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Film studies faculty lead grassroots effort to acquire rare films from Video Americain

| By Nick Alexopulos
Video Americain
Nicholas Miller, associate professor of English, and Video Americain co-owner Annie Solan sort through films to identify rare classics for Loyola faculty to purchase.

In the days before Netflix and Hulu Plus, the Loyola community had Video Americain.

Just a short walk up Cold Spring Lane west of the Evergreen campus, the brick-and-mortar video rental store offered both convenience and a selection unmatched by any of the once popular national chains. For students, Video Americain was the source of feature presentations for impromptu movie nights. For faculty, it remains an asset for valuable classroom materials.

"Any time you're teaching a course and need an obscure film that’s not in our library, they always have it," said Nicholas Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of English and director of the film studies program at Loyola.

Despite its unique collection, Video Americain is no match for an on-demand world. The store is closing in March 2014 after 25 years in business and its owners, Barry and Annie Solan, are selling off the entire inventory. Last fall the Solans were deep into negotiations with a private group that was interested in procuring the bulk of the 19,000 DVDs and 16,000 VHS tapes the store had accumulated over more than two decades. Just before Thanksgiving, the deal fell through.

Averting a cinematic tragedy

The Solans opted to begin selling their collection on a first-come, first-served basis beginning Friday, Dec. 6. Miller and fellow Loyola faculty members Drew Leder, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, and Brian Murray, Ph.D., professor of writing, had stayed in touch with the Solans, hoping to set aside a handful of rare films they regularly used in their classes or for research. Now every movie would be available to every interested buyer who visited the store.

"Video Americain is one of the very, maybe half dozen, best independent collections of film in the country, so to simply have it sold off piecemeal would be a tragedy," said Leder.

Loyola's faculty film buffs had less than a week to avoid that tragedy.

Video Americain"Their collection was developed over many years to be deep and comprehensive and diverse," said Miller. "The inventory represents something closer to a high-level research archive than the stock of a typical commercial video store. That's why faculty instantly recognized this sale as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Trouble is, these DVDs aren't free and resources are thin. Miller contacted all of the department chairs in the humanities disciplines, along with humanities program directors, asking for movie requests and small contributions. Donations came in almost immediately from departments and faculty themselves, two of whom made anonymous gifts of $1,000 each. Miller also applied for and received a Center for the Humanities Grant from Loyola worth another $1,000. Soon after, Loyola alumni who frequented Video Americain learned of the effort and set up a Facebook group to encourage their classmates to make donations.

The money in hand, along with the grant and pledges of further support, enabled Miller, Leder, and Murray to go to the Solans on Dec. 5, the day before the public sale was to start, and negotiate in good faith to set aside more than 600 films, a substantial portion of what Miller calls the "core of the collection."

"It was this amazing flurry of, 'how can we preserve this for our students and for ourselves as faculty?'" said Annie Solan.

Hunting for gems

The faculty scoured the store looking for quality or unusual picks, in addition to classroom favorites.

"We didn’t go through willy-nilly," said Miller. "We were selecting movies that would be useful to the different disciplines that teach film and faculty that do research in film."

They reserved movies by certain obscure directors who aren’t heavily represented in the catalogue at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library, including French filmmaker Claude Henri Jean Chabrol. They flagged numerous silent films, rare animation films, and Criterion discs replete with bonus features. The Solans recommended hidden gems.

"They were just so enthusiastic," Barry Solan said. "Professors were crawling on the floors looking at films on the bottom shelves. It was such an emotional uplift."

The Solans' relationship with Loyola professors dates back to the store's opening in 1989, and their interactions with students came in memorable four-year increments. Residents of Hampden, Roland Park, and other nearby neighborhoods share similar ties with the store and its straight-out-of-central-casting owners. Barry Solan says the relationships, the interactions, and the appreciation are an acknowledgment of the passion he and his wife put into what they've built.

"Video Americain has always been by appearance very modest, though very rich in film," said Solan. "To have people who can get past the shlumpy quality of the store to get to what's really going on means a lot to us."

Surprisingly, the Solans aren't bitter. They knew from day one they'd lose out to disruptive technology eventually; in fact, they thought it would have happened a lot sooner (Barry Solan parallels his video store experience with the Chanukah story: "The oil was supposed to last one night, but it lasted eight"). And where streaming video services were the problem for the Solans, they weren't the solution for Loyola faculty and the film studies program. That's what made acquiring the core collection from Video Americain so important.

"Many of these films are of a kind that aren't available via streaming, and won't be any time soon, if ever," said Miller. "For Loyola to be the institution that has a DVD copy is a huge boon for our students."

Video AmericainBarry Solan behind the counter at Video Americain.

Take director Fritz Lang's 1920 silent film The Wandering Shadow; it's not available on Netflix in any capacity, but Video Americain has a copy Miller intends to purchase. The cache includes rare early films by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, masterpieces by Czech animator Jiri Trnka, a series of Mary Pickford silents, and lost films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, to name a few. Miller and his colleagues also intend to acquire numerous documentaries and foreign language films in French, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish.

Video Americain: The Sequel

Plans are underway for the collection to be housed at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library. Details on how to access the collection will be available once it has been acquired, but film studies faculty are confident it will be a valuable resource to the campus community.

"Just introducing students to film literacy, to be able to go to a film and understand what the director and the actors and the cinematographer and composer are doing, and why the film works or doesn't work, will turn them into appreciators of film, which will last them the rest of their life," said Leder, who teaches a class on philosophy and film. "They may never pick up another text by Plato, but they're going to watch hundreds of films in the next few years."

To date, Miller and his colleagues have raised more than $21,000 for their project, thanks in large part to an anonymous gift of $13,700 in early February. With that money they will be able to purchase the films they've set aside and pay costs associated with cataloguing the collection at the library. And every donation helped. Many of the DVDs retail for only $5, but even at 'everything-must-go' rates some of the discs are still valued at $100 or more because they're so rare.

No matter the asking price, the Solans extended Miller an extraordinarily generous deal, marking down each film exponentially. Barry Solan says money took a back seat as soon as the handshake happened.

"For me as a small businessman for 39 years, to know that some of the things that I've acquired will now be passed on to a university makes me feel that something I did was worthwhile because it was worthy of an esteemed place like Loyola."

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