Archive for April 2012
“The 16mm non-theatrical business is just a pimple on the ass of the motion picture industry.”
One of the top executives in the 16mm non-theatrical business told me that in the early 1990s, when the industry was pretty well gutted by the encroachment of VHS tape, and expanded cable and satellite channels…the coming of DVDs destroyed it. Everyone has seen “for home use only” pronouncements on tapes and DVD’s, and technically a school or institution was required to get a license from a non-theatrical distributor to show a movie, but it proved largely unworkable to enforce…and one-by-one the film libraries started closing.
Let’s go back 20 years before that, when 1971 Kit Parker Films began as a 16mm non-theatrical film distributor. There were film libraries all across the country, and the players in 1971 were Films Incorporated, Audio-Brandon Films (Audio had previously acquired the foreign/art film distributor, Brandon Films), Modern Sound Pictures, Twyman Films, Swank Motion Pictures, Clem Williams Films, Budget Films, and United Films (which morphed into today’s DVD classic film company, VCI Entertainment.) Most of the foreign/art films were distributed by Audio-Brandon and Contemporary Films. There were many other libraries, but these were the major players.
Films Inc. was by far the biggest, and most important of all; it controlled the exclusive rights to the 20th Century-Fox, Paramount, RKO Radio Pictures and MGM; they also had the Walt Disney library on a non-exclusive basis. The company became even bigger when it acquired Audio-Brandon (by then known as Macmillan Audio Brandon, when acquired by Macmillan Publishers). Warner Bros., Disney, and Columbia Pictures were shared among the rest of the distributors on a non-exclusive basis.
When VHS came out in the late 1970s, the 16mm business started a precipitous decline, and in the 1980s Kit Parker Films acquired the libraries of Wholesome Film Center of Boston, Clem Williams Films of Pittsburgh, Twyman Films of Dayton, Ohio, Cinema V of New York City, and last but not least, the former “Tiffany” of 16mm distributors, Films Inc. based in Chicago.
In 1997, the Films Inc. library had lost rights to the major studios, and ended up comprised mainly of what they touted as “The Classic Collection,” a joint venture with prestigious art film distributor, Janus Films. There were many international classics, and other interesting movies, but, the drawback was the poor condition of the prints. We had to scrap so many prints if we weren’t lucky enough to cannibalize multiple prints in order to make copies that passed our quality standards.
Footnote: Swank Motion Pictures vs. Films Incorporated, and the end of competition
(Swank Motion Pictures’ humble beginnings as a “portable projection service”)
Swank Motion Pictures(1) was a family run business that began in the 1930s by P. Ray Swank, a very savvy businessman who made his first fortune by renting AV equipment around the country, at premium rates, through exclusive deals with convention hotels around the country. Ray liked me, and would say I knew more about the history of the 16mm rental business than anyone…except him!
The last time I saw him in the late 1990’s he was in his late 80s, and he had no intention of slowing down…always thinking ahead. Anyway, Ray began a systematic approach to monopolize the non-theatrical business, which by then included various forms of video. The person who ran his film library was Jack Lusk, smart, diplomatic, and personable; he had the people skills to endear himself to the distribution heads at studios, all the while Ray chipped away at Films Inc.’s exclusive deals. Swank is a family owned business, and as big as it became, Ray always told me that renting AV equipment was where he made the most money, in fact the AV division of Swank was sold for around $35 million after Ray’s death at age 95…he was a brilliant, but ruthless. Thank goodness I never had to tangle with him.
(A Canadian non-theatrical distributor, Criterion Pictures, subsequently obtained rights to 20th Century-Fox and New Line Cinema, which kept Swank from a battle with Federal regulators over monopolistic practices.)
Encyclopedia Britannica Films(2) was created in 1943 by a larger than life individual, William Benton(3). Films Inc. was a division of EBF, and in 1966 it was acquired by his son, Charles Benton(4). Charles was a cultured, Ivy League, philanthropic individual, and was, and is, the CEO of the Benton Foundation(5), and worked tirelessly for the arts and liberal causes. The only time I really got to spend any time with him was an evening in 1987 when he and his wife, Marjorie, invited my wife, Donna, and I for dinner and a movie at their beautiful winter home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. The movie was “My Favorite Laundrette” (1985), which was a decidedly left-leaning drama with an unflattering portrait of Margaret Thatcher…grist for Benton’s mill. It was an enjoyable evening…spent with world-class patrons of the arts.
(Charles and Marjorie Benton)
As I said, Swank was brilliant, but ruthless. Charles Benton was refined, but no pushover; however, Benton played by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, and Swank did not. One by one, Films Inc. lost its exclusive studio contracts to Swank/Movie Licensing USA, and eventually went out of the non-theatrical business. I made a deal with the Benton family, which at that time was run by his daughter Adrienne Benton Furniss(4), to take over what was left of their film business, which by then was comprised of art and international film classics. Adrienne continued the Benton Family appreciation of the arts through art and classic film DVD distributor, Home Vision Cinema, to which she eventually became CEO before selling out in 2005.
How Kit Parker Films fared during the decline will be the subject of “Kit Parker Films @40 – Part 7”
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