Mondo employees are a rare breed of cinephiles and artisans – chalk it up mostly to each of them having seen certain films way too early in their lifetime. Having watched those titles countless times, movies are not just a means of entertainment, they are part of their DNA. Who else could make/understand a “little too Raph” joke on a daily basis without missing a beat? In short, certain films defined their tastes for years to come.
One such individual is Mo Shafeek. We got to speak to him for over an hour regarding his role as Mondo’s soundtrack production manager. Based in Austin, TX, the Mondo bunch (Mo included), are a mixed bag of contemporaries and old school film/music fans. The exchanges he has with his associates, either 5 years older or younger, can yield some amazing discussions (highlighting such a quantitative generation gap) about tastes that literally span one end of the spectrum to the other.
As a brand, Mondo strives to put the best and most reverent products out there. Time and again, they creatively tap into the absolute core of a property, and it’s probably why fans respond so well to their work. Much like the time we spent with Creative Directors Rob Jones and Mitch Putnam (check out that awesome transcription here), there is a lot to get through. So allow Mo to illustrate his day to day, and what it really takes to turn dreams into reality. Enjoy the highlights of our time with Mondo’s Record Label Production Manager, Mo Shafeek.
GoSeeTalk: Glad to be speaking with you Mo. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I think Mondo strikes such a chord with fans because of how well you dial into each project. Each product truly captures the essence of the property.
Mo Shafeek: No, it makes perfect sense, and one thing I learned over the past couple years touches on that. A movie goes in cycles in terms of the way it is perceived and presented. When the movie is coming out for the first time, people look at the PR and think that “that’s not inspiring, that’s nothing but faces on a poster”. But there is an actual need for that kind of poster. At Mondo, we jump over the idea of a really well illustrated poster that hearkens back to the time when we thought there was an actual art to these things, and I really agree with that. But when you think about the people who really buy tickets, and literally look at the posters and say to themselves that “I will see this because I like that actor”, I think about how a movie might approach my Mom.
There was a movie called Secret In Their Eyes which came out last Fall. It’s a remake of a Argentinian movie, and it stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, and Nicole Kidman. I’d never heard of it, and it never crossed my path, but my Mom saw the poster, saw Julia Roberts’ face, and said “I want to see that movie”. And that worked. Similarly, my Mom saw the poster for The Intern, which is a big Photoshop of Robert DeNiro next to Anne Hathaway, and she said, “I want to see that movie because of Robert De Niro”. So, when that happens, you get the actual reason for that type of marketing.
Now remove that from the equation, and give the film, not the marketing 10 to 15 years to circulate and gestate. People will then have an understanding of what the movie actually is. Hell, even the studio will know what kind of movie it is. It’s like when a band puts out an album and you think you know what the music will be because of how people respond to the single. But sometimes, the single isn’t representative of what the band was trying to do with the album. Yet because one particular song was popular with the fans, it hits them at a different level. In a way, that’s what we try to do with posters. We try to create an image that is the concept, or the center of the film, but also what really speaks to the audience, then you bring that front and center.
At first, the marketing needs to be the face of the star in it, like The Revenant for instance. The real hero of the movie, if we’re being completely honest, is Tom Hardy and the scenery, but all the posters are just a giant Leonardo DiCaprio face. And we get it, there are a ton of people who love Leo. But five to ten years from now, when anyone does an original print of The Revenant, I guarantee it won’t be of Leo’s face.
We’ve got a lot to talk to you about, so let’s start at the top with your title. You are Mondo’s ”Record Label Production Manager”. So dispel that for us would you? I imagine people would want that to mean that Mo waves his magic Mondo wand and can make anything happen. But when you throw music licenses, studio rights and production capabilities into the mix, that’s when things get complicated.
Exactly right. Spencer Hickman (pictured at right) with Death Waltz Records and I work together – he is the label manager, and I am the production manager. He runs the show but I curate some of the titles we do for Mondo, and if I have an idea, or a passion project and can secure the rights to something, I will pursue it. If I can make it happen, then that’s awesome, but if not, there are still 30, give or take, other titles in the works at any given point in time, so it’s kind of hard.
