A SEATTLE APARTMENT – THE YEAR 2018
A couple sits in front of a laptop. The lights are dim. They don’t want to leave the house. They scroll through streaming video services, searching for a movie title. They were sure it would be available online. They’re disappointed. An argument ensues. The laptop closes.
ACROSS TOWN – SCARECROW VIDEO
Customers wander the aisles of a classic video store. Physical copies of DVDs and tapes line the shelves. Movies play on TVs. A couple makes a selection. They embrace. “I can’t believe they have this,” the woman says.
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Writing a happy ending for a video store is probably harder than finding one that’s still alive. And while there’s no guarantee that Scarecrow Video will stay on the scene forever, 30 years of plot twists and turns have certainly made for a compelling saga.
The shop on Roosevelt Way in Seattle’s University District, which was established in 1988, is hoping to go another three decades, at least. To aid in that effort, it became a non-profit in 2014, turning to the community to help it to protect a collection of physical media that is unrivaled anywhere in the United States, with a loyal following of fans. Expanding beyond just being another choice in people’s entertainment routines, the store is now dedicated to being a cultural institution.
Scarecrow is home to more than 131,000 titles, stocking everything from the most rare documentary on Noah’s Ark to this year’s Oscar winner for best picture, “The Shape of Water.” The VHS collection alone numbers 15,000 tapes. The major streaming services — Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu — which have redefined how we consume movies and TV shows at home with their subscription-based offerings, have a combined total of about 35,000 titles.
“We have thousands and thousands of titles that will probably never show up in any streaming service,” said Matt Lynch, marketing coordinator at Scarecrow and a 15-year employee of the shop. “We also have thousands of titles that if they weren’t available here, they wouldn’t be available ever again. What we think is important is that people realize that we offer them a lot more choice than they’re getting by staying at home. When you watch what Netflix has, you’re letting two giant corporations sell each other the rights to make you watch that stuff and not much else.”
The late founder George Latsios started Scarecrow with an original stock of 600 tapes. Today, the shop adds 3,000 to 5,000 titles each year. There are new releases, staff picks, spy flicks, war, horror, foreign, legal, comedy, animated, sports, documentary, literary, vintage sexploitation films and so much more.
And Scarecrow wants access to that library and how people think about movies to extend beyond those who visit and rent. Staffers and volunteers deliver films and lectures to senior and community centers, they host a children’s hour where families can take part in multimedia activities, and an in-house “theater” hosts screenings and events nearly every night that are free and open to the public. There’s also a desire to work with educators more to find out how materials can be used in classrooms and be incorporated in school curriculums.
“It’s just bringing people together around film,” said John O’Connor, development director at Scarecrow. “We want to do more and that’s what donations do for us. We want to expand our outreach and create more communities around this incredible collection.”
Around the store, there are various posters and flyers encouraging folks to help keep Scarecrow alive through donations. But more importantly, an ambitious funding drive is now underway, as Scarecrow looks to raise $100,000. The month-old effort, visible on GoFundMe, has raised about a quarter of that amount so far. Reward levels range from $10 — buy a staffer a shot because “it’s not easy trailblazing a path in the digital age!” — to $5,000 — get an entire year of rentals for free.
“It’s not a question of, ‘Let’s raise this money one time and then we’ll be solvent,’” Lynch said. “We’re looking at it like PBS or KEXP. Those institutions do fund drives twice a year. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing that. We’re a resource that’s exactly as valuable as those things.”
Rare and expansive catalog
Stepping off the street into the store does feel like a trip back in time. Rapid digital innovation has a way of making it seem like the not-so-distant past was ages ago. But many of us can remember having a video store membership not that long ago, when a weekend signaled the need to grab a few rentals.
But now on Netflix and Amazon and HBO and iTunes and Hulu and elsewhere, we binge entire seasons of shows without getting off the couch. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as far as Lynch is concerned. He loves some of the content that’s available on Netflix — even mentioning a new series he was super excited to get into called “Evil Genius.”
