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“Sex films sell, and other stuff doesn't . . . or at least not nearly as well,” says film preservationist Joe Rubin. Rubin, 24 years old, is one of the creators working Skinaflix, a VOD-style streaming video service he calls “the Netflix of porn.” At Vinegar Syndrome, a separate DVD/Blu-Ray–centric home video company, Rubin restores and sells vintage grindhouse titles like Vampire Hookers, The Phantom Gunslinger, and The Vixens of Kung Fu. A serious film buff, Rubin knows the work of smut kings like Russ Meyer and Wakefield Poole front-to-back. We talked to Rubin about his passion for porn, what working at Vinegar Syndrome is like, and how hard he worked to get the long-lost porn flick Black Love.
OC WEEKLY: Vinegar Syndrome is making it financially, right? You just started that new subset of Peekarama double features; is that the next big thing for the company?
JOE RUBIN: We're not getting rich, I can tell you that much. But we're doing okay. This is a tough market for home video right now. We're not relying on DVD/Blu as a long-term thing. That's also why we're developing our own streaming site, specifically for X-rated—soft and hard—feature films produced between the '60s, and '80s. It's called Skinaflix. Think of it as Netflix for sex films, but curated for cinephiles. We're going to have essays about filmmakers and actors, as well as months themed around directors, and it's all gonna be in high definition. We're also looking into getting involved with the upcoming 4K [video] market.
We're working with Distribipix on [Skinaflix], by the way. We have so many films in our respective archives that we'd never be able to release them all on home video. So instead of just letting them sit on [our] shelves, we wanted to give people a chance to see them. Ultimately, that's what being in this business is about.
Some of your films, like Herschell Gordon Lewis', were made by people who now want to forget these films ever existed. How did you convince Lewis to let you release his interracial porn flick Black Love?
Well, lots of films have drifted into the public domain, so we didn't need to get permission from anyone to release them. We acquired [Lewis’] negatives from a person who had foreclosed on them decades ago. It's unfortunate that Herschell doesn't want to acknowledge or talk about the films. They represent a really fascinating part of his filmography, especially Black Love, which was his only hardcore film. It's also significant in that it's the first hardcore feature film shot in Chicago.
But to get back to your question, we try as hard as we can to involve filmmakers in our releases. Sometimes we just can't find them, and other times, like with Herschell, they just don't want to be involved. But then there's a case like [Mike Cartel,] the director of the mind-bending 1982 vanity film Runaway Nightmare, which involves worm farmers being kidnapped by a cult of pseudo-feminists. [Mike] is so excited that someone wants to release his film. He's pretty much up for anything.
Speaking of Herschell, one of his maxims is that you should never spend money to make something look better than it needs to. But one of the hooks of your company is that you put a lot of work into restoring these films. On average, how intensive is the process of restoring your titles on a budget?
Well, me and Ryan Emerson, my partner in the company, have backgrounds in film archive and restoration. So image quality has always been key. Extras are nice, and if we can get them, great. But what we are most passionate about is ensuring that the film looks as good as it can with the elements we have. On average, we'll spend anywhere between 15 and 100 hours restoring each title. It's a big variable, but we get films in all conditions, so there's no set amount of time. We're fortunate to also be co-owners of a film restoration lab, so we have all the necessary equipment at our disposal to restore these films. It's just a matter of finding time.
How do you plan your acquisitions? Do you guys deliberate before making a title, and do you have a budget range? Are there any titles that were difficult to acquire despite your initial interest?
We don't. In many cases, collections or license deals kinda fall into our lap. Very rarely have we gone ahead and sought out a specific film. We've actually had people call us, which is quite flattering. But a few key titles, like Game Show Models and Good Luck Miss Wyckoff, we did seek out. I really wanted to release those films so I made it a point to get a deal going.
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