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One suspects similar copyright problems are plaguing The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, the eight-hour film version of Daniel Yergin's 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Despite its current topicality, it too has not been released on DVD or re-released on VHS. I recently picked up a copy for the usual thrift-store price and sold it for $200.

Even new treatments of old documentary subjects, like World War II, can be fertile ground. HBO's docudrama Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose's telling of the true story of a famous WWII airborne company from training through D-Day to Hitler's Eagle's Nest, is a big seller now that it is available DVD. Many Blockbuster and other video rental stores have begun selling off their surplus copies, particularly of VHS tapes that have been replaced by DVDs. Last year before Christmas, I picked up a couple of sets of Band of Brothers on VHS and sold them for around $100 each to people who obviously don't yet have DVD-players (because the DVD sets were selling for about half the price of the VHS sets). The prices have since settled down, but this is still a good example of the kinds of material to be looking for.

Other Subject Areas

  1. Performing arts.

    I've found this area to be a real hit-or-miss. Ballets, operas, and symphonic concerts are tougher than not to sell. Documentaries about dancers, choreographers, singers, and conductors are, however, much easier to sell. Leonard Bernstein is a notable instance - the subject, star, and host of several programs about classical music, notably his "Young People's Concerts" - his videos are always worth picking up. Jazz performances are a better bet than classical. Popular music videos are all but hopeless. Stick to the more obscure, like Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave. (I've also had a little luck with a very obscure set of tapes featuring British military bands.)

  2. Fine arts.

    Fine arts are similar to the performing arts: big, broad treatments of the history of art are less likely to be valuable than focused presentations of particular artists or schools of art. Videos about particular museums (the more obscure the better) can do very well. I've always assumed that museum-goers who neglected to buy them while they were visiting are simply making good on obtaining a souvenir. (This rule can apply to events like circuses as well, although less often to concerts, which seem to get more copies into circulation thus depressing the price.)

  3. Biographies

    Biographies seem to be ever popular. From George Washington to Erwin Rommel, from Theodore Roosevelt to Malcolm X, from Queen Elizabeth to Anne Frank, biographical films, like printed biographies, are big sellers. And, as those just-cited examples indicate, if your video features a figure who provokes interest in another popular field - American political history, British royalty, Judaica, World War II, African-Americana - then you've doubled your appeal, if not your profit. Keep an eye out in particular for entries in A&E's "Biography" series.

  4. Sports.

    While incredibly popular on TV, or maybe because of that fact, such videos are more difficult to sell. Given the historical consciousness of fans, baseball tapes are probably an easier sell than most sports. Despite the legendary glory of the "NFL Films" production company, I've not found sales so glorious. One exception is those "video yearbooks" or other special highlight films featuring a particular team or season or featured game (like the Super Bowl) - given the right confluence of fan interest and out-of-print status, these can be quite profitable. As always, look for off-beat and unusual sports like jai-alai and kickboxing, but beware: some things can be too obscure. I once picked up a large lot of billiards tapes, thinking I'd struck gold, without realizing that they didn't have ISBNs or UPCs, making them unsalable on Amazon Marketplace, my main fixed-price venue.

  5. Nature and travel.

    Nature and travel is, in my experience, an extremely tough field (see the remarks on National Geographic above). If one studies the listings for such things, one can find a few better than average sellers, but I've yet to discover a rhyme or reason to it. The occasional offbeat mountaineering video will sell. The only other luck I've had with nature videos has been with a couple of tapes produced for public aquariums and zoos (see the comments on "souvenir" tapes under "Fine arts" above). Likewise, travel videos. These things have apparently been produced with abandon - so abandon all hope of selling them too. Even fields that are typically collectible in other media can be tough in video format: for example, I've not had one bit of luck with videos on trains and railroads, even with some seemingly rare and signed(!) copies.

  6. Fitness and exercise.

    Fitness and exercise videos are as played out as nature and travel films: there are hundreds of different celebrity instructors and systems (aerobics, dance, pilates, Tae Bo, yoga, etc.) and millions of tapes in circulation. Recall how Jane Fonda reinvented herself as a VHS fitness guru in the early 1980s. While you may be able to sell a copy of her original 1982 Workout tape, I wouldn't bother with any of the others. One exception is martial arts tapes, including tai chi videos; there's likely to be some salable material there.

  7. Other instructional.

    Other instructional programs are a better bet than the exercise tapes. Look for tapes on "how to play" musical instruments, the more obscure the instrument the better. Seek out videos on uncommon crafts like enameling and other metal working - MindStorm Videos, for example, publishes several series of desirable craft videos, notably its Master Artisans series on ceramics - but leave the home-fix-it set behind. Some instructional dance videos, like those on ballet, might work. "How to do" country-line dancing probably won't. (Be careful of ballroom-dance-competition tapes: while they seem to fit all the criteria of obscurity and desirability for good sales, there are many, many such tapes each year that are locally produced and so won't be able to be sold on fixed-price venues that require commercial coding. I've never tried them in an open, auction forum like eBay and would be curious to know how they and similar things do.)


Academy Award-winners for Best Documentary Feature

Ken Burns's complete videography

Katie Dean, "Bleary Days for Eyes on the Prize," Wired News (Dec. 22, 2004)

Katie Dean, "Cash Rescues Eyes on the Prize," Wired News (Aug. 31, 2005)

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