New Production Diaries at Big Head Amusements / Thoughts on International Independent Videostore Day
Before I get into a lengthy Editor’s Blog on International Independent Video Store Day [IIVSD], a few modest updates about my short film that’s nearing the end of production.
First, at bigheadamusements.com [BHA] I’ve uploaded a select amount of stills showing off the gear used for the film – vintage tube cameras, circa 1985 – to give the project a unique look. I’ll try and have the teaser trailer up by mid-week, so you’ve an idea of its scope, if not the unusual visual design it’ll have.
Secondly, after this Tuesday’s filming date – the last of the all-night shoots – the frequency of interviews, film & film music reviews will shoot up, and depending how time flies, I’ll try and post regular post-production updates, as well as bits of related news & facts about the vintage gear being used.
The production plan is to make the December 7th Early Bird deadline for HotDocs, and during the entire post-production process, whatever I learn in blending analogue & digital gear will be shared at BHA [also pronounced “bah”].
This whole project has several purposes, and the methods & tricks used to solve technical problems might be of use to anyone thinking of making a film exclusively with vintage gear (perhaps more blatantly referred to as dead tech), or fusing the gear with standard editing workstations.
The archive of vintage gear within my realm has been dubbed The Hasonian (get it?) by one perceptive wit and perpetual punster, and I kind of like that moniker. Besides, as I’ve stated before to said punster: When the Apocalypse happens, I’ll have the technology to create & provide entertainment while the rest of the world is playing an exciting, epic game of Name That Cloud. So if you’re nice to me now, I’ll unlock the door after the big ka-blooey, and you too can watch and listen.
One caveat: there will be no ABBA, no Grease, no Sound of Music in my archive. And you’ll have to keep your shoes on.
International Independent Video Store Day:
Digression No. 1 – MODs
A year ago Daniel Hanna, who started up Eyesore Cinema, decided to take a cue from the creators of International Independent Record Store Day and devote a day towards promoting the local video store, a home entertainment venue that’s gone through major changes in the last 12 months – auspiciously with the demise of the Rogers Video and Blockbuster chains in Canada.
Whereas fans of local shops seemed to cheer the death of stale big-scale chains owned by indifferent / inept corporations whose goals were either to push mainstream banalities or use video rentals as a concession prop to market cell phone contracts, their demise also meant the studios were put in an odd spot.
Home video on a physical medium isn’t dead, but for the remaining video stores, at least in Canada, the coming years will be tough if they’re reliant on major Hollywood films; that reliance helped kill the chains who offered a narrow selection of films, whereas the indie DVD labels (of which there are many) have become in many ways the small saviors of the format, essentially becoming the specialty divisions studios once staffed for the exploitation and distribution of physical product.
Collectors like to hold, and sales & rental shops offer their customers a chance to sample and buy what’s worth owning. At this stage the studios probably believe they’ve released all of their crown jewels on DVD, and to some degree, on Blu-ray. MOD (manufactured on-demand DVD-Rs) is simply a cost-effective way to deal with an aging library for aging cineastes wanting long unavailable & rare titles.
TCM (which Warner owns) is great for the DVD and MOD’s promotion because you can also sample the wares on TV and choose to buy later (via TCM, Warner Archives, or specific online merchants), but there’s still the indie labels who are willing to meet the demand and release catalogue titles in traditional, value-added (and often extras-packed) editions, be they non-limited or genuine limited. [Note: MODs are not limited; it’s still some guy named Bruce pressing the Enter key after your credit card payment’s gone through.]
Presently, the studios are still releasing catalogue material, but selectively; and the concept of themed boxed sets is largely dead because they involve the replication of lesser titles the studios would prefer to issue on MOD. That’s why you’re seeing the constant reissue of prior boxed sets in slim cases, or prior single-edition titles repackaged in 4-title slim box, budget editions. TCM’s Greatest series is a perfect example of repackaging extant masters and old stock (some, like World Without End, previously available as double-bill import titles or chain exclusives). It’s no different than the best-of or themed collections music labels like to put out rather than the entire original album with new bonus content.
The sameness and familiarity that tends to dog studio product is self-made – witness Universal’s 100th Anniversary editions which repackage the same transfers with blue O-sleeves and a 100th Anniversary mini-featurette rather than a new special edition), but it’s understandable that if you have a gigantic catalogue, giving something old a new spin might attract a different demographic who may have ignored a title or franchise because of bad timing, package design, or because it wasn’t bundled in a sampler set.
If few consumers are familiar with Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy series, then it makes sense to put a few examples inside of a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney box. The Andy Hardys should’ve followed in their own mega-set, but WHV eventually put them out as MOD titles… arguable years after demand & interest had peaked.
