INTERVIEW: Justin Decloux on Gold Ninja Video, “The Criterion of Public Domain Bargain Bins”

As described by the label itself, Gold Ninja Video is “The Criterion of Public Domain Bargain Bins: A boutique film distribution label that focuses on releasing neglected films with lots of new special features.” That’s a very accurate description of a DVD and Blu-ray company that has released a wide variety of intriguing movies over the course of its two-year history. In addition to rescuing obscure Asian cinema such as Thundering Mantis and Thrilling Bloody Sword, Gold Ninja Video has also devoted itself to putting out recent low-budget cinema like Don’t Let The Riverbeast Get You! and Dinosaurs in a Mining Facility. Given that the label’s a one-man operation, we went to that one man, Justin Decloux, to talk about Gold Ninja Video’s history.

GRUMPIRE: How did Gold Ninja Video get started?

JUSTIN DECLOUX: I have a podcast called the Important Cinema Club me and my pal Will Sloan do. We love Blu-rays and DVDs, and we’ve always wanted to do our own since we were teenagers. Back in the day, I even worked in a video store and made some of my own little releases that I did with other video store employees that we put on the shelf, but blindly. With Important Cinema Club, we felt we had a big enough audience that we could sell, like a couple dozen, so any work that we put into it, wouldn’t be a complete waste.

And we did it. We did a release called The Dragon Lives Again, or Bruce Lee Goes to Hell. I just did it all myself. I put it out there and limited to 125 copies. That was always a starting thing: which is like, it’s limited, gotta act now. I was like, oh man, I’m going to be stuck with 125 copies for ages, but we sold them instantly.

My original plan was like, I’m going to do a release quarterly. I gotta release one every three months. And my partner was like, “Why don’t you just do it every month?” And I was like, “What if I did do it every month?” That’s where it started and it’s been going on since then.

It’s such an interesting collection of releases: some things that are notorious Alpha Video-style things like Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, but you have also dug deep and found some very weird stuff, especially some of these kung fu films that you’ve released. Where does your interest in each of these titles generally come from?

I mean, I’m interested in all of those titles. The thing about going into video is I don’t put out anything that I don’t really love myself. I’m really excited to do special features for it. It originally started as me and my pal Will joking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you went to the bargain bin and it was Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, but there’s a commentary and a 20-minute video where I’m talking about the movie and the record that the co-star Sammy Petrillo – a Jerry Lewis impersonator – did on, in full on the Blu-ray?” And I was like, “Yeah, that’d be funny if someone did that. Why don’t we do it?”

A lot of those Alpha Video titles do start from there, which is like, what are ones that, anytime you look at free movies online, they’re always at the top? There’s like a million copies of them. We couldn’t pay for new transfers. That was a big thing from the beginning. It’s just wasn’t financially viable. We’re not going to sell enough, so we just found the best crappy transfer that we could use and put it out there. It was all about the special features. That’s what we sold it for.

The martial arts films, it’s just kind of an extension of that, which is some of the weirder Taiwanese movies released by a million different companies. What if I went in and, with the little knowledge that I had, tried to give context to people? I like every disc to be kind of a starting point where the idea is that, if you like this or some other stuff, here’s a little bit of context for you to explore more. A lot of booklets are like that – “Here are some other films that fall within this range and that you can go explore.” I love the idea of that it’s like, here is a staircase that you can take to other films and other discoveries.

A lot of the discs have a bonus feature on them. Is that part of that whole wanting to give folks an even bigger jump start? Like, “Here’s a film you should know and here’s another one you might like”?

Yeah. I always try to make sure that the bonus feature is related in some way, but it’s different enough that it doesn’t feel like a rehash. If it’s a director, I can show another film of that director.

I should let people know if they’re reading this – every title, except for the director’s cut ones, they all have a secret feature, too. If you go in the menu and you play around in the menu, you can select it. You’ll see a little intro of me being like, “You found a secret feature!” and I give a little bit of context and then a whole other feature film plays.

That’s another fun thing – when fans discover that there’s a secret feature, they’re like, “Well, I want to know what the next one’s going to be,” which is kind of becoming an issue now that I’m doing remastered films. I don’t got room for three feature films. When I was playing with standard definition pictures, that’s easy.

This latest release, Thrilling Bloody Sword, is a new 2K scan. Was the success of the previous ones what made you want to dip your toe into presenting something that looks better?

