An Oklahoma Handshake
Posted June 6, 2014on:
I don’t remember not doing business with VCI.
Bill Blair, Rebecca Garza-Ortiz (nee Blair) 
Betty Scott 
Bob Blair [early 1970s]
Don Blair [1970s]
Our relationship began 40 years ago, after I started Kit Parker Films in 1971. I contacted VCI, then known as United Films, a 16mm film distributor like KPF, only larger, and I licensed my first studio films. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United Films’ CEO was Bill Blair*, a consummate film buff who passed his love-of-film genes onto his children.
Over time I grew to know Bill, his son Bob and Genell (Bob’s wife) as I frequently called them in the days when I was distributing movies to the Pacific Islands. Another Blair son, Don, toiled in the shipping department. Betty Scott, worked behind the scenes and wrote the checks. Many years passed before I personally met everyone in the flesh.
In the late 1970s, United Films was one of the first to realize that the future was in selling pre-recorded VHS and Betamax (remember?) tapes. United Films became VCI Entertainment, a pioneer in what we now take for granted…”Home Video.” At first they only licensed movies from various producers and paid them a percentage of each video sold. Then they realized by producing their own movies they could keep all the money:
Voila…VCI’s first in-house production — “Blood Cult” (1985) (3.3 out of 10 on IMDb). During the days of “sell-through,” it retailed for $59.95 ($130 in 2014 dollars) and made a bundle because these tapes were primarily purchased by rental stores like Blockbuster, West Coast Video, and countless independents hungry for product. The era of inexpensive “sell through” DVD’s hadn’t blossomed as yet. Their other in-house low-budget video productions were also successful, although not among the AFI’s 100 greatest American movies of all time.
Today, VCI is one of the oldest independent home video companies, and its story is worthy of a book, but none of the Blair’s have time to write a chapter.
United/VCI left the 16mm business in the early 1980s, whereas I continued representing studios and independent producers non-theatrically and theatrically until 2001. I was one of the last men standing in that field before celluloid became obsolete.
That didn’t end my relationship with VCI, but revived it.
I began buying rights to old movies and licensed them to VCI for DVD distribution. Not sure if we wrote a formal contract…a handshake in Oklahoma is firmer than a written contract.
40 years later, who do I still work with with VCI? I’m on the phone with Bob Bair, Don Blair, and Betty Scott. Genell (she could write jokes for Don Rickles), and Don’s wife, Jill, figured one film nut in the family was enough. However, their “retirement” recently ended when they were recruited to caption the VCI library for the hearing impaired. Unfortunately, Bill Blair passed away in 2006.
Another Blair son, David, previously worked for Sony, and had a client so important he moved to its home town…Wal-Mart, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Now he’s in charge of VCI’s sales while living in Atlanta. I’ve only met him once, but there is no doubt he is the right man for the job.
OK, let’s take a tour of VCI in Tulsa Oklahoma:
It is an unassuming single-story building on the outskirts of Tulsa (trivia: the most inland seaport in the United States) with offices fronting a warehouse.
Entering VCI’s lobby you’re greeted by a display filled with DVD’s, posters, and a big photograph of VCI’s founder, Bill Blair, with the statement, “Our Leading Man.”
To the right is Betty Scott’s office, with a John Wayne standee to greet you. She and I are kindred spirits because we both started out in “show business” as film inspectors. I shudder at the thought of her retiring. Although I’ve never looked behind her desk, Bob and Don probably have affixed her leg to a ball and chain.
Next office: Bob, conductor of the “orchestra.” The Maestro sits at a desk stacked with teetering papers and DVDs. I can’t imagine how many emails he receives every day. Sometimes a dozen in one day from me! Maybe if Betty writes me an extra big royalty check, I’ll send him and Genell on a long vacation; they deserve one.
Next stop is the control room — similar to the space station. It’s where the restoration, authoring, and graphic design are created. There are computers and monitors all over the place, and I can’t tell you how they do one single thing. All I know is film splicers have gone the way of the buggy whip. Tiffany Beseau-Clayton is the head rocket scientist, and there is Ben Hosterman, and his brother, Greg Hosterman, known as the “graphics guy.” They all belie the popular psychology belief that individuals are either “right brain” (creative) or “left brain” (logical). They are always open to suggestions…no egos at VCI.
Jason Blair, Bob and Genell’s son, works next door replicating special order DVD-R’s.
And then you walk into their warehouse. Wow…manna from heaven for film buffs; a warehouse filled with DVD’s awaiting shipment to customers like (hopefully) you. It’s the domain of Bill Blair’s daughter, Rebecca Garza-Ortiz (who wears many hats,) her husband Steve, and daughter, Olivia.
There are many reels of old film Bill once tried to sell me four decades ago. For years Bob’s been telling me that someday he’s going to ship it all to an archive, but the same cans and boxes have sat there for as long as I remember. Someday never seems to come.
Now pass through the swinging door and meet Penny Brokaw. She handles billings and is the voice of the person who takes your order. I think she has a ball and chain under her desk, too. As you’ve gathered by now, VCI is a pleasant place to work.
In the next office is Exec V.P., Don Blair. He has even more paper stacked on his desk than Bob. Don says he has a TV with Roku in every room in his house. I believe it. His favorite two topics are: sales are going to be off the charts next year (hopefully true) and VCI doesn’t get credit due for its quality restoration work (always true.)
Last is the conference room where Bob, Don and I, and often joined by our friend and collaborator, Steve Durbin, have spent many an hour talking about business, often digressing into tales about various colorful characters and crooks whom we’ve all dealt with throughout the years. We used to sit around grousing about our various physical maladies until Bob said we were complaining like a bunch of old men. If the shoe fits… (But, we did stop complaining.)
Many home video companies have come and gone over the years. Sure, I’ve had other companies ask to distribute my movies. Maybe I’d make more money, but would the graphics be right? Would I get paid? Why bother?
I’ve got an Oklahoma handshake.
*See previous blog.
Kit Parker Films DVD’s available from: http://www.vcient.com
(c) 2014 Kit Parker Films