The St. Charles–based DVD label bids to be the Criterion of the Midwest.
The story of film distributor Farhad Arshad, 46, would itself make an excellent movie. Born in Tehran, Arshad fled the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini and found his way to Chicago in 1984. “My first job, illegally, was working at a store on Michigan Avenue,” he says. He applied for and eventually received political asylum; Arshad went to work as a college teacher, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1993.
His assimilation was guided by his love affair with cinema, including Iranian films he watched from afar, like Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? and Through the Olive Trees. That passion led Arshad to found his own boutique theatrical and video distribution label, Olive Films, in 2003. Despite industry temptations to gravitate to New York or L.A., the company remains in Farshad’s adoptive hometown, the western suburb St. Charles, operating out of an office suite.
With an output that now includes as many as ten titles per month, Olive Films has in the last year sharpened its reputation as a haven for cinephiles. Offering a judicious mixture of European art cinema, like Jean-Luc Godard’s magisterial video essay Histoire(s) du Cinéma (put out last December), and key auteurist films of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (coming August 7) and Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (July 31), the label has positioned itself as a kind of Criterion of the Midwest, offering first-rate editions of films long unavailable. A new edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers hits stores this week. In June, Olive issued two other Godard films, Ici et Ailleurs and Numéro Deux, that were both famously difficult to see. In September, it will release Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably and Maurice Pialat’s Police, neither of which has ever been on U.S. DVD.
Olive began emerging as a key player when Arshad hired Frank Tarzi, a canny industry veteran who worked at Kino Films for 12 years, just over a year ago. Arshad and Tarzi have taken advantage of the seismic changes in the home-video business. Desperate to hold onto a market pulverized by VOD, streaming and downloads, Hollywood has shifted its home-video emphasis to blockbusters and recent releases. Olive has gone after the studios’ back catalogs, carrying out licensing deals with Paramount and Warner Bros. and bringing to the market—in standard and Blu-ray editions—films directed by Orson Welles (Macbeth), John Ford (Rio Grande) and John Cassavetes (Too Late Blues).
The company has even expanded into television shows, including an ’80s spinoff of Casablanca starring Starsky and Hutch’s David Soul. Still, with just eight employees, Olive remains a lean operation. Arshad acknowledges that rapid technological changes and consumers’ viewing habits make this a volatile industry whose future remains difficult to predict. “I don’t think Exxon Mobil ever faces the reality of losing 80 percent of their revenue overnight,” he says.
Nevertheless, a purist, Arshad has largely refused to make his films available either as downloads or through streaming platforms such as Netflix or Amazon. While he eschews the Criterion comparison (“I don’t really like giving myself accolades I don’t believe we deserve,” he says), Olive Films is cultivating a similar sense of audience as connoisseur. “We are putting out films of importance and value, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Arshad says.