At the moment, we have a full calendar year locked with those 30 titles, and that’s not including things I’ve acquired in just the last two weeks. It’s becoming a bit of a juggling act negotiating the schedule based on how difficult it is to press the record, and how those timelines line up with your ideal release schedule.
Is that something that affected the vinyl release of Home Alone? That went up for pre-order before Christmas, but it was advertised as being delivered after Christmas. Something tells me that’s not how you guys would have wanted it to go down.
Yeah. *sighs* It’s heartbreaking. That’s a perfect example. That one was supposed to be a first week of December drop, with shipping right away. It was on the schedule forever, artwork had been approved a really long time ago, but we were having problems with test pressings. Some studios ask for test pressings, some studios don’t care, some licencors don’t even know what a test pressing is, *laughs* and we’ll go in and say “hey do you want to listen to this test print?” And they’ll go, “oh I don’t even own a record player”, and we’ll go “oh that’s interesting”. And then some really need sign off on every single thing.
So because of the nature of it being a John Williams release, there was a bit of a protectiveness, which I was really grateful for, but the test pressings went one round longer than expected. Also couple that with the fact that the plant we chose to use on this run, in the back half of 2015, were making great strides at finally expanding and making a massive overhaul to accommodate for 2016, but all projects that were in production from August through October 2015 were on a track, or typical path to being a 12-week turn.
But at the end of the day they were scheduled to be produced and finished on December 11th and I said, “that’s amazing, let me get them!”. But the next part of that, adding to the things that are against you, is that this licensor requires the products to ship through their fulfillment center in order to route to us. So even though it was done, I couldn’t have them shipped right to me. They had to route through this terminal, and then get processed by that center and get shipped to us.
Then it was so late in December that they didn’t get into the U.S. until the after Christmas, and they’re just now getting shipped out of that distribution center. Customers still don’t have them, and it’s because of this extra hurdle I didn’t account for, but that’s also why we listed January as the ship date. The same thing happened with our pressing of The Connection. But despite one snag, you still have so many other titles and things in the works so you have to keep moving to get them out. Like they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions I guess. *laughs* But I am really heart broken we didn’t get it out there in December.
So which Home Alone variant do you prefer – the red/green or the pizza version?
Oh, man, the pizza looks great in person! We got some copies in, and they look amazing. The jacket, because of the die cut, they had to beef up the stock of the jacket and it’s heavy duty, and the discs look super handsome too. I’ll admit, the pizza stuff was a bit of a shot in the dark. If I had more time, clearly I didn’t have enough, *laughs* I would have done even more experimenting with color chips.
Depending on the facility, they have different options, and selections for color discs, and you can blend different ones together to get different outcomes, swirls, or splatters on a side but the other side might get a blur or blend of colors. On the pizza one we got that burnt cheese bubble effect. I picked colors I thought would work and luckily it came out good. It’s kind of hard because sometimes you want to do color tests so you’re going to get the best product possible, but it really becomes a nightmare when it comes to time frames and production delays.
Certain plants don’t like stopping there presses for anything – all they want to do is get the next project in and keep things moving. But when you come in and go “hey, do you mind shutting everything down and experimenting for us?” it doesn’t really work that way. There are only a certain few that get to do that, cough cough Jack White, who get to come in and say “turn off all the presses, I want to see how crazy I can get”. We tried to do that with Black Swan last year, we were like “hey let’s put feathers in the vinyl”. We learned you can do that, but it also makes it borderline unplayable. But just be aware experimenting like that slows the project down to almost a crawl.
Now it’s not to say that certain plants don’t like messing around, and it is fun, but realize your limits. And it pays off big time like one of Spencer’s projects where he put a blue and red dual stripe down the middle of the record. It’s awesome because it twists and bends down the center, so it’s a red and blue stripe across a black disc that is just crazy looking. It’s all experimentation though.
Speaking of Spencer, I really like what you guys are doing with your Mondo weekly music email. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have found out about Turbo Kid which is hands down my favorite soundtrack of 2015, followed very quickly by Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for The Martian.
