Seattle's Scarecrow Video, with over 120,000 titles, wants to reinvent itself as a non-profit.
You've probably seen some variation on the headline more than once by now: Internet Killed the Video Store.
That late 20th Century fixture, which rose up alongside the video arcade and similarly saw a rapid decline as technology provided an ever greater incentive to not leave the house. Or the couch.
Despite the closure of one Blockbuster after another and the loss of landmark independent stores like Kim's Video in New York, though, the video store isn't dead just yet. But those remaining are now faced with some tougher choices than ever on how to best keep the doors open in the face of Netflix, Hulu, and whatever else might be around the corner.
One of the biggest still standing is Scarecrow Video in Seattle, which has amassed what the store says is the "single largest library of VHS, laserdiscs, VCDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs," over 120,000 titles in all, since its opening in 1988.
Like other video stores, though, it's been struggling, and the future of that massive library has been uncertain. Its solution is a radical one: shut down the business and re-open as a non-profit organization.
As one does these days, Scarecrow has turned to crowdfunding to help pay for the endeavor, and it's found that it has plenty of would-be patrons eager to help out. The Scarecrow Project, as the effort is known, has already met its $100,000 goal with nearly a month left to go in its Kickstarter campaign.
The store isn't just looking for money to keep DVD rentals flowing through the return bin, though. Its ambition is to become less of a store and something more like a B-movie counterpart to the American Film Institute or the UCLA Film & Television Archive—an organization that preserves and brings attention to the films that need it most.
Preserving a home video copy of a film may not sound all that significant when the future of actual film is at risk, but the two causes aren't all that distinct. In both cases, the technology of the past is being phased out in favor of new technology that has its own advantages but isn't equal.
Shooting a movie on digital is cheaper and more convenient than shooting on 35mm, and brings with it other benefits that often make it an artistic choice as much as a financial one. But it is very much its own distinct thing. The warmth and texture of film, the sense of weight to the images on the screen, is something that still can't be replicated with a digital filter or a higher-resolution camera. (Preserving movies shot digitally is a whole other matter.)
Home video—even Blu-ray—isn't able to fully replicate that experience either, of course, but it is a dependable and accessible way to see movies. As film critic and action movie aficionado Outlaw Vern explained in a post on Project Scarecrow's Kickstarter page, that can't always be said for streaming or downloading.
"Because of the way copyright law works," Vern wrote, "once Scarecrow and other stores buy a movie on physical media they can rent it out forever. You can't do the same with a digital file, so in a post-video-store world it's completely out of our hands which movies are available to the public and when, it's all up to negotiations between giant corporations."
That's true of recent blockbusters, which are often subject to exclusive deals, and it's especially true of the obscure, underrated and forgotten films that video stores like Scarecrow specialize in. Many of those still haven't even been released on DVD, let alone on Blu-ray or Netflix. Without video stores existing in one form or another, those movies could well once again be as hard to see as they were in the pre-VHS days. We're already starting to see that play out to a small degree, with some hard-to-find DVDs regularly fetching $50 or $100 on the used market.
Of course, it's unlikely that we'll ever see video stores thrive the way they did a decade ago, or see anywhere close to a majority of movies shot on film again. But it's not all that unrealistic to hope for a reprieve. That has already happened to some extent with film, with Kodak recently striking a deal with film studios (after lobbying from directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan) that will see it continue to produce film stock for at least a little while longer, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Scarecrow Project, on the other hand, offers a look at what the future of movies as physical media might be: one that's more in the hands of us, the consumers, instead of the producers. After all, you can't expect video stores to remain open if customers aren't coming through the doors, or expect studios to produce Blu-rays and DVDs if the demand isn't there. But we also haven't yet seen what a streaming and download-only future is really like, and how customers will react to it.
For a glimpse of that, though, we can look to music. The rise of streaming and downloaded music has come close to squeezing out physical media, but it's also coincided with a resurgence of vinyl in recent years; not anywhere close to truly being mainstream again, but big enough to become a sustainable niche market. That's partly been driven by folks seeking out records that can't be found on Spotify or iTunes, but it's mostly the result of people looking for a more satisfying experience. A library that's permanent, say, that they own and can share with others.
Movies could well be headed in a similar direction, with stores like Scarecrow repositioning themselves to better serve their audience and physical media catering more to a devoted fanbase instead of the mainstream. Increasingly, the latter is coming not from the big movie studios themselves, but from smaller labels like the Criterion Collection and Shout! Factory, who the studios are now more willing to license titles to than ever.
Those studios may only be doing so because they see little value in releasing the titles on Blu-ray or DVD themselves, but Shout! Factory are others are proving that there is an audience waiting and willing to pay for a better experience and presentation . One that, like Scarecrow itself, gives the movies the attention and respect they deserve.