By Joan Amenn
I am delighted to have sat down with Executive Director Kate Barr and Development Director John O’Connor of Scarecrow Video, a Pacific Northwest icon for nearly thirty years. The following is the first part of my interview as we chat about the history of Scarecrow and how the year 2020 impacted this unique treasure of the film community.
Joan: Whichever one of you would like to jump in, or both of you, could you give us a brief history of the Scarecrow Universe?
John: The Genesis of Scarecrow… Founders George and Rebecca Latsios back in 1983 were renting videotapes out of the back of a record store. He loved the cinema so much that he had a dream of opening up his own video store, which he did in 1988. What started as a few hundred videotapes grew over the years into what is now the world’s largest publicly available video library with close to 140,000 titles. George wanted to make sure that films that weren’t readily available in the mass market were available to folks. It grown into our mission that if its ever had a physical release, to make sure we have a copy of it available to rent. In 2014, Scarecrow became a nonprofit, and what that shift made possible was using the collection for various forms of community engagement.
Kate: I’d like to follow John’s path and insert a few things. George Latsios was a Greek immigrant here in the United States and his true, deep held passion was not just film, but connecting people with film, uniting people with film. From the very beginning, Scarecrow’s motto and mission was we want to unite people with film. He was an unbelievably passionate person and when people would walk through the door he would say, “Hello, my friend! Come in and let’s talk about movies.” At the beginning of Scarecrow, he was as much a part of what drew people there as the movies themselves. But all that passion did not make for good business. He was a terrible businessman! There are all these stories about George, most of which are true, about how he would jet off to Japan to buy really rare Japanese laserdiscs, some of which we still have to this day. But then of course, people wouldn’t get paid for a month. So, he was sort of Chapter 1 in Scarecrow’s history. Then in the mid-1990’s they were going bankrupt and two guys from Microsoft stepped in to take over the collection. That’s sort of Chapter 2 of Scarecrow’s history. George did a lot of events around Seattle. He would bring filmmakers to town. He had insane, crazy events but they weren’t financially responsible so it was easy but if you don’t want to hemorrhage money it’s harder to do.
Chapter 2 started when the Microsoft guys took over, and they stopped those kinds of things. There were some but not as many. But what they did do is pour tons of money into building the collection. In the mid-90’s when they took over the collection was probably only at about 50-60 thousand titles. By 2014 when we took over, it was 125,000 titles. So, they gave all sorts of resources to bring in as many movies as possible. As we all know, around 2010 rentals really started on the decline. Things like online streaming were on the incline and people’s viewing preferences were changing. Carl Tostevin, one of the two guys, saw the writing on the wall and decided this is just not sustainable as a business. So, the question becomes what happens to Scarecrow? Do you just close your doors like so many video stores across the country have done, including really significant, substantial collections? The bottom line was that we felt that this collection was so big that it now had cultural relevance. This wasn’t just about, “Where can I go to get my weekend entertainment?” It was more about these are cultural assets that we have and don’t we want to preserve that? Don’t we want these assets not just preserved but available for the community to partake with? Honestly when the former owner was looking at proposals, a couple of proposals actually came from universities which is where most collections of this size end up. A university has more of the financial bandwidth to manage it but in doing that, it closes the collection off to the vast majority of people who would be able to access it. This was the dilemma the former owner was facing. They brought this up at a staff meeting and they said, “Look, we think that the only way this collection can survive is as a nonprofit. We are looking for proposals and if you, staff of Scarecrow, want to put together a proposal, we will consider it along with everybody else’s.” So that’s what we did. A group of us staff members got together, we created a nonprofit, we put together a proposal and submitted it. I think they received three or four proposals, and they felt ours was strong enough and had merit enough and were willing to take the risk in handing the reins over to us. The big test for us was the Kickstarter we did in 2014.
“So, the question becomes what happens to Scarecrow? Do you just close your doors like so many video stores across the country have done, including really significant, substantial collections? The bottom line was that we felt that this collection was so big that it now had cultural relevance.”
To me, the success of that Kickstarter signaled that this collection really belonged to the community. This is still true to this day. We’re not getting a small handful of deep pocketed people handing us money. Our existence relies on a whole bunch of people who may only have the bandwidth to give us a small amount, but you give a small amount and there’s more people to do that, it’s the same thing. In some ways it’s even better because then we are truly a community’s collection. I don’t own it, John doesn’t own it. We are owned by the community. Everyone who donates, everyone who has a membership are stakeholders.
Joan: It’s such a great story that Scarecrow just virtually recreated itself just in time for COVID. Would you like to amplify on that?
John: We have lots of community outreach programs like, in normal times, “Silver Screeners” where we take parts of the collection out directly to senior and community centers and have film screenings and discussions with those audiences. We have a “Children’s Hour” that is really unique and very cool for families. It’s like a hybrid of story time, clips from the collection, art activities, science experiments, it’s just a multimedia thing that I don’t think anyone else is doing. Also, in normal times, we have screening rooms where close to every night of the week we do some sort of free film or free lecture and we’ve also done movies in the park. So that’s us up to COVID. During COVID, that kind of threw a wrench into everything. A long time request from Scarecrow fans outside of the Seattle area has always been, “Hey can we rent things by mail?” We decided to give that a whirl serendipitously in November of 2019. Thank goodness we did because a few months later that was the only option to access the Scarecrow collection. That exploded. I think we’re shipping to either seven or seventeen of the states outside of Washington. It’s really opened up the collection to a bigger audience which has always been the mission of Scarecrow, connecting people with their new favorite films. During COVID we’ve scrambled to recreate our “Children’s Hour” which would normally take place in our screening rooms and we’ve recreated it online. It’s turned out really cool thanks to the work of Kate and others. We don’t have a lot of film rights to show films online but we have been creating film discussion groups that kind of mirrors what happened in the screening rooms before COVID.
Kate: Well, how do you take these cultural assets and serve the community? And that’s all those programs that John was talking about. All of that is done in a way for us to try to bring these assets to the community, as opposed to people coming through the door and just renting them-which we still want! Absolutely! But we also want people to understand why we’re fighting so hard to preserve these things, why they are so significant, why we are making the argument that these are cultural assets. So not even dreaming of a COVID scenario, we felt like this is the way to be successful, to get the film loving community in a broader sense and in a more local sense, the Seattle community invested in preserving this collection. Sadly, the way things are going, we may well be the last one standing. This has been a very long, hard slog to try to change people’s perspective on it and it still continues to this day, in fact. John recently submitted a grant application that was not successful and the reason they gave was basically, “Well, it’s just a video store, why are we giving them money?” That is the prejudice we have dealt with since 2014, when we became a nonprofit. And the size of the collection has no meaning if you don’t give context. You say a big number and nobody knows what that means. What I usually do when I talk about Scarecrow is ask, “How many titles do you think Netflix has available in the US for streaming?” Currently, it’s around 3,000 titles and they’re not growing that. If anything, they’re shrinking. If you put the collections of Amazon, Netflix and Hulu together, it comes to about 36,000 titles and we have over 138,000 titles.
Be sure to check out Scarecrow Video and their programs at http://blog.scarecrow.com/ and come back for Part II of our interview at the League.