The VCR may not be as omnipresent today as it once was, but the VHS format is far from dead – no media that’s made the huge cultural impact that VHS did can ever truly vanish completely. The past few years have seen a huge influx in VHS collectors, and while a few of these folks are just looking to make some cash on a new collectable trend, most of these videophiles are fans, and the sport of hunting down the most eclectic, obscure titles with the most scandalous and tantalizing box art is all part of the fun. (The fandom is chronicled quite well in the great documentary ADJUST YOUR TRACKING.)
But figuring out the exact number of releases and rarity of items has been tough, though sites like Critical Condition and VHS Collector have done a fine job at archiving the information of various labels and tapes. This research comes to book form in Volume one of the Video Hunter’s Guide, a new reference work from collectors Ron Swan and Joel Gunn. Not a price guide (though it does include prices of tapes being sold during a certain time period) and more an invaluable guide to the cassettes themselves, the book features complete listings of the titles distributed by nearly 70 different distributors that are sought out by eager collectors’ hands. It’s a great source for information that should prove ideal to stick in your pocket during your flea market and thrift store hunts, and the format makes for a great checklist for those determined to collect ‘em all.
We spoke with Ron about the book, his history with VHS and the increasing collector’s market for hard-to-find genre films.
DG: Did you grow up in the era of VHS? What are your first VHS memories?
Ron Swan (RS): I did grow up in the era of VHS. Thinking back, my earliest memory was when my Mom came home with a VCR for the first time. She had been talking about getting one, but they were so expensive. I was really young at the time, but I remember asking where she got it and all she would tell me was that she bought it off some guy at work. I think it was one of those “it fell off of a truck” moments! I remember we had a few movies, but most everything had been taped off of TV.
We never had a Betamax machine, CED, or anything like that. We went straight for VHS.
DG: Was there a local mom’n’pop video store you went to?
RS: There were a few local ones in the neighborhood, and I remember visiting all of them at one time or another (late charges? Simply get a membership at a new store!). When supermarkets and especially Longs Drugstore (now CVS) started carrying titles, that’s mostly where we went.
DG: Do you remember the first VHS title you ever bought?
RS: We really didn’t buy movies until stores started to close. I remember stores were selling used tapes for $5 each and since my Dad had gotten me into horror movies, I usually tried to convince my Mom to buy me those. It didn’t usually work, but I remember getting her to buy me GHOULIES. That was probably my first legit VHS tape.
DG: Do you still have that copy of GHOULIES?
RS: Yes! I know it’s at my Mom’s house. She still has a cabinet dedicated to VHS, with the bottom drawer being DVDs, and she still has a working VCR.
DG: Every home should still have a working VCR! Especially as, as you point out in the introduction, there are so many titles not available on DVD.
When did you start getting into actual collecting? Like, to the point where you realized you needed to have dedicated shelf space?
RS: I started getting into collecting for 2 reasons about 8 years ago. The first being that there were tons of Vietnam War movies not on DVD, especially the Godfrey Ho variety. Even if they were released on DVD, many times the original music was not carried over (like, TOUR OF DUTY). So a VHS tape (or possibly LaserDisc) was about as good as it got. The second reason was because everything was going for next to nothing. I could buy the movie on VHS for under a buck, or I could rent it for a little over a buck from Hollywood Video.
I would usually donate to Goodwill if the movie was something I really hated, but that ended up not happening too often. I didn’t really get shelving for awhile. I had those pullout fake-wood drawers that you can sometimes find at flea markets or Goodwill for a couple bucks. Mostly, I’d just stack tapes on the floor or in the closet.
DG: When did you realize there was this burgeoning collector’s market forming around VHS?
RS: I saw that prices on eBay had jumped way up probably around late 2008. I didn’t buy stuff from eBay, as most of my stock came from local stores, but I noticed that prices were really starting to climb.
DG: For a while, VHS pricing was very much like the wild west, where there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to the prices people got. Is that what gave you the idea to put together some kind of guide?
RS: What really gave me the idea was not so much the pricing, but not knowing what was out there. You don’t know what to look for, if you don’t know that it exists.
Tons of video stores were selling VHS by the pound, catalogs and sales sheets included. By the time it started taking off, I had already amassed piles and piles of distributor information.
DG: How did you go about compiling the information? I know there are a few good sites devoted to disseminating individual labels (like VHS Collector and Critical Condition), but it still must have been a huge task.
