On a sunny August weeknight, Matt Lynch, a clerk at longtime Seattle rental store Scarecrow Video, grabbed a cup of ice from the shop’s relatively new coffee counter. Cutely named VHS-presso, the counter was one of the shop’s many efforts in recent years to spur interest, attract more renters, and get people to walk into a video store once again.
There’s also the shop’s screening room, opened just over a year ago to host cult and niche movie nights by way of a giant screen, a smattering of speakers, and some comfy chairs. Lynch, among the shop floor’s elder statesmen at 12 years of experience, pulled one of those chairs out to sit and chew on ice while marveling at the room’s walls. The shelves are full of classic VHS tapes. The store prides itself on its vast VHS collection, totaling over 15,000 tapes at this point. But neither that fact, nor the shop’s recent additions, resulted in more rentals or sales as of late.
Lynch looked at Ars’ digital recorder and commented on “the angle” that most magazines and blogs have run with when talking about video rental shops like Scarecrow Video: “’This [industry] is dead, these people are struggling to save it.’” He bit down on ice to punctuate that expectation. “That’s not what I want to see here.”
His wish won’t come as the result of a guilt trip, a fact Lynch and his Scarecrow cohorts are keenly aware of. “Just being a video store is not enough anymore,” he admitted. “The for-profit video rental store is clearly no longer sustainable as a business, which is why we’re trying this new thing.”
What “new thing” is left in the world of video rentals? Netflix’s answer, after mail-in envelopes, was a focus on digital streaming—setting off an industry-wide tidal wave of similar apps. Redbox’s pervasive kiosks stripped its service down to nothing more than discs. For Scarecrow, the only sensible direction was to run in the opposite direction and find a way to keep the building open in spite of lack of profit. Lack of profit? Non-profit! That’s it!
Becoming an archive-library
On the strength of a Kickstarter campaign that met its $100,000 goal in seven days, Scarecrow Video will convert to a 501(c)(3) non-profit beginning (tentatively) this October. “Really, there isn’t another model [like this] out there, not to our knowledge,” said Scarecrow Project co-founder Kate Barr. “We’re the first video store that’s becoming an archive-library and going non-profit.”
What does that mean, exactly? The store’s co-owners, Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough, described it as “a community-supported, publicly available, non-profit film library and resource,” which may sound like a high-falutin’ description of a video store already. Certainly, some of the norms of video stores will remain, particularly the rental model, but Scarecrow Project organizers Barr and Joel Fisher, who came to the project as store employees, see the rentals as a way to buoy a greater, brand-new mission of preservation and education.
The duo began its efforts as a response to the owners’ dismal forecast for the shop late last year: namely, that it wasn’t going to last. A blog post in October, coinciding with International Video Store Day, announced to the world that Scarecrow’s rentals had dropped 40 percent over six years. While the plea helped with a short-term rentals uptick, it too failed to sustain a boost.
120,000 movies, six minutes. Ars takes the Scarecrow Video tour.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the owners considered some sale offers, the most promising of which would have preserved the store’s complete film collection—over 120,000 films—and possibly have kept them in the same building. But the internally developed idea, contingent on a Kickstarter campaign, won out.
One big point in the Scarecrow Project’s favor, as opposed to any outside sale, was its ability to guarantee the collection would stay in one place instead of possibly being split apart piecemeal. “That collection in and of itself has an intrinsic value as a whole,” Lynch said. “14 video tapes, that doesn’t mean anything. 120,000 means something, especially when so many are the ones you can’t find on other formats.”
The campaign’s use of the word “preservation” doesn’t hint at a giant technological campaign, a request the Scarecrow Project admits it has fielded countless times already. For one, the team doesn’t put faith in ones and zeroes: “Digitizing everything and leaving it on a hard drive doesn’t solve a preservation problem,” Lynch said. “Physical media is still the best thing. Even if something is filmed digitally, there’s capture stock. Physical media’s not foolproof, either, but with every new format and the ensuing transition, thousands and thousands of titles get dropped by the wayside.”
In terms of pure VHS maintenance and protection, Lynch said the work is pretty cut-and-dry: take a damaged cassette apart and recase it. For Scarecrow, that’s an issue of manpower, not technology. “As messy as a contact media like that can be, VHS is pretty reliable,” Lynch said. “If you take care of it, it doesn’t fall apart, especially now that so few people are watching them. That’s the sort of thing we will be able to turn our eye to as an archive; instead of just serving customers, we’ll be able to utilize volunteer labor to more acutely maintain these things.”
The staff has joked about the notion of digitally capturing every film in its 15,000-plus VHS collection, estimating the years and years it’d take even with dozens of computers. But Scarecrow is certainly interested in addressing certain films on a case-by-case basis. The new non-profit’s board could include a committee to weigh the red tape and licensing costs that would come from such transfers. “What’s important to us is that it’s all above-board,” Barr said. “We stay within the letter of the law, and we honor licensing agreements with distributors.”
“If you know where to dig, you can find a lot of the stuff—not everything here—but a lot of the stuff through illegal means online,” Fisher added. “But that’s not a sustainable infrastructure for perpetuating film and art. When you just put it online for everyone to see, and you’re not taking any care with it, nobody’s making anything [including money] out of it, so no one can continue to make their films or any of that stuff.” Fisher doesn’t mean to dismiss serious efforts to post online-only archives, including the Internet Archive’s non-Internet collection. But he and Scarecrow’s experienced staff are doing their due diligence in figuring out how to connect the licensing, distribution, and revenue dots before doing something similar of their own.
A way for brick-and-mortar to lead
Scarecrow has a far clearer vision about the other major half of its upcoming non-profit efforts. “A huge part of our plans and dreams for Scarecrow is a more robust educational program,” Barr said. “Get kids in here early and expose them to filmmaking, all the way through to adults taking master classes, drilling down films and ripping them apart, looking at them in-depth.”
That would be an opportunity for the staff’s rabid film buffs and a slew of new volunteers, to expound on the world of film in ways beyond “what should I watch tonight?” This portion of the foundation, in particular, will draw a lot of inspiration from Facets, a film foundation in Chicago that has its own robust educational component.
For established educators in high schools and universities, Scarecrow also plans to launch a long-term loan program, so that even the most underfunded arts institutions can enjoy easy access to the complete works of Kurosawa, or a hundreds-strong collection of cheesy educational shorts, or the kinds of B-movie exploitation films that have been lost in the transition to newer formats.
Really, so long as the bills are paid, Scarecrow should be able to accomplish its mission of becoming a more accessible home for film curation and preservation, the kind of institution that seeks to marry the balance between widening public access to a film collection, equal parts current and historic, while sustaining its contributing artists with fair pay. A curated, brick-and-mortar response to a seemingly endless glut of online media. That’s the comparison point that Scarecrow wants people to think of when they flip through their favorite streaming services.
“We’re not sitting here telling you, don’t use Netflix, don’t use Amazon,” Lynch said. “I use them! They’re perfectly good. But a lot of people forget that those streaming services, convenient though they may be, what they offer you is determined by a few gigantic mega-corporations paying each other millions in licensing fees. What we have here doesn’t shrink, doesn’t expire, doesn’t change based on what two giant companies want you to be able to see, and it’s staffed by a bunch of folks who really care.”