International Independent Video Store Day:
Digression No. 2 – ‘I never knew’
What surprises most newcomers to video stores is 1) they still exist; 2) movies still come out on DVD (including the classics of their youths); 3) and placing a disc into a dedicated player is still a worthy alternative to streaming and downloading (the payoff, after pressing play and enduring a wad of forced trailers and logos, is technically ‘instant’), but indie video stores are smack in the middle of changes to which there isn’t any hard conclusion.
Will new customers become regulars, or after having gotten their nostalgia hit for visiting & renting from an actual store this weekend, fall back on Netflix, particularly when the temperature dips below freezing, as it will in the coming months?
Will the client base consist of older film fans, or will there be enough younger renter / buyers to make up for those who left the area, whose tastes changed, or whose lives due to work & family needs? Undoubtedly there’s an interest in classic films, which the TIFF Bell Lightbox exploits, but they too face different competition: are film fans willing to see a movie on the big screen if it’s already out on Blu-ray in a Criterion special edition?
Does the video store’s location actually have a neighbourhood of permanent residences, or is it an older & richer set who live in condos for part of the year, giving the stores just part of the business they need to survive?
How niche or diverse must a store’s rental catalogue become in order to survive, and will their roster of new titles become too niche, restricting their catalogue to smaller labels with a more modest output and production budgets?
I raise the last point because for anyone attempting a new store, you need a substantive and qualitative rental catalogue, and with few stores left, there aren’t many going-out-of-business libraries to acquire. Building a library from scratch probably isn’t feasible, either, which leads one to ask: If the existing stores are run by an older generation, is there a new wave of entrepreneurs willing to take the risk, if not put their own collection into circulation?
International Independent Video Store Day:
Digression No. 3 – Is there really an attraction?
One major plus for customers are the owners who possess decades of experience. That sounds like a facile statement, but think about it: if you’ve been the manager / owner or even a staffer in a video store for even 10-15 years, you’ve gone through at least 2 format changes, seen multiple distributors swallowed up by one monster (EOne), and seen shifts in customer behaviour that are significant.
Students were once key renters, but downloading heavily reduced that reliable customer faction, except when there’s a class project, essay, or the need to digest a novel the night before a test using the movie edition. This isn’t a facetious observation, because while there always will be film fans, a store’s customer base needs steady, curious customers wanting to be provoked, get lost in a series or actor’s career, or just take a gamble on cover art and oddball ad copy to keep titles in circulation.
The mainstream filmgoer does not keep a store afloat. Back when I used to do conversions & duplications for stores like Video 99 and Videophile, I saw those owners feeling the pinch. One suburban merchant boosted their adult section, but that only worked for a while until they once again faced the problem of getting product that rents, and getting their aging library moving again. If the same people have lived in the area for 20 years and the kids have left and not returned and settled down, you’re left with an aging client base, and you’re dead.
You need a mix that’s culturally and age diverse, because that mix feeds off each other. People are curious if the selection’s diverse, and curious when something they may have relented is out a lot – this assuming they’re somewhat itinerant in their visits. The store feeds off their queries, and logically, will cater new titles to their tastes. If you only have popular horror, you’re dead; if you carry branches of horror from different countries, cultural mash-ups, and forbidden fruit, you’re likely still alive.
It’ no accident the surviving stores in Toronto are located in hubs where there’s a collision of cultures and age groups, of interests and biases.
International Independent Video Store Day:
Digression No. 4 – There cannot be only one
We’ve already accepted physical media is on a decline, but it can’t completely disappear because long ago studios established a home video system where a movie’s theatrical run helps promote its ancillary streams, especially home video. As the money came more from video sales – to customers and big rental chains – than theatrical runs, the shift made it so where a movie promoted the DVD; even if you never saw the film, you knew of it because of the advertising and word of mouth. The video store is where you caught the film.
The shift eventually went digital, and with HD delivery, providers and pay per view have replaced the DVD as the media of choice. If this argument was false, stores would still be grossing more than 10K per day in sales & rentals. Those figures are now exclusive to holiday season, or what can be called Freak Days: when the sun & moon & gravity are one and people simply decide as one homogenous pack ‘We Rent Tonight.’
DVDs are not in the interest of cable providers, but they do feed off the ad revenue, and there’s the stark perception of what a film’s lifespan would resemble in an all-digital domain: How do you promote Mission Impossible 4’s home video debut as a streaming film? If physical were, dead, imagine MGM promoting James Bond’s 50th anniversary with marathon streaming or packaging the franchise as downloads deals instead of HD versions of the films with extras. And for major retailers like Walmart, Best Buy, and Target, how would they lure people to buy existing catalogue titles, if not get them into the door and buy players, if there’s no seasonal must-have release?