Spencer Hickman is a genius, and I find myself saying that very regularly. He speaks to soundtracks albums with such knowledge and reverence it’s astounding. There’s this movie called Synchronicity which came out on January 22nd. It’s a really really fun time travel movie, which stars A.J. Bowen, and Spencer knew the team that was working on it. He saw the trailer, and after hearing the music in the trailer he said, I want to watch this movie. So we watched it, and we both liked it, but he fell in love with the soundtrack. It’s an amazing score, and so it’s going to be something that we will push a lot this year because, like Turbo Kid, it’s another great synth album.
Unfortunately, Synchronicity is a movie that is going to just be on VOD, but we’re going to put a lot of hype on the soundtrack because the film won’t get a wide theatrical release and people need to hear this score. But that’s all Spencer. He just has this hunger for going after interesting music. He goes out to find new and interesting bands on a regular basis. But he takes things a step further and asks, “what are you doing that’s not soundtrack work? What are you guys doing for fun?”. That’s what the Death Waltz Original stuff is about.
I’ve always loved scores more than films. People use the term movie magic, but I think it’s really “music magic” because the score can, most times have more residual and replay value than the film. Case in point – Beyond the Black Rainbow. I’ve seen it three times and I still don’t know what it’s about. I’ll probably never watch it again, but I listen to the score at least once a month and I love that vinyl release you did for it.
I know what you mean. There are some albums I listen to far more than I ever care to watch the movie it’s from. That’s also why I love this gig. Some of the fist CDs I ever bought were of my favorite scores and soundtracks, but from an early age I always noticed how much content was missing from these releases.
Back in the ’90s, you’d get these albums that were 30 to 35 mins long, and they only featured a litte of the music. It wasn’t until later that certain labels started doing these expanded editions and larger releases. I would love that because I was a bit of a completist, but also these can be some masterworks from these composers. Some of these themes are some of the greatest hooks ever written and John Williams should be up there in the canon of the greatest song writers of all time. There’s no lyrics to these themes, but they’re unparalleled works.
Take Home Alone. Even though we weren’t able to release the expanded edition, trust me, we tried, I was still honored to put out that score because that album has some of the best Christmas songs released in the last 30 years. Think about growing up in the ’90s. All we have to contribute to the Christmas canon is Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’, which somehow is the most popular Christmas song of all time, and John Williams’ Home Alone. His stuff is the best original Christmas music to come out of our generation that aren’t covers of standards like ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Silent Night’.
So I was honored to release it because he’s a master. Now I like Home Alone with or without rose colored glasses. I can take them off and realize that it’s a fun movie, but I’m not about to watch it every single year on repeat for Christmas, I will still listen to that album every year.
What can you tell us about time frames, and the path any title can take from the idea to the finished product? Sadly, James Horner died last year. I saw a post on the Mondo blog stating that you were saddened to hear the news. You also had been listening to a lot of his music because you were preparing to release some of his scores. So Aliens came out at SDCC and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan just dropped. So while each title is different, maybe it’s better to ask this – what can cause delays?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, that is one we worked on for a while. I don’t know if you saw the post, but Matt Taylor wrote that Wrath of Khan was the second thing he’d ever done for Mondo. He did Brick and he did Khan, and that was the beginning of 2014. *laughs* So that’s how long it took for that album to come out. So sometimes you work on projects and don’t even notice how long things can take. I didn’t even realize it had been that long!
Back to the Future took a full year, and I still don’t have that in hand. I started work on that January of 2015 and I thought “surely, we can have this by October, for Back to the Future day”, but I’m still waiting on them. I got Part III, but still waiting on Part I and II.
Even though we live in this world of instant gratification, I think real fans are willing to wait for something, especially if it’s done right which, from the looks of the Back to the Future box set and single issues, they are. Back to the Future, for me, was the first movie where I took note of what the music could do for a film. I grew up watching that, Predator and Who Framed Roger Rabbit on repeat for pretty much my whole childhood; there’s three classic Silvestri scores right there.
