A few years ago I did a photo essay for CNN.com about an independently-owned video store in Philadelphia that I suspect may be the very last store of its kind in the city. Once a thriving rental business, Dominic the owner was down to a single location on a run down street in the Frankford section of Philadelphia.
A fierce debate ignited on my photo essay (which #CNNiReport has mysteriously removed), which seems to be continuing with the new documentary VHS Massacre: Cult Films and the Decline of Physical Media, directed by Tom Seymour and Ken Powell.
VHS Massacre is an award-winning documentary about the rise and fall of physical media. The film tells a story beginning with the origin of film, all the way through the video store era and into digital media, focusing on B-Movies and Cult Cinema, two of my personal favorite genres. Queens-based filmmakers Seymour & Powell explore New York City’s last remaining video stores during their last days of operation in a loving and dedicated quest for answers on the disappearance of VHS distribution, along with the cultural, artistic and economic impact the transition from analog audio-visual formats into the digital realm has created. The film includes interview clips with Lloyd Kaufman, Whitney Moore, Juliette Danielle, Greg Sestero, Debbie Rochon, James Nguyen, Alan Bagh, Mark Frazer, Deborah Reed, John Bloom, Ron Bonk, Mike Aransky, Chris Ferry, Carmine Capobianco, David Royal, Nick Prueher, Girard Tecson and others.
For me, there is another very important issue at play here. I relished the times I spent searching through stacks of low-budget, independently produced feature film “covers” at my local video store. Many times, the films that video stores carried, were never distributed by major labels or screened in theaters, so the only means of income these filmmakers and producers had was by selling rental copies to these outlets. The films also acted as a calling card for companies such as Troma Entertainment (this film’s distributor) and Cannon Film Group. These companies were able to build cult followings for their product because people sought out their new releases in video stores. Streaming simply doesn’t pay enough to make a living, unless your rolling with amounts of product that would require a large amount of seed money.
Having major corporations have total say over what is available limits access to potential art that might impact someone’s personal creative interests, whether it be high or low art, that doesn’t matter. Talk to any filmmaker, Tarantino, the Wachowskis, the Hughes Brothers, the list goes on, and all talk about how both “good” and “bad” movies stoked their interest in making movies. The fact is that films are art for the common man, because they are so relatively inexpensive and accessible (at least for now), and in some cases turn average people into cinematic geniuses…or political icons…or college graduates…or simply people who enjoy art & life just a little bit more.
To this day, there are films that were found in video stores that were never released again. However their impact on the lives of filmmakers – or just film lovers – remains. Controlled streaming has its benefits and there is a good selection of films, however regional tastes and interests can only be satisfied by movie lovers from an area, who at one time had the opportunity to make a living renting or selling films from all over the world in their towns.
Anyway, onto the trailer for VHS Massacre. I’ll post a review for the doc as soon as I’ve watched the “streaming” reviewer’s copy.