Sometime yesterday or early this morning, Scarecrow Video achieved their $100,000 goal on Kickstarter, with four weeks to go in the campaign. It only took about a week to get there. The project is for Scarecrow to transition from a video store into a nonprofit. (Full disclosure, I was one of the earliest backers of the project).
While it’s very clear that there is a demand for Scarecrow, and I don’t feel the need to help further a crowd-funding campaign that has already exceeded its goal, I think there are some misconceptions about Scarecrow Video that should be addressed. Last night, I learned from SunBreak music editor Tony Kay that there was an article from KIRO about why Scarecrow shouldn’t even bother and just admit defeat and close shop. I found the article: it was adapted from a story on the “Jason Rantz Show.” I was actually quite impressed with the level of how short-sided this rant was. It’s also entry-level trolling, but hey, generate those clicks at all cost. It was also sadly predictable. There is always some devotee to the “free market” who seems to think that because video stores are closing, it also means video stores suck and therefore all video stores should close. But I think it also reveals an attitude that relies on misinformation and should be addressed. The article says:
This is a sad story but not because this company doesn’t have the support from the clientele to justify its existence as a for-profit business. It’s sad because these folks don’t realize this is a dead industry.
No one wants to rent DVDs and Blu-rays from brick-and-mortar stores anymore. Certainly not enough to keep a business open. That this place, Scarecrow Video specifically, is going out of business, it’s not any more tragic than a Blockbuster going out of business. Blockbuster went out of business and you don’t see people screaming about how bad that is.
Scarecrow Video is not some shrine of movie cinema that is keeping movies from being lost forever. They want you to think that, but that’s not the case. These films will always exist if people want to watch them. The films will always be accessible, just in a different format, in a digital format. Digital is cheaper and better for pretty much everybody involved. In fact, one could argue it’s more noble to encourage more digital preservation of films on the web.
In a lot of ways, Scarecrow has given up on their business model. It is why they are shifting away from being a video store into a nonprofit. But this rests on the idea that Scarecrow is “just a video store” with a lot of titles and that Netflix can fill the void. Saying “these films will always exist if people want to watch them” is horribly myopic. That’s the problem, because films are important not just as passive entertainment, but to also provide a portrait of their time. They are incredibly important to researchers, for example. Scarecrow Video’s location near the University of Washington reinforces that point.
The people who need, or want, to view films beyond the cultural zeitgeist also need a place where those films are accessible. Relying on the Internet to fill that gap is a recipe for disaster. Netflix hosts a lot of films, many, many thousands of them, in fact. But their catalog is limited (so is Scarecrow’s, obviously) and they only offer what they’re able to license. That’s fine for someone who wants to find something entertaining to watch for an evening, and can choose a “Plan B,” but that doesn’t work for someone looking for a specific title that time that is just outside of our collective memory. Moreover, the access to those items could be limited if access was controlled only by online gatekeepers. That isn’t a concern when there’s a physical copy available (or at least in existence).
Another example. Every year, I’ve covered the Seattle International Film Festival and have conducted dozens of interviews with filmmakers. One question that seems to genuinely puzzle directors is when I ask how I can view their previous films. A common scenario is that a distributor buys the rights to a film, it gets a limited theatrical release, has a small life on VOD and Netflix, and then Netflix declines to license the film after a year to save their bandwidth for something that would attract more viewers. Where does it go from there? Scarecrow, while carrying literally every title available is impossible, is passionate about preserving films that would otherwise be forgotten by time. I’ve constantly been amazed at how I’ve been able to find films in their deep catalog that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere, no matter how creative I can be with Google searches.
Another scenario that would be more than unfortunate is what would happen to the video library that has been compiled and, yes, curated? I’m reminded of a story in the Village Voice from two years ago about the fate of the video library for Mondo Kim’s in New York City when the chain of video stores was forced to close. TL;DR version: It had a collection of somewhere around 55,000 titles. Rather than donating to a local educational institute (NYU and another art school declined to take the collection as a whole, a nonnegotiable point), it was sent to a small town in Italy, where it languished for several years in a storage locker, unknown to most people in the town.
I suppose, though, that this is all moot. That Scarecrow Video has exceeded its fundraising goals in a much shorter time than could be expected. It let the market speak, and the market said it should be preserved (though more as a library than a video store, as we’ve come to know them). But there are some people who don’t think libraries should exist, either. That’s fine, because there are enough people who think they should.