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If Netflix and Blockbuster ran the world

If Netflix and Blockbuster ran the world

What would we stand to lose as a culture? People not as in tune with what's going on in the world of home video may not have given it much consideration, but the unconditional purging of VHS by the corporate chain stores combined with the massive market share of the Netflix digital-only model is actively erasing a large chunk of film history. Sure, every week DVD's are released of movies previously only available on VHS - Warner Bros. for instance has been making more and more of their catalog available via their Warner Archives 'on-demand' program - but this format change, as with every single format migration before it, is going to leave a myriad of titles behind.

I could make a huge list of genre films, shot-on-video wonders, and obscure Indonesian exploitation movies that I love and make impassioned pleas for their preservation in the public marketplace. I would not be the least bit surprised, however, if nobody cared. Instead, I'm going to point to some examples of how you will be limited by the format shift. I'd also like to point to some arguably 'important' or at least historically noteworthy films that will be unavailable to anyone not able to rent from Scarecrow Video or any of our peers who continue to provide access to a wide range of films without regard for technological obsolescence.

To be clear, I 'get' that DVD generally looks nicer, lasts longer, and has numerous other advantages to VHS. I'm not making the 'vinyl sounds better than CD' argument at all. I'm making the 'The African Queen is still not on DVD and corporate rental stores not only don't care, they can't care' argument. I'm making the 'you wouldn't shop at Wal-mart so why do you shop at Netflix?' argument (Yes, Netflix is in fact a corporation, and no, I'm not exaggerating. Some of their aggressive, anti-competitive practices do in fact mirror those of Wal-Mart's. They were even caught in bed together.

I also get that there is a huge convenience in receiving movies in the mail. I commend Netflix in bringing obscure movies to small towns and remote locations that previously were underserved by their own local markets. But, as is the case so often, there is a dark side.

Regardless of the individual passions of any employees at the corporate stores, whose commitment to film distribution I don't wish to diminish, the bottom line for these businesses is well, the bottom line. They are beholden to shareholders and market considerations that render their entire raison d'Ítre incompatible with values such as public good and the preservation of cultural heritage. If these ideas were always profitable or largely predictable as valued (monetary) commodities, then maybe things would work out for us hungry film buffs (see aforementioned Warner Archives). Unfortunately, the cost for storing, mailing and collecting outdated formats such as Laserdisc and VHS generally outweighs any demand for them, thus 'bottom line' rental businesses cannot justify their continued availability as a product. Academic and public libraries will no doubt continue to collect and offer older formats, but especially now in the midst of this recession, don't expect to find much of their budges to go towards 'VHS rescue.'

Over the five years I've worked for Scarecrow Video I've heard numerous complaints about our prices, particularly our late fees. I wish we could charge less across the board, but we can't. But please don't think that there's some rich owner, executive or manager somewhere getting fat off your late fee dollars. You see, we are not a bottom line business. Scarecrow was born out of one man's passion for collecting and making available as much of the world's cinema as possible. A grandiose vision, to be sure, but one in which founder George Latsios vehemently believed. George passed away before I ever got to meet him, but I've seen his passion alive in the commitment of the new owners, in the continuation of his collection development policy (essentially buy everything, discard nothing!), and in the staff's desire to share this collection with the city that helped raise it. Not only are we not purging our old VHS, we're actively purchasing more.

To celebrate we've been proudly displaying our 'Only on VHS' section for the past couple of months, and in August we're sponsoring 'Viva VHS!' at the Northwest Film Forum.

What artifacts of our visual heritage could go missing from home video if the corporate stores had their way and there were no independent video stores in the world?

Of local interest, how about Streetwise a 1984 documentary on homeless youth in Seattle.

Eric Von Stroheim's silent masterpiece Greed?

Penelope Spheeris' invaluable documentaries on punk and heavy metal The Decline of Western Civilization I & II?

The Beatles' Let it Be?

Jason Robards performance as the lead in the 1965 film of A Thousand Clowns?

Frank Borzage's romantic noir Moonrise?

Frank Zappa's zany 200 Motels?

Chuck Jones' animated adaptation of The Phantom Tolbooth?

The three-episode David Lynch series Hotel Room?

Abbot & Costello Meet Captain Kidd?

David Halberstram's documentary series, The Fifties?

Michael Moore's TV Nation series?

Bernardo Bertolucci's Spider's Stratagem?

Terry Zwigoff's Louie Bluie?

Nicholas Ray's Lusty Men?

Michael Curtiz's Sea Wolf?

Argentina's Man Facing Southeast?

Beloved children's classics such as The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones, The Peanut Butter Solution, and Twice Upon A Time?

Meatballs II and III?

Boeing, Boeing!?


I could go on, but I hope my point is clear. I don't think we can afford, as a culture, to lose any of these movies. They each, in their own way, represent the times and places in which they were made. I'm glad that technology has given us Blu-ray and is constantly striving to improve the future quality of home presentation. It should not, however, be at the expense of preserving our past. It should not put arbitrary limitations on our access and our ability to choose. I'm sure some of the titles on that list will eventually find their way into the high definition world, and I certainly don't mean to say that HD formats don't preserve the past. It is simply that economic necessities will indubitably restrict the breadth of filmed history that is made available on any given new format. Support your local video store. Don't throw away your VCR - VHS, never forget.