Filmmaking | Reports

Indie Videos: Stuck in the Pipeline

1 Dec , 1997  

Written by Michael J. McInnis | Posted by:

We once had visions of a local video store offering a service similar to the local public library -- the opportunity to rent hard-to-find independents... What happened?

In theory, the world of video provides independent films access to a wider audience via release on videocassette. The reality, however, presents quite a different picture.

During 12 years as sales manager for a leading video tape distributor, I’ve watched as the promise of video has, unfortunately, all but surrendered to the economic realities that define the industry today.

The sales pitch handed the public-at-large in the early days of the industry included visions of a local video store offering a similar service as the local public library. In other words, a simple trip to the local corner store should provide the opportunity to rent not only the current Hollywood blockbuster, but also the art-house gems, foreign films and the many independents that, up to that point, were not available beyond the festival circuit.

Easy availability of independent product would increase the public’s awareness and whet their appetite for more "quality" films.

But something happened to the master plan along the way.

I’ll admit that during the early years, it was indeed possible to find alternatives to the big theatrical releases at almost every corner video store. The slim number of available titles almost guaranteed that. The same Hollywood conglomerates that were heralding the new video technology were also hedging their bets by being downright stingy in the number of new releases made available to the fledgling industry. Maintaining a "wait and see" attitude, they watched as the public’s interest in the industry infused growth through brisk rentals of the available product. "Adult" videos, sub-standard "B" movies and the few titles that Hollywood, itself would cautiously offer accounted for the entire video universe. Despite the initial dearth of product, the industry grew by leaps and bounds.

During the late 80’s, the video dealer was king. The proliferation of video stores throughout the country spoke of the immense impact that the new technology had on the viewing public. Hollywood threw open the doors to the vaults and out marched a parade of "golden oldies." Having already run the cycle through … domestic theatrical … foreign release … cable … network television … syndication …. they found that their earning power had miraculously been restored as video tape releases.

"Show me the money"? No need. There was money everywhere you looked. Manufacturers prospered, distributors prospered and video dealers’ toughest assignment was sitting back and counting the dollar bills that came flying their way. Ahh, the golden age of video!

The success of the medium attracted new players at the manufacturing/distribution level. For every Warner Bros. or Paramount, there were a host of new labels. Media, Vidmark, Academy, Karl-Lorimar and so on. The influx of new video distributors demanded a larger product pipeline and a great many quality independent films were finally picked up for video release.

During the early 90’s, the video industry came closest to realizing its ambition to provide a wide array of product for the video-insatiable appetites of the consumer. "Breadth" not "Depth" was the buzz-word of the moment. That is to say that there was a conscious effort made by the industry to promote product variety over depth-of-copy. Why offer 10 copies of Beverly Hills Cop when two would clearly do the job? Buy a couple of copies and bring in some other titles and still risk a hernia carrying all that money to the bank.

As the decade wore on, however, the "hernia" risk was all but eliminated. The novelty of video was beginning to evaporate and the rental revenues dipped. Hollywood’s answer to the video dealer’s financial woes was to raise wholesale prices on rental product and to put a greater push on developing a "sell-through" market which would, effectively, compete with the slumping rental market. Why just rent ’em when you can own ’em, right?

As the industry continues to mature, the national and regional chains are gaining more of a foothold on the industry itself. The local video stores that dotted the landscape are beginning to disappear at an alarming rate. Those that continue to survive have embraced the policy that is now prevalent even with the large chains. "If it’s only the ‘hits’ they want … that’s what we’ll give ’em."

Walk into most any video store these days and as you check out the "new release" section, you’ll soon discover that the variety of yesteryear has gone the way of the beta tape. Multiple copies of the best (and worst) of what the major studios are offering are present in abundance. No longer are there the many opportunities to sample some truly creative and entertaining independent fare. A flat rental market has dictated that today’s video dealer is reluctant to take a chance on anything but the familiar theatrical offerings . Good or bad, they represent the bulk of the selection at most video storefronts.

Like most retailers, however, the video specialist is in business to satisfy customer demand and here lies the opportunity to unclog the video pipeline and allow the many independent features to continue to find their way to the video renter. As long as there is perceived demand, the retailer will likely continue to purchase a selection of independent fare alongside the Hollywood dreck that most retailers feel compelled to stock.

Make no mistake, the independent film hasn’t vanished from the video universe, but is only stuck in an immense pipeline filled to the brim with Hollywood’s winners and losers. It’s up to those of us who want a continued supply of quality independent films to become vocal and convince our favorite retailer of its viability.