Talking to Rob, he recalled an off the cuff idea about releasing a square record for “Gleaming the Cube”, and your response was “we’d be lucky to move 1,500 units“. How do you judge quantities for each release and determine what’s a good move, and what leaves you with inventory for some time?
It’s tough. You want to believe that your passion project will be a hit across the board, but I think we have a pretty decent understanding of how that all works. But one of the firs projects I could say was a passion project that I wanted to really badly was the La Cinquette 7″ a couple years ago. It was from the movie Grand Piano. I saw the film at Fantastic Fest and fell in love with it.
Now we knew the director Eugenio Mira because he was the composer for Nacho Vigalondo‘s Time Crimes, so we pitched it to him, and even though I knew it was to a film that not many people had seen, we still wanted to get it out there. So the sweet spot for a thing like that was 500. We knew that we could move those units, at least we hoped, and if that worked then it wouldn’t be a bust. It wouldn’t make big waves, but it was in line with a mindset we had at Mondo for a long time which was focusing on those passion projects that drive the company and set us apart from anyone else.
If we went with something that really connects with someone on a personal level then, they’ll think that “wow, that company gets it”. And since we’re all so diverse, we each have our own favorite things and that was one of mine. Back to the Future was another one.
That was a really difficult project for a lot of obvious reasons and if I wasn’t really passionate about it and a Back to the Future fan, I would have unraveled a long time before we got to the finish line because it was a lot of work.
Rob has a passion project he’s working on. His will actually be released as a Death Waltz Original because it’s not a soundtrack, and my next passion project, which I can’t disclose right now, is also one that’s going to be similarly small to La Cinquette. You can do those on the side because they are really fun but aren’t going to get huge amounts of press. Still they are something that keeps it colorful.
Now that’s not to say our day to day jobs are mundane by any means, but it is fun to have something small and special that you create that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s hard to explain, but when it’s something that only you drove home because of your passion, it feels different from anything else.
Well, take that a step further. So now you’ve got this one unique thing out there. Are these releases planned as a series of other planned products? Mondo does posters, records, Steelbooks, and toys, so like The Iron Giant LP and toys, if The Wrath of Khan drops on vinyl, can we expect a poster, Blu-Ray or screaming Kirk toy in the near future?
That’s a good question, but I try to give you the short answer. That really is the dream, but it gets complicated because those three specific things all come from different worlds of the industry.
Soundtracks and home video don’t fall under merchandise. Steelbooks, LPs and merchandise are three completely different categories, so even if we have the rights to do everything for a certain property, that excludes home video and soundtracks. You have to find those rights elsewhere, so that’s kind of the tricky part.
The dream would be to, like you said, go “ok, here’s the toy, here’s the movie, here’s the soundtrack, one big happy family”. We idealize that in the way we would love to go some day, but it’s far more complicated than people realize.
So many people have the rights to different things out there, so a lot of my job is trying to figure out who has what rights and how to navigate those waters.
I think that Mondo fans come down to two distinct groups – those who love you, and those who hate you. Now those who love you, present party included, are all-in because the team, like you said, reaches fans on a personal level. Now those who hate you are mostly just jealous because they missed out on plenty of drops. So what makes a title like Clue get a limited release, and others like Back to the Future, get a pre-order?
I wish there was a science. This is where it comes down to the human element of it. One thing I really try to stress about Mondo that I feel is really important to tell everyone is that it’s a team of humans that make this all possible. There’s 18 humans at Mondo, and another 100+ who are the artists, composers, engineers, illustrators, etc. They are the people who bring things together, but at its core, the operations side of Mondo, it’s 18 people split into our own departments. For instance, the soundtrack department is just me and Spencer, so the decision to come up with the number we’re going to make is a gut decision.
We ask each other, “how many should we make?”. Then we make it, people get it and we say, “oh shit, we didn’t make enough!”. But we don’t want to lie to people who are disappointed and just make more to make more. So the Batman box set is a perfect example of that. We made 1,200 and argued about that number for a month. “should we make 2,000? 1,000? 1,500?”…”how about 500?”…”no one is going to buy it at that cost!”…”well, how about 1,200?”…”no, let’s do 1,250″…”well how about we do 300 of this color, and 1000 of this color?”, and literally, every day, it was that back and forth.
