Three Film Friends I Miss: Bill Blair, founder of VCI Entertainment (1930-2006)
Posted May 16, 2011on:
Unlike my other two “Film Friends I Miss,” Bill never wrote an autobiography. He was modest, so it would have been out of character for him. Fortunately, his son, Bob, wrote an affectionate, biographical piece on his father and his brainchild, we all know today as VCI Entertainment. Combining Bill’s biography with VCI’s history made sense to me since Bill and VCI were so intertwined that sometimes it wasn’t always possible for me to separate the man from the business.
Bill Blair-Biography/VCI Entertainment-history:
It was almost four decades ago when I first spoke with Bill, two years after I founded my 16mm (Bill called it “16 em em”) library, Kit Parker Films. This was before there was such a thing as home video. All I had to offer were movies in the public domain, so it was important to move up a notch by offering copyrighted ones. No one was willing to sell me any, at least that I could afford.
Bill founded United Films, also a 16mm distributor, only big-time, renting out many copyrighted movies from major studios. I called and asked if he would sell me several “A-” RKO movies. He agreed, even gave me a real good deal, especially considering it put me in competition with him for those movies. He was a nice man to do that, and, as you can see, I never forgot it. He let me buy more movies, and then more. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Bill worked with me not only because he was a nice guy, but because he knew I was a kindred spirit…a film nut…just like him. A friendship developed, that would which continue for over 30 years, right up until his passing.
Some time later we couldn’t come to an agreement on the price of some Dick Tracy serials. Somehow he worked into the conversation that he had, as he called it, a “bad ticker.” I took that to mean exactly what he wanted me to, that he really didn’t care if the deal went through or not, because he wasn’t going to be around much longer to care about it. I figured out years later that he was saying that to make me worry about losing the deal for fear he really didn’t care. Bill got his way, even though he wanted the deal as much as me. It was just one of his ways of negotiating. He tried the “bad ticker” routine later on, but by then I had caught on. If I pressed him I wonder if he would have grasped his chest pretending to have a heart attack, just like Fred G. Sanford did in “Sanford and Son”?
BTW, he did have a bad (physical) heart, but it managed to serve him well for another three decades-.
Another of his mid-west style negotiating tactics was to speak real slow and work into the conversation that he was just a “Slow mule from Oklahoma,” or just plain “Okie.” This was to get you to think he was a rube ripe for the picking, but in reality, at the end of the day, he’d end up with all the chips!
I don’t want to paint Bill as someone who took advantage of a 25 year old’s naïveté. The extra money he got from me was peanuts. He loved toying with me because I think I reminded Bill of himself at the same age…a kid who “had” to have those movies.
Later in the 1970s VCI got out of the 16mm film business and VCI became the first firm to produce movies specifically for the video market. In fact, they made the very first one. Don’t ask me the names because I’ve been pretty successful at erasing his made-for-video movies completely from my mind. He asked me what I thought of an early one…all I could say was it was “innovative.”
Ten years later he produced a picture called “The Last Slumber Party,” which was really gawd awful. Again he asked me what I thought, and I just paused until he blinked, and admitted, “I know, I know, it’s a piece of s**t.”
I didn’t actually meet Bill in person until around 2000. As expected, he was modest and unassuming, and I already knew he had the bedside manner of a country doctor. By now I had a reputation for clearing rights to hard to find movies, and helped him get some of his favorites, such as the Benedict Bogeaus collection**. Coincidently, they were “A-” RKO releases he had wanted for years, and it was as if I gave him the moon…just the way I felt when I got those other “A-” RKO’s from him three decades before. Believe me; I was just as happy to help him, because it gave me a chance to make him really happy. After all, he always was good to me.
Bill was beyond being a film buff, he was a film nut, and his enthusiasm was absolutely infectious. Film buffs, and nuts, alike; owe a lot to him and his team for locating, restoring and releasing hard to find movie favorites on DVD. His sons inherited that passion, and continue searching out the movies Bill always wanted, but were always just out of his grasp. I know he appreciates that.
Bill Blair lived his dream, made his passion a vocation, got to work with all the movies he wanted, and was loved by his family, employees, and people like me.
I miss Bill Blair.
The Benedict Bogeaus RKO Collection, all in Technicolor: “Appointment in Honduras,” “Silver Lode,” “Passion,” “Cattle Queen of Montana,” “Escape toBurma,” “Pearlof the South Pacific,” “Tennessee’s Partner,” and “Slightly Scarlet.” I recommend them.