While tens of thousands of brick-and-mortar video rental stores are closing across the country, independent and quirky Scarecrow Video in Seattle’s University district is defying the odds.
For the past six years, Scarecrow owners Carl Tostevin and Mickey McDonough wrestled with declining sales as consumers shifted to digital streaming services. As part of this shift, Video on Demand (VOD), Netflix and Amazon Instant have brought film rentals directly to consumers’ mobile phones, tablets and computers.
At its zenith, giants like Blockbuster Video operated about 9,000 retail video stores. Today, there are only a few dozen franchises left in the United States after the video giant declared bankruptcy in 2010. Scarecrow seemed destined to follow suit.
Despite valiant efforts to attract consumers into the store, Scarecrow’s owners saw precipitous drops in revenue; a 40 percent decline in video rentals in six years. Worn out by ongoing economic struggles, Tostevin and McDonough cast about for a solution that wouldn’t involve closing the store that has been a Seattle institution since 1988. They also wanted to keep the video collection together rather than selling off titles to bring in revenue.
Kickstarting a New Plan
Two Scarecrow employees, Joel Fisher and Kate Barr, proposed a plan to turn the store into a non-profit organization, and the owners embraced the vision.
On Aug. 12, Scarecrow Video launched a Kickstarter campaign to save the legendary store, with its more than 120,000 titles—arguably the largest private collection of accessible films on video in the world. Local, national and even international cinephiles rose up to show the love, donating $60,000 of Scarecrow’s $100,000 goal within the first 24 hours of the campaign.
“We had this amazing, passionate base that understood the significance of Scarecrow Video and donated,” said Fisher, an assistant inventory manager at Scarecrow Video. Fisher noted a recent Kickstarter donation from Romania. “Why Romania? I don’t know,” Fisher said, but the broad support has been both unexpected and encouraging.
What Happens to Scarecrow When it Becomes a Non-Profit?
“We aren’t trying to just accept donations so we can remain open to rent videos,” explained Barr, who is now president and founding board member of the emerging non-profit, The Scarecrow Project.
Scarecrow’s new non-profit status will introduce membership and volunteer opportunities, and more educational programs for the community. It also allows the group to apply for grants, seek corporate funding and apply for computers and software reserved for non-profit entities.
Dedicated video enthusiasts won’t see significant changes when they walk into the store to rent VHS tapes, Video CDs (VCDs), LaserDiscs, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, but the vision is to preserve the vast collection in the vein of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the American Film Institute’s collection. (UCLA’s collection is largely focused on 35 mm film, while Scarecrow’s collection spans multiple video formats.) Eventually, Barr hopes to expand public access to the collection across the country.
Why Does a Physical Collection of Films Even Matter?
It’s a reasonable question. After all, won’t films always be accessible, just in a digital format? In answer to this question, consider the following:
- Tens of thousands of films are never converted to digital mediums; unique bonus features of director interviews or extended footage that started appearing on LaserDiscs and later moved to DVDs and Blu-ray Discs risk being lost if physical copies disappear.
- Megacorporations such as Netflix decide what titles to feature with significantly smaller collections than Scarecrow’s 120,000+ titles. Distributors pay for short-term licenses for films to appear on VOD or Amazon Instant, and then the films disappear to make room for the next round of current releases. Just last year, Netflix discontinued nearly 2,000 titles from its catalog. Films that might have cultural value for researchers or film students or anyone interested in titles beyond the major blockbusters will be out of luck if physical collections die.
- BuzzFeed staffer Alison Willmore wrote about 26 Hard-to-Find Movies That Remind Us Why VHS, DVD, and LaserDisc Still Matter, in which she mentions the rare Beatles documentary “Let it Be.” This documentary features footage of the group’s final public rooftop performance and is available only on VHS and LaserDisc. Willmore also cites Disney’s “Song of the South,” which the corporation eventually worked to blot from public view because of its depictions of race. Rare copies exist on Japanese LaserDisc and European VHS, and Scarecrow rents the equipment to view films in these rare formats.
Where is Scarecrow’s Kickstarter Campaign Now?
A mere week after the Kickstarter campaign launched, Scarecrow met its $100,000 goal and added a stretch goal of $60,000 more. (Kickstarter maintains an all-or-nothing model, so if campaigns don’t reach their minimum targets, they don’t receive any pledged money.)
Fisher, who is now vice president on the board of directors for The Scarecrow Project, says they intentionally kept the campaign goals low not knowing what reaction to expect from the public. The public outpouring surprised and amazed them.
Daniel Herbert, also on The Scarecrow Project board, was less surprised by the campaign’s success. He understands Scarecrow’s legendary status among the country’s video stores. Herbert took four years, multiple plane trips, two extended road trips, and traveled through 29 states to research his book, “Videoland: Movie Culture at the American Video Store.” In the course of his research, Herbert spent three and a half days at Scarecrow Video.
“I spent more time in that store than I did in the entire state of Mississippi,” Herbert said. “Scarecrow has built a national reputation among cinephiles, so it appeals to those people who are into quality or looking for obscure videos along the way. And the concept of Scarecrow is contagious. It captures the idea of the physical video store as a cultural institution.”
Donations to The Scarecrow Project campaign on Kickstarter end on Sept. 16.