But we settled on 1,200. Also it was our first big box set, so we thought it would be great to prove to ourselves that we could move something at that cost mainly because we had a bad experience with the high cost of a previous release. Translation: our most expensive records to date really haven’t sold out.
You’re talking about Looper and The Iron Giant, aren’t you?
Yeah. We hit a wall with those. You start thinking afterwards “oh, no, maybe we can’t sell records that are more than a certain amount of money…maybe there’s a sweet spot we need to hit”. Those are all things we think about on a regular basis. But beyond that, we had set that number before we had even sold the Back to the Future box set.
Now with that one, we wanted to do two things. First off, we got so much criticism for how fast Jurassic Park sold out that we needed to have something that was open, and that made more sense for a release which had a wider appeal. There was no reason to cap something like Back to the Future, or make it hard for people to get it. So we said, “let’s do a limited version so the collectors can have that, and a regular version people could actually listen to. We put all this work into this, we want people to enjoy it.”
So we have those two sides, but then when the box set sells out, we look around and think, “well, maybe we could have done more Batman box sets” and that’s not an option at the time. When you’re in production at the time with something as ornate as the Batman box set, you can’t just go, “tack on another couple hundred” without stalling it another six months. Sometimes you have to just say, “that’s it”. Then when the box set sells out in 2 hours, you’re left going “that’s great!…but how many more could we have sold?”.
Then that that brings up a whole other set of discussions, like “what could we have done different?”…”should we press more?”…”is it worth it?”. It then feeds into other conversations, both internal and external, about every argument under the sun. You hear fans going “make more!”, and people on the inside going “no, don’t!”, but then you hear people on the inside going “yeah, we can make more”, and then people on the outside are going “fuck no, don’t make more!” and you hear every possible argument, but you ultimately have to turn back to the project you’re working to ensure you meet the future release for that title.
It’s a little unfortunate because the sell out is fun, but its a bummer to hear people who are bummed when they didn’t get it. It makes me think how sad I’d be if I missed out and get me asking “oh, why didn’t they just make more?”. It’s a foreign animal to me when you look at the demand or perceived value that’s placed on something based solely on how little were made of it.
Well, I got Looper at the first MondoCon, along with Shaun of the Dead and 2001, and I love it, but looking at the site, I’m shocked it hasn’t sold out by now.
Looper, man, you want to talk about mixed emotions? Now I’m ultimately happy with how it’s sold, but we worked so hard on that Looper Vinyl 12 and 7 inch record. We worked for days in our warehouse, hand sanding all those bags thinking “this is so much fun, people are going to lose their minds!” and it’s sad that they didn’t fly off the shelves, but we realized it was the price point.
Now it doesn’t mean we won’t do anything that ambitious ever again, but that was at the height of us being like “we’re invincible! there’s nothing we can’t do!”. But in retrospect, releasing Looper and the metal Iron Giant in the same year taught us to be a little more responsible and that people aren’t just going to buy everything you make just because it looks cool – there are limitations. But, lessons learned. Still, we don’t regret anything, and personally there’s not a single release that I regret.
So you’ve done cool passion projects, but what other wish list releases do you have in your sights? Is that an itch you need to scratch, or maybe keep from scratching?
Well, before I get to mine, let me hear yours.
Easy. Top of my list is The Rocketeer followed by The Fifth Element, and then either Innerspace or Total Recall. Also, since you don’t do much anime, I’d love to see a Mondo version of Cowboy Bebop and Steamboy, or as far as the Data Discs line up, either Ridge Racer 4 or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
The Rocketeer…I love that movie, and I just love the soundtrack.
When I talked to Rob last year, he said you have been working on securing the rights to something for two years, and that title may come out this year. If I can speculate, and being that it would be an anniversary year, I hope to God he was eluding to The Rocketeer.
