Kit Parker Films @40 (Part 2)
Posted September 20, 2011on:
It all started in 1971.
Before and during my stint In the Navy I read every 16mm rental catalogs…cover to cover…dozens of times; I knew that was the business I wanted to be in. Fortunately, I was able to write the copy and do the typesetting of my first 16mm rental catalog on board ship before being released from active duty in June of 1971. on Back home my father, Al Parker, drew the illustrations, and continued doing so until his death in 1985.
I wanted to stay in broadcasting until my film library took hold. Using the G.I. bill, I earned my First Class Radio Telephone License from the FCC. It was very difficult to obtain, but I knew it would open a lot of doors because a “First Phone,” as they called it in broadcast, would allow me to be the engineer in charge of a television or radio station. Disc jockeys needed that license in those days, and I had successfully did that in the Navy.
There was a law back then that employers had to hire back returning vets for a minimum of 30 days, so with my new license I returned my previous job at KSBW TV. I printed and mailed out my first catalog a month later. Despite the protestations of the Chief Engineer, Willis Wells, my employer let me go after the obligatory 30 days. They had too many Technical Directors. My original television mentor, Dwight Wheeler, and Chief Engineer (Earle…wish I could recall his last name) were gone; and my timing, essential for a technical director, had declined just enough during my two years service on the aircraft carrier. My old job just wasn’t as fun any more.
It turned out I wasted my time studying for the test because the day my catalogs were received by potential customers, the orders pouring in! A problem I was happy to have.
In those days 16mm distribution was a good-sized industry. Every organization, institution, school, church, and so on, which now use DVD’s, satellite or cable for entertainment, used 16mm film. Although some distributors offered classics and foreign films, by far the majority of movies were rented for entertainment. Those in the industry called it “general entertainment” or “institutional users” which really meant babysitting for all ages. The majority of those audiences didn’t care about splices and scratches on the film, nor did the distributors, especially since prints were expensive.
At the same time my target customer: colleges, universities, high schools, and other organizations, had film study classes. They were tired of paying good money for poor copies. Low overhead allowed me to offer quality prints and low rates…an appealing combination to the many users of 16mm films.
My first films were all in the public domain because I couldn’t afford to pay major studios for movies like the other companies I admired, such as Budget Films, Films Inc., United Films, and Westcoast Films. Al Drebin owned Budget, and David Arnaud’s company was Westcoast, and they became mentors. Later on Willard W. Morrison of Audio Brandon and George Crittenden of Films, Inc. joined them as cheer leaders for the new kid on the block.
A year or two after opening my business I acquired my first copyrighted movies, and it was a big thrill. Bill Blair, a real good guy, of United Films, licensed several 1950s RKO Radio features to me. They were only B+ to A- productions, but even lesser works by greats like Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray were a coup. (Incidentally, United Films became VCI Entertainment, my current DVD distributor. This gave me pleasure of working with the same people as film morphed into digital…almost 40 years later.
My next acquisitions were movies distributed theatrically by the Walter Reade company, made up primarily of British titles from J. Arthur Rank. A few good ones, but most, like Tawny Pipit (!) weren’t of much interest outside of England.
Not long after, Marty Pincus, a salesman from Learning Corp. of America, mystified that I could run an operation such as KPF out of a rambling country house. My first house burned three days after I moved in, and that was a close call for Kit Parker Films. Marty sold me some first-rate British classics like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. He also represented a series of movies produced independently by Walter Wanger, of which Stagecoach was a big-big seller. I could afford all of these movies because LCA financed the deal. Kit Parker Films always operated on the cash it generated, not bank loans. (In those days we paid a flat fee to the producers and it allowed us to rent the films as much as we could. Later on, unfortunately, the producers got 50% of the money derived from each booking.)
The next studio to give me terms was Columbia Pictures. Their salesman was Dennis Doph, a film buff, smart and a real character, who always made a big effort to give me as many movies as possible, and affordable. Columbia had a terrific library, with big sellers like On the Waterfront and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We continued to acquire Columbia titles for years thereafter. One of the most satisfying parts was making the silent-era Frank Capra films available for the first time. (The negatives came from Sweden and I had them translated.)
(Acquisition of the National Telefilm Associates (NTA) library, later known as Republic Pictures, opened doors for me and will be discussed in the next blog.)
Chuck Cromer was the first non-theatrical salesman I met at Disney, and his boss, and later my contact, Linda Palmer, made the decisions. I always felt like an interloper at Disney, but she gave me good movies. Unfortunately there were so many restrictions, probably not all her doing, I never had a lot of success with that library.
In the late 1970s, and especially early 80s, I saw that VHS was quickly making inroads on 16mm. The quality was not good, but film library budgets had been cut across the board, and most customers could only afford video. The “general entertainment” film libraries were the first to fall because they, and their customers, didn’t care much about picture and sound quality.
Lots more in the next blog.