Richard Wolff's career has taken him from a peaceful childhood in King of Prussia to Pure Hell and finally to The Coffin.
Wolff, 54, isn't in a coffin - he is releasing a film named The Coffin through his fledgling distribution company, Breaking Glass Pictures.
Due Aug. 30, The Coffin is "a psychological thriller that broke box-office records in Thailand and Singapore," says Wolff, who lives a few blocks away from his company's Old City office.
As for Pure Hell, it's the name of a black 1970s punk band Wolff represented in his early days as a young, idealistic music promoter.
Lucky for film fans, Wolff left the music industry in the early '80s. After pit stops in a Brazilian gold mine, a new-age crystal emporium, and graduate school, he entered the film business, first at TLA Entertainment, then in his own firm.
Whence the name Breaking Glass? "We named it after the Bowie song" from 1977, he says. "We wanted to have a little bit of a hip image."
The Coffin is one of 50 films Wolff and Breaking Glass cofounder Richard Ross have released on DVD since they hung out their shingle 18 months ago.
The firm's roster of films isn't exactly mainstream. You won't find Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie. But you will find Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives, a revenge thriller that is by turns ultraviolent and campy; Half Moon, a werewolf-meets-prostitute yarn starring porn actor Tori Black; the Japanese gay romance drama Boys Love; and the indie documentaries American Jihad and Cropsey.
Wolff and Ross say they hope to carve out a niche market in the home entertainment industry.
There's plenty of room: Home Media Magazine reports that in 2010, the industry made $16.3 billion from retail sales of DVDs and Blu-rays alone.
"We are trying to establish ourselves as a leading boutique distributor who presents interesting and often challenging films into the marketplace," Ross says.
Wolff and Ross, who formerly worked for TLA Releasing, say the company is even making some inroads in the mainstream market.
Last month, the pair made their annual pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival, where they began negotiations to sign writer-director Danny Buday's Five Star Day, a romantic drama about love, chance, and astrology starring Cam Gigandet and Jena Malone.
At Cannes, the Richards also managed to win distribution rights for one of France's most-hyped indie films, Gigola, starring American fashion model Marisa Berenson.
"For the past two years, they had these giant posters at Cannes announcing it was coming," says Wolff, who adds that he had to talk the filmmakers down from their initial demand for a six-figure advance.
He describes the gender-bending film as a sophisticated period piece set in the 1960s about a woman who dresses as a man to work as a gigolo for wealthy women.
Wolff believes the film will boost the company's profile.
"I guess you could say we are walking toward the mainstream while still embracing the fringe," says Ross.
The Chester native, also in his mid-50s, says Breaking Glass' mix of horror shockers, gay and lesbian dramas and comedies, and edgy indie documentaries has served the company well. So well, Breaking Glass grossed $1 million in its first year.
Not bad for a company that almost didn't exist.
Wolff says potential backers thought he was mad to start a company in such a competitive field during a recession. "Last thing people wanted to do was to put money into a film distribution company."
That's when fate stepped in: Wolff, who needed "hundreds of thousands of dollars," ran into Australian film distributor Tony Romeo, who agreed, virtually on the spot, to invest in the company.
Fate seems to have a benevolent eye on Wolff.
After leaving the music industry in the early '80s, he decided to go on an extended holiday in Brazil.
Before long, he found himself owner and manager of a gold mine. "This opportunity just presented itself to us," he recalls. "I had a friend there and we bought gold claims this mining company was selling for cheap." The two friends employed 30 miners to do the tedious dredge mining.
"Then, I got malaria and I had enough of the jungle so I left," says.
Back in Philly, he used his profits from the mine as he and a partner opened new-age shop Mineralistic on South Street, where he sold imported Brazilian folk art and clothes. Wolff has since sold his share in the store.
Wolff, who majored in marketing at Temple University, capped his pre-DVD adventures by earning a master's degree in business administration from City University of Seattle.
In another bit of luck, he came back to Philly in 1995 just as TLA needed someone with a cool business head to organize its new venture, TLA Releasing.
TLA cofounder Ray Murray says he was a little concerned when his former colleagues launched their own company.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, I can't believe [Wolff] is going to be a competitor."
As it turned out, the two companies formed a cooperative network along with San Jose, Calif.-based Wolfe Releasing, which touts itself as the oldest and largest distributor of gay and lesbian films.
"We have created a cooperative space," says Wolfe's president, Maria Lynn. "If we acquire a title, TLA will put it up on their website and vice versa." Murray says the three firms plans to launch marketing deals together.
Ross says small film companies live or die by their marketing - and marketing is what filmmakers are promised when they sign with a distributor.
He says his partner forges strong working relationships with filmmakers.
Directors have responded to the company's approach, including Israel Luna, of Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives.
"We weren't looking to sign with whoever gave us the most money, but who had the biggest amount of passion to work on our film," he says.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez, director of the romantic drama Easier With Practice, says Wolff and Ross asked for his input on everything from the DVD cover art to extra features.
Malvern's Dan Lantz, 42, says Breaking Glass made it possible for him to make a feature in the first place. He and his producer Jim Becket approached Wolff and Ross with a story outline. Lantz came out of the meeting with a three-picture deal.
"We talked in February," says Lantz, "and by April we had a finished movie," the B-horror entry Bloodlust Zombies, starring porn player Alexis Texas.
Lantz plans to shoot the next entry, the gay mystery thriller Into the Lion's Den, at the end of the month.
"We're still casting," he says. "If local actors are interested."