Well, let me tell you a little about that. For us, Disney is the Holy Grail for vinyl soundtracks. Guardians of the Galaxy was important for us, aside from being a hit and one of the best soundtracks of 2014, because it left the door slightly ajar for us to work more with Disney. When we started talking them they said “send us your wishlist, and we’ll see what we can do” and The Rocketeer was #1 on that list.
All I can say for now is that yes, Rob was referring to that Horner score, and Mondo was working on towards a vinyl release of The Rocketeer, but it has since been put on pause for a variety of reasons. It’s one of our favorites and we’d still love to do it someday so fingers crossed.
Many other labels put out extended or complete scores, and it’ll be great to finally have that out there as well. But I could only image what you guys would do with that! Guess we’ll wait to see what happens. Glad to know another fan of that score. *laughs* So, that aside, what would you want to put out?
I have to say that doing Back to the Future really got me going on Silvestri again, so I’d love to do one of my favorite score which is Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to do it, and that would be a dream come true. It’s difficult when it’s a studio mash up like that, and being a Warner Bros/Disney affair you’ll learn that at the time, who knows how difficult it was to secure those licenses, but it certainly didn’t make it any easier for anyone working on those things later on own the line. So even if we could do it, who knows what the artwork would have to be like because you’d have to deal with different studios who have in mind what their characters have to look like. Still, that would be a complete dream come true.
Then I would love to release the music to Lost. Giacchino’s work on that show is out of control. I absolutely love it and I get goosebumps thinking about moments on the show, regardless of how you thought about it, or how it ended, I would say those themes are iconic, even for television. Those melodies are just so powerful.
If you can put a bug in Brock Otterbacher’s ear, tell him the universe needs Eddie Valiant’s gun!
*laughs* Oh, that would be the coolest! That briefcase and those bullets. So cool!
Let’s wrap this up with what we can expect from you in 2016. What’s coming down the pike.
Unfortunately, I have to keep my lips sealed, but I can give the most vague of hints. First off, we had a successful 2nd MondoCon and released a few albums there. Well, in light of one of those releases, we are planning a follow up from one of that same composer. There’s one of his titles that people have been screaming really, really loud for, and I can say that it is coming. *laughs* Super vague, I know, *laughs* but we hear you, and we’re very much excited to bring it to you. There’s a couple of new releases we’re working on, and one is a soundtrack from a movie that was released during awards season.
Can we narrow it down at all?
It has been nominated for an Oscar…in an unspecified category. *laughs*
*Laughs* Man, that’s cold…but I understand the need to keep some things under wraps.
Sorry, Marc. *laughs* But this year, we’re also going to release one of my favorite soundtracks from 1999. This title has been previously released on vinyl in its original run, but we’re doing it again with a really cool concept that I think people will really enjoy. It think people are gong to like it because it’s a really cool marketing concept. I know I keep giving you nothing, *laughs* but the flip side to this clandestine creative process is that sometimes, secrecy is essential…but not all the time.
There’s a lot that we’ve learned in the past couple years, especially with soundtracks, it that it’s healthy to get the word out there, because the posters and the vinyl are two completely different beasts – with posters, you can can announce something the day before, tease the image and say “look at this, you gotta get it tomorrow” but with soundtracks you have to get people excited early.
One of the biggest lessons we ever had was on The Last of Us. I forget how it came around that we were doing it, but people found out we were doing it, and things were so far behind, as far as production, and it really became a big process to get it done. Over the course of the year, that awareness built and built, so by the time we actually released it, it was huge for us. So I wonder, had we posted about it saying we were going to put it out next month and then released it, would it have done as well? So there are some things that are made better by letting the cat out of the bag early. But don’t worry, we’ve got a lot of great stuff to look forward to this year!
Thanks very much to Mo for his time. Keep an eye on Mondo’s official website (Mondotees.com) for simply extraordinary releases – LPs, posters, toys, etc – of films/TV properties you love, but plenty you’ve likely never heard of. While foreign, you can bet that if Mondo is pushing it, it’s probably pretty awesome!