It’s not just something that looks better. It’s also the idea of bringing something that is just not available anywhere. If I didn’t do a scan of Thrilling Bloody Sword, would anybody else do one? They haven’t done it until now, so I would say probably not. The print – they scanned it, the colors are great, but it’s in pretty rough shape. I believe it may be the only print that exists, so the idea of being able to put that out into the world? That’s great to me, especially if I can give it context and other stuff, but that’s the next level. I would have loved to have done that from the beginning.

If I could have gotten a print of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and scanned it? Oh boy, that would have been heaven, but it’s the idea of being able to just find little things that fall between the cracks, and being able to bring this to an audience. We’ve done that with giving context to stuff that’s very available.

But, also picking stuff up that is nowhere else and putting it out there? That is heaven to me. I’ve worked with a bunch of filmmakers and put their films out on Blu-ray and done big special editions. That is the best to me – bringing filmmakers who are aware, can participate, and get a cut of the profit as well. Bringing them to a whole new audience, hopefully it will encourage them or the audience, as well, to go find their other films. That is the ultimate goal, along with being able to do scans and new prints as well.

I think anybody who gets deep into genre cinema of any sort starts to discover the underseen gems that become their favorites, that every time a re-issue a company starts announcing their next slate, they have their fingers crossed for, like, a nice 2K scan of Mafia Vs. Ninja.

Well, let me just say it’s definitely on my list! I have a DVD back there, like a bootleg DVD that I was like, “I can use this as a scan for Mafia Vs. Ninja.” Oh! And there’s a film on Thrilling Bloody Sword called Incredible Kung Fu Mission that was where the director and star of Mafia Vs. Ninja met for the first time and they went from there, so you’ll definitely enjoy that one.

With all of this extra content, where you can work with the filmmakers and things like that, how do you come in contact with these folks? I’m assuming part of it is through the podcast that folks have reached out?

No. Really, I have to be honest that I don’t think I’ve released one film that it was a blind submission. Actually, please don’t send me any blinds because I don’t want to have to be like, “Oh, well, no.” Basically, every film that I’ve released with these filmmakers, I’ve reached out to them and been like, “Hey, can I do your film?”

It started with Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh who were doing two of their films. I had done a bunch of releases so I could show them. “Hey, I did these, you know me a little bit” – a friend of mine was better friends with them – “Could I do one of your movies? It will cost you nothing. I will do everything. You will get a cut of the profit.” And they were like, “Sure,” so I did that and then from there, I could show other filmmakers, “Hey, look, I did these guys. They were happy. I paid them. Would you be willing to work with me?”

A lot of them are just really happy to have someone dedicate so much time to their work and be like, “Oh, you want to interview my actors? You want to, you want to interview me? You want to do a commentary? Okay, sure. You’re going to do a new cover art?” A lot of them, I’ve also gotten through contacts. A friend is a film festival programmer, so he’ll see some of these movies and it’ll be like, “Hey, Gold Ninja Video, you could probably ask them.”

Two of them were blind contacts, where I just contacted them and was like, “Hey man, I love your movie. Would you let me do it?” And they’re like, “Okay.” A Sweet And Vicious Beauty was one that I went and I saw because I knew the director because he was an action choreographer on something else I liked. Afterwards, I just contacted him and he was like, “Sure.”

It’s always weird. I can sense they’re like, “Who is this weirdo? What does he want? He’s going to rip me off,” but the deal I make with the filmmakers is like – listen, I don’t own your movie. You own your movie. And you can just keep the rights. You can keep it online while we use my Blu. That’s fine. It’s a completely different audience. They’re usually pretty cool with that, ’cause no distributor has ever given them that. Every distributor is like, “I want to own the film for 5-10 years, or forever.” I don’t do that. Maybe that’s a mistake on my part because I don’t own the film, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like, all right, get it out there, put it out, and then they can continue on. I have more filmmakers to find.

That’s pretty much the way that it’s been and I’m releasing another one, coming up in the next few months, that a young filmmaker, again, shot with no money, but it’s super-fun and super-engaging and I can put it out there. There are movies that me and my friend Peter would see and it’s like, no distributor will buy this because it looks too cheap, but it’s so much fun. It’s so imaginative. Why wouldn’t people want to see that?

I’m glad to be that funnel to a new audience because I’m a filmmaker myself and I had the same problem when people are, “Yeah, it’s fun, but it looks cheap.” It was like, who cares? You can see tons of slick movies that suck at film festivals, so we see something cheap that’s really engaging and fun.

★★★

We here at Grumpire love what Justin is doing with Gold Ninja Video and wish him continued success. For a quick blurb on the aforementioned Thrilling Bloody Sword Blu-ray, check out the most recent Round-house Round-up, our monthly feature on what’s new in the Action genre!