There is nothing sexy about a digital premiere and digital only release. If a critic’s already reviewed the theatrical run, the digital will get a mere mention in the digital premiere footer, and the movie’s lifespan is pretty much done. (This happens to a selected batch of titles in NOW each week, which reads like a token nod to either exclusive release windows, or just a nod to the digital channels to curry ad revenue for movies already out or soon to appear on DVD.)
From a writer’s stance, the only time a film would be of note is during its theatrical run; without a home video release, a publication doesn’t need staff to cover downloads and streaming when they get an intern to monkey-type the week’s tally of top digital premieres. If you kill physical, there’s nothing to cover, and publications will further hemorrhage writers. Content weakens, ad content is morphed into advertorial, and the publication’s entertainment section becomes as rich and culturally relevant as ENow. Publicists would have even less material to promote, and collectively, the collapse of physical product in its entirety would be utter disaster.
That’s why you can’t write of DVD and Blu-ray. What’s astonishing is how the media keeps dragging up the negatives which present an image of imminent format death. Instead of think pieces, they’re airy graphs designed to get readers to a page with lurid headers so the ads are seen, and perhaps clicked.
The death of unique indies like Black Dog Video weren’t solely due to the same factors that killed Blockbuster Canada, but as the dust settles and people see what choices exist online to rent and to buy, some do come back. The question is whether that move is permanent. There’s a series of corporate and consumer behaviors that are in transition, and frankly it’s foolish to hope for something to remain fixed because the home video business was never staid.
Home video sales & rental has always been a frustrating, maddening thing that drives friends, colleagues, and associates crazy.
The studios initially hated home video, then embraced it when it brought moribund catalogues into circulation. New formats re-circulated franchises and catalogues, but the pace of change isn’t in sync with software owners and hardware manufacturers, and that offset is consistent. Sony, for example, accomplished the total vertical integration it lacked when it fought to keep Betamax alive: it now makes the hardware that makes the films, and makes the format that exploits the films to the masses. Blu-ray is king, and there’s no way Sony will see its hardware division collapse if their players become doorstops or elaborate streaming devices and USB players.
Studios need to accept that it’s okay to sell 10,000 units; you press 10,000, and repress if demand spikes. It’s like publishers reprinting a book, and that’s exactly what Paramount did when a batch of titles like Rosemary’s Baby stayed out of print for way (WAY) too long. Disney has to keep reissuing titles after self-imposed moratoriums because it’s the only way they can give life to their limited catalogue, cross-promote them with new direct-to-video fodder, foil bootleggers and ebay flippers, and ensure their iconic characters stay out of the public domain by remaining in print (albeit in a freakish, frustrating cyclical release pattern).
The home video market is cyclical, but the cycles have become increasingly wonky, and yet studios have started to re-acquaint themselves with their catalogues and become licensors instead of manufacturers. They went back to a mild hate stance, but they’re comforted by the strange interest from third parties who want to release 50 year old films.
The dearth of product between 2007-2011 has also moved in the other direction as indie labels and budget labels re-issue films on DVD, and more so on Blu-ray. Licensed product has overtaken the shelf space previously dominated by the studios’ own imprints, and Blu-ray is no longer affected by rigid region coding. There are many studio and indie titles available as Region All, enabling a label with more territorial rights to sell products across oceans – a welcome switch from the region coding that restricted DVDs to their realms (unless you had a region free player).
International Independent Video Store Day:
Digression No. 5 – Actually, you’ve reached the end point. Please Hug yourself with vigor.
I’ve already railed against the Id of complacency in a prior post, so at this point, let’s wrap up.
At an indie store you’ll find a healthy love & contempt for the product, a love of the art of film, and a frankness on the idiocies of the industry instead of smiley-faced spin. (It’s also hard to lie if business has been challenging; customers appreciate that veiled candor. No one likes to see a good local business die. You’d be surprised how many customers voice their genuine concerns.)
Personally, you’ll be surprised that there are more movies out there than you’ve been led to believe exist by the mainstream media. More does exist beyond what your cable company tells you. More does exist outside of TCM, and TCM is not your only source of classic films.
My guess is part of a store’s survival will be the increasing use of the rental catalogue to promote sales product, and maintaining a large rental archive that can be directly & indirectly cross-promoted with retrospectives, airings, programmes, and festivals, and constantly going after core and emerging client bases through direct and social media interaction. Unabashedly promoting and associating their name & brand with vigor and consistency, and being the new liaison between indie product through ace specialty distributors like KRK Media – perhaps the indie store’s best friend.
This network of sales & rental product exists for your benefit. Take advantage of what lies outside your door once in a while. Or maybe more often.
Eyesore owner Daniel Hanna and Suspect Video’s Luis Ceriz recently took part in a lengthy conversation podcast with Rue Morgue Radio, and it’s worth a listen, given their dialogue is more industry / insider based than a rundown of what’s cool. Both Part One and Part Two run about 90 mins. each with sound clips.