A retired University of Idaho film professor is voicing concerns about the handling of more than 30,000 movies once owned by one of the largest independent video stores in the Inland Northwest, Howard Hughes Video.
The Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre acquired the vast collection from the Main Street Video Co-op after the nonprofit suddenly permanently closed its doors March 31 in the midst of the pandemic shutdown. The co-op gave the movies to the center, which began selling the DVDs and Blu-rays May 21 on its website. The center has offered to donate any titles that don’t sell to local libraries.
Upon learning about the sale, former UI professor Dennis West began contacting center staff, board members and community leaders with concerns about the collection being lost to the public.
“These are cultural goods,” said West, who taught at UI from 1979-2009 and was a member of the co-op. “We’re in a remote area; culture can be hard to come by here. This would be one of the greatest cultural gifts to Moscow in decades.”
West wants to ensure that important dimensions of the collection, such as hard-to-find films, key titles in the film cannon and works by critically acclaimed directors, remain accessible to the public, ideally through libraries. Privatizing the collection by selling movies to individuals does not serve the public, he said.
“When we get a gift horse that shows up, we need to be careful,” West said. “These are free movies. We need to get our paws in there and get the best for the public sector.”
The Kenworthy’s board of directors had “several lengthy discussions about how to be good stewards of the collection,” said Cody Moore, board chairman.
“It’s so vast and big and physically takes up so much space you have to look at divvying it up. One of the primary goals among the board and staff was to find a way to keep it in the communities, or at least the surrounding communities. We basically put together a multifaceted plan to hand them off.”
The board’s plan included discussions with libraries, schools and other nonprofits; curating a collection for the Kenworthy; and a series of sales to the community, he said.
“The community value of this collection is not missed by the Kenworthy. We’ve really tried to agree on a plan that keeps it within the community’s hands in several ways. Not everyone might agree with all the components of that plan,” said Moore.
As of last week, Christine Gilmore, the center’s director, estimated about 2,500 titles had sold online. Most of the buyers live in the Moscow-Pullman area, she said. The biggest order so far was for 160 movies.
“We have some really big film enthusiasts taking advantage of the $2 movie price,” Gilmore said.
Several buyers have purchased entire collections. One person bought all the titles in the “Doctor Who” series and another bought all of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Titles are being sold by genre, and she has anticipated getting through all the genres once by the end of June.
The University of Idaho Library and the Latah County Library in Moscow both received lists Monday of the movies remaining after sales of the first eight genres took place. Offering movies to the libraries after the sales was the course of action determined by the board, said Gilmore. A concern she’d heard from the Latah County Library was that it did not have the staffing available to sort through more than 30,000 titles.
Librarians are in the midst of launching their summer reading programs, which had to be majorly revamped because of COVID-19, said Chris Sokol, director of the Latah County Library. She said the library is very interested in adding more movies to its collection but storage at the Moscow library is a major issue; there is no room for additional materials. Its other branches are even smaller. Nevertheless, Sokol is encouraging her librarians to choose as many titles as they can.
“Maybe we can find someone to store things for us that we want to accept. It is very important to the library to have a comprehensive collection,” Sokol said.
Ben Hunter, dean of UI Libraries, said the center has offered to donate as many titles as they request. He has forwarded the list to his acquisitions staff.
“That is really very generous. We’re very pleased that they’ve included us in this and are excited to work with them,” Hunter said.
The university focuses on films with curricular or research value. It also wants the classics of cinema and television. DVDs and Blu-ray movies are among its most popular items on loan and remain a valuable format for several reasons, he said. First, there’s the digital divide; not everyone can afford the equipment needed to stream programming. Second, streaming services cost far more than owning physical copies.
“We offer streaming, but streaming costs a lot. While you can get a DVD in a lot of cases for $20 or $30 — some of the more obscure things cost more — streaming is significantly more per title and you don’t own it,” Hunter said.
Streaming is essentially a long-term lease for a library system, he said. Over time, the library pays hundreds of dollars per title. It may have access for a year or two and then that title goes away. If a library runs into a situation like budget problems and can’t spend money on a streaming service like Kanopy, access to those materials ends when the license expires.
Hunter and Sokol both expressed appreciation for West speaking up about the value of movies being kept within the public sphere. Gilmore said she understands West’s passion.
“We’re all cinephiles here. We all love the ability to see good movies.”
A number of classic titles have been set aside for Kenworthy’s collection, Gilmore said.
“They’re ones that have strong meaning to the Kenworthy and that we feel are important.”
They’ve also set aside the Criterion Collection, which is focused on classic and contemporary titles. In order to show a film to the public, the center must pay a $300 licensing fee, she said, but having the copy on hand means they don’t have to go out and search for it.
Gilmore said the center plans to work with the foreign language departments at the University of Idaho and Washington State University to determine which foreign language films are worth keeping. The center collaborates with the universities on an annual foreign film festival, and it can be difficult to find foreign films via streaming services or DVD.
“We’re trying to do something really good for the community. I do know, after talking to one of the board members of the co-op, that a real possibility would have been having these films end up on eBay … or worse, in a landfill,” Gilmore said.
West, who is on the film committee at the Kenworthy, said he doesn’t know the circumstances under which the films were acquired, but it bothers him that the libraries and the public sector are getting “the crumbs” after the sales.
He looked at the comedy genre listed for sale online recently and saw films by Richard Linklater, Woody Allen, the Coen brothers and Tim Burton.
“Five of the greatest living American auteurs about to be flushed down the drain of privatization,” West said.
“In an ideal world, the Kenworthy, first of all, would work with the public sector and preserve for the public good and make it available to the public first and then sell off the junk, which is maybe 80 percent. It seemed like they’ve stressed the opposite. It sure would be great to let Woody Allen fall into the hands of a high school or college student for free.”