RS: It was a huge task, but it was also something we were passionate about. I met Joel, the co-author, a few years ago at a flea market. I hadn’t made any connections with VHS collectors, but we got along really well. He had tons of info too, and after talking out the details of what we wanted, we set out to create the guide a little under 3 years ago. We started consolidating the information we had and got some software built that would help us deal with price tracking. The sites that we list as other resources really do what they do very well. We didn’t want to replicate any of that, so that’s why the Video Hunter’s Guide is so focused. Here’s what X distributor released, here’s the catalog numbers and titles for each of them, and here are what some of them have sold for. No pictures, no trailer links, etc.
While the guide does have realized prices attached, I try to stay away from the “Price Guide” label. A tape is worth however much somebody wants it for, at that moment. However, it’s useful to know that nobody in the last year has paid over X dollars for it.
DG: What made you decide on the particular distributors you chose to include?
RS: With this first volume, we decided to start with the most popular labels: Thriller, Wizard, Midnight, Camp, etc. Then we moved onto the other labels that had appeal due to being early (like MEDA, Magnetic) or had collectible releases (like Paragon). From there, we even included a few more common distributors that still had collectible appeal, like Media or Lightning. We have info on and track about 300 distributors, so choosing around 70 wasn’t easy!
DG: No doubt! How long of a period did it take you to put this all together? And how long did you track online pricing?
RS: It took a little under 3 years to get the distributor info merged over into our software, which we had built from scratch. We had been tracking prices for about a year from when the book was released.
DG: I know it’s a bit early to plan at this point, but is there anything in particular you’ve got in mind for Volume 2?
RS: What we really wanted to do was to listen to collectors. The Video Hunter’s Guide is for collectors, and we want to give them what they ask for. We ask for feedback on our website and have gotten a lot, but we’d love to get even more! Most of what we’ve heard is how happy collectors are to have this information in one spot. The goal is to provide more, but if we released all of our info for each distributor, it would probably translate to over 1,000 pages in print. That might not be too economical for collectors, so something we’re working on is to give people more in volume 2 without having to charge more. Still working on it!
DG: Cool! Can people keep tabs on updates by going to www.VideoHuntersGuide.com? What else can folks find there?
RS: Yeah! Definitely our website, but also be sure to sign up for our mailing list there. We’ll be giving away free stuff for people that have signed up. Once you’ve done that, a great place to track and like us is our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/VideoHuntersGuide
So what’s your holy grail of VHS that you have yet to get? And what have you picked up that made you the most satisfied?
RS: That’s a tough question! I’ll start with the most satisfied acquisition. Having literally cleared out video rental store storage rooms and mini-warehouses, the greatest high is when you open a hidden box and discover gold. Coming across a box with a sealed GORE-MET ZOMBIE CHEF FROM HELL was VERY satisfying. It’s that feeling you get knowing that it was your destiny to find it. Thank you to that disgruntled stockroom kid in 1989 that was too lazy to ever look at what was in the box at the bottom!
Holy Grail that I have yet to get is a copy of THE ABOMINATION. It’s a really cool movie and I hope to have one in my collection one day.
DG: Have you thought about determining some sort of rarity in addition (or even instead of) a price? Especially with genre films being a lot more highly pursued than, say, family films or workout videos, it may be curious to know which titles are just very rare even if nobody actually seems to care about them. Or would that be virtually impossible to determine? I’d have a tough time even coming up with an idea as to how to come up with an estimated number that factors in copies produced, distribution, current market availability…
RS: The best way to determine rarity is to look at how many times a release has been sold over the tracking period (6-12 months). You may find LUNCHMEAT isn’t quite are rare as everybody thinks it is, if it comes up for sale every other month or so.
As for how many were produced and how many exist, it’s impossible to tell. Especially since VHS tapes couldn’t even be given away in 2004 and were trashed or left to rot in moldy conditions. Tracking sales is the best realistic method.
DG: Speaking of which, the piece about mold in the introduction is good to know — do you have any obvious tips for taking care of VHS tapes that you wish more people would do?
RS: A lot of guys end up storing or putting shelves in their garages for their tapes. Unless you’ve got it climate controlled, don’t ever do that. Keep tapes dry and within a reasonable temperature. Mold is a killer for collections.
DG: Thanks! Anything else you’d like to add? I do like that the book is clearly written for collectors — the mention of Wizard Video’s “warehouse find” controversy makes that clear.
RS: Yeah, we try not to pass any judgement on what collectors should go after or take a stance on any releases whatsoever. We simply try to put the information out there and let the collector be the judge. It all boils down to “what makes you happy?” This guide has been a passion project of ours for years now, and it’s great to get all of the feedback that we’ve gotten so far. I look forward to hearing more. Appreciate you taking the time to talk about the guide, Paul.
DG: Thanks, Ron! Good luck on the release!
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