting it in my various ventures. This didn’t please Fred at all. I suggested that I close the site and start paying Fred out of my regular job’s paychecks for the next few months in order to catch up.

“So, I agree! Take down the site immediately and announce shop closed. I still miss an offer, when and how you will pay me the remaining $! If you sell the program of JNWC on SuperHappyFun, [I] will write a letter to the Association for the Protection of Japanese Rightsholders which took action against YouTube lately. I guess you realized their determination, and I assure you about ours. Of course this would affect your complete program of Japanese pirates. So think twice.” So, blackmail and now threats. Excellent. Fred was reaching new levels.

I suggested to Fred that he start selling those new films on eBay to recoup some of his costs. Obviously it was a booming market since so many “pirates” were selling “his” films on there.

Another email promised, “I want you to put the site offline immediately, or I'll teach you an expensive lesson you won't forget. After your ridiculous posts on various forums (f.e. Karagarga forum) my patience has come to an end. I informed the group members about the true circumstances that led to the end of, and I asked them not to answer any of your posts. So, stop the BS and close down the website immediately.”

And, before I could even respond and after Fred obviously talked to a lawyer I got this: “After you destroyed 1 1/2 years of our work, and after reading your stupid posts, trying to destroy the hard earned good reputation of the JNWC project group I had a consultation with my lawyer today. The results are as follows:

  1. website is your property, and you can do with it like you please. So leave it online or take it offline, we don't care. It's your decision.
  2. For you're the only proprietor of all profits are yours. So, please don't send any money. Otherwise it will be sent back to you immediately. No member of the project group has any financial claims towards you.
  3. Dito: Don't forward any emails anymore. is your company. You should take care of your customers.
  4. [My Japanese friend] signed a receipt, that she has received the amount of $ 500 for translations on behalf of The money has been payed via the Paypal account of [Fred] to facilitate the money transfer, because [my Japanese friend] has no Paypal account.
From now on we'll dedicate our time, skills and collection of precise data to a different goal. You'll have to take the responsibility for everything that follows. Your greed seems to have made you totally blind about the vulnerability of your position.”

That’s the story of how I came to shut down and try to separate myself from Fred. Now that I don’t have to talk to him anymore I find that my life is a lot less stressful. The sad part is that the dream I had of being able to present William Van Wert with a beautiful set of completely remastered Nagisa Oshima films is over. Those other Oshima films that Fred worked on are in his clutches and he won’t let them go. And, unfortunately, during that long stretch when JNWC was forming, Bill passed away at too young of an age. Despite my pleading, there was never a dedication to Bill on those discs. But the site, my work, and my memory are still dedicated to the man who turned me on to Nagisa Oshima and Japanese New Wave Cinema.

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