Book: I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmaker’s Oral History of a Vanished Era (2015)

May 12, 2016 | By

ILostItAtTheVideoStore_cvr_sBook: Excellent

Author: Tom Roston

Publisher: The Critical Press

Date:  September 24, 2015

Format / ISBN:  978-1941629154

Genre: Home Video / Film History




The current state of the classic home video store as an endangered species has inspired a variety of authors to pen curated histories of an era that’s either vanished wholeheartedly in towns and cities, or still survives as feisty mom & pop, bricks and mortar shops.

Tom Roston’s take is less about nostalgia and more reflective of his industry reportage and knack for editing a variety of interviews into a neat narrative of how filmmakers evolved from video store clerks and customers (Nicole Holofcener, Kevin Smith, Joe Swanberg, and Quentin Tarantino), and whose careers benefitted and / or survived the industry’s crazy whims and creative accounting.

The demise of Kim’s Video and Music, a NYC institution that archived a massive collection of movie history, bookends Roston’s tome because it symbolizes the richness that existed in many urban and suburban locales, and the multitude of eclectic works which studios and long-gone indie labels released on various formats. Nostalgia does permeate the 13 slim chapters, but Roston’s focus is to tether and respect the home video industry’s importance in building alternative film schools and once-viable venues for newcomers to make movies outside of the formal studio system.

The meteoric directorial debuts of Kevin Smith via Clerks (1994) and Quentin Tarantino via Reservoir Dogs (1992) are given solo chapters, as they represent opportunities that allowed filmmakers to gain financing through home video channels, and although some labels like LIVE and Columbia Tri-Star designed some of their productions exclusively for the rental market, if a movie was unique and had genuine theatrical potential, it did the film festival rounds and might earn a run on theatre screens.

Doug Liman’s circumstances represent the inverse, in which an indie film that disappeared from screens after a mere 2 weeks  – a luxury in today’s market – found great fortune when Disney’s newly acquired Miramax picked up the film, and the mother corporation used Swingers (1996) to headline a press junket for home video shops, instilling faith in new Disney product, and Swingers, which ended up filling store shelves in double-digits. (The image presented to  customers was effectively impressionable: 2 displayed copies meant ‘This is an art house flick,’ whereas 30 copies on a wall read ‘This is a major flick you’ve got to see!’)

Horror films flourished in the home video market because they were cheap to produce and formed a genre no mom & pop shop could do without, but perhaps the most important need was to fill in naked, empty slots on rental shelves, hence the steady production and acquisition of works by specialty home video labels.

The direct-to-video industry was huge, and while Roston’s interview subjects are generally taken from the indie film scene, there’s a nod to porn in the amusing anecdote of Smith, then a clerk at RSV, recounting his own ‘interactions’ with smut when the door was locked and cornucopia of porn was available ‘for personal use.’

Porn was a vital component to the industry’s success, but what ultimately permeates Roston’s tome are the savvy entrepreneurs who gambled on a new technology and built the infrastructure that still exists, albeit for digital streams.

Home video was about bringing entertainment cheap and reliably to consumers using portals and hubs that were a quick walk or a few blocks away from major residential areas. The relationship between vendor and consumer was pretty firm, but more vital was a symbiosis between vendor, indie labels, and studios, with the latter licensing old catalogue titles and theatrical under-performers to tape and DVD, giving them new life on new media that was physically resilient to abuse: tapes could still earn money in spite of splices & cracked cases, and DVDs could still function in spite of surface nicks & scuffs.

The book inevitably closes with a collage of reflections on what’s been lost as the physical experience of selecting, watching, and returning movies are largely gone in major and minor markets; but instead of shock and distaste, most of the comments culled from directors and producers are resigned to the reality that home video has evolved into a different creature.

Filmmakers can make movies faster and cheaper and sell their wares directly to consumers, but without the home video system linking hundreds of thousands of video shops, selling oneself and one’s work has never been more important; it’s a secondary if not subtextual point within the pages of Roston’s book, and no less important than reflecting upon the changes that pushed moviegoing from tape and disc to streaming on a phone.

Roston’s I Lost It at the Video Store  is available in printed hardback form and ebook from The Critical Press.

Also available: a podcast interview with Tom Roston.

Coming soon: a follow-up podcast featuring edited excerpts from the lengthy discussion & audience Q&A with author Roston and NOW Magazine’s Senior Film Writer Norman Wilner, recorded live at Bay Street Video on Monday May 2, 2016.




© 2016 Mark R. Hasan


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