“We’re not saying that’s not a valuable service, we’re saying that’s a supplement to something that’s much larger,” Lynch said. “I think people have this illusion that they can access whatever they want via streaming, and they can’t. Netflix has done a really excellent job of selling the idea that they have all this stuff and you can get whatever you want, but you can’t. You go on Netflix and you can’t see ‘Jaws.’ Everybody thinks that, well, ‘Jaws’ is super famous so it’s gotta be on Netflix. No! It doesn’t work that way.”
“We were taking a look at some of the big film lists, like AFI’s 100 Best American Films. Netflix has eight of those,” O’Connor said. “We have all of them and we have them in multiple formats, some with really cool bonus features that you’re not going to see anywhere, except by visiting us.”
It’s that visiting part that’s the sticking point, whether you’re a film fan on the other side of the planet or one in Seattle who doesn’t want to cross several neighborhoods in horrible traffic just to rent a movie.
So what keeps Scarecrow from creating a rent-by-mail format or digitizing its vast catalog — one that would easily supplant the streaming giants?
The rarity of some of the items in the catalog makes Scarecrow weary of using any kind of mail service. Of the top 100 titles it deems its most rare, for instance, 88 out of the 100 are not even held by the Library of Congress. Netflix still mails DVDs without much fear of losing any because they have thousands of copies of titles. If Scarecrow lost a rare title, that would be it. And tapes can’t sit in a hot mail truck, or they’ll be ruined.
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“Logistically it’s extremely difficult and expensive,” Lynch said. “You also have to make mailers — we can’t afford to design and mass produce mailers. We’re just us, we don’t have billions in VC funding.”
As for why the catalog isn’t streamed, Lynch said to suppose for a moment that that wouldn’t be wildly illegal, which it would be. Creating the infrastructure to build servers and keep 131,000 titles online is a non-starter technically and financially speaking. But so is the time and resources it would take.
“Just the tapes — 15,000 tapes — let’s call those conservatively 80 minutes a tape,” Lynch said. “You can’t just stick that in a machine and digitize, you’ve got to sit through the tape. Eighty minutes times 15,000. Then you’ve got to make sure it’s OK, so that’s twice. If we had just one person doing it with no breaks, not even to eat or sleep, it would take five years to digitize just the tapes. Who’s gonna pay somebody to do that?”
Making room for more stuff
Assorted rooms in the store offering a variety of genres create a maze-like effect. Aisles of multi-colored shelving are chock full to a reachable height. Fake cobwebs are strung up in the horror section. Small cards with staff reviews adorn assorted titles. Vintage posters and movie memorabilia and film reference guides drive home the point that this place is special — like something out of … a movie.
And for the amount of stuff that’s on display, the shop is extraordinarily well kept. It has to be when space is at such a premium. When they do run out of room, binders full of DVD title sleeves are employed so customers can thumb through them. There are 8,000 copies of sports-related movies and documentaries displayed this way.
“We constantly battle with space,” Lynch said. “We’ve had to get creative with getting as much stuff into as little space as possible.”
But moving to a bigger location is pretty much out of the question.
“If we’re gone for a week or we’re gone for a month, people might think we’re gone forever,” Lynch said. “I can’t tell you how many times I run into people in my regular life that are like, ‘Oh, you work at Scarecrow? I heard they closed.’”
“We just didn’t.”
Going out of his way
Dan Hickey is just the kind of film fan Scarecrow will need more of to survive and thrive. The 47-year-old tech worker, who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood, said he fell in love with Scarecrow from the moment he set foot in it 25 years ago, and he still visits all the time.
On a recent Friday afternoon he was wandering around with a copy of “Star Crash,” a 1978 Roger Corman cult classic.
“Every two or three weeks I get together with two friends I’ve known since college,” Hickey said. “We do either cult or so-bad-they’re-good films. We have a huge list; most of them you can only get here. Stumbling across stuff just on your own is easier and much more fun to do here than online.”
He said his family does subscribe to Netflix and a cable TV package that includes HBO. But he doesn’t think the service competes with Scarecrow. His 17-year-old son is also a movie nut and filmmaker and Hickey planned to make an $80 donation to Scarecrow’s funding drive — a pledge that would allow the teen to curate his own shelf of recommendations in the shop.
“It’s important for me to support a place like this, so I got out of my way to come here even if [the movie] is online,” Hickey said. “And I tell everybody about it all the time. I encourage them to come.”