Profits in VHS Tapes
Documentaries and Other Nonfiction

by William M. Klimon

#65, 3 April 2006

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I collect and, as a hobby seller, deal mostly in nonfiction books of an historical and academic type. If your experience is like mine, when scouting you're likely to run into a lot of stuff besides books. I ignore almost all of it, largely because I don't know enough about glassware or china or furniture to make sensible purchases - and those few times I've made impulse purchases, I've rued them later. But in the midst of all the other junk, you're likely to see shelves and shelves of VHS tapes.

Because DVD was the fastest growing technology of the last few years, we're now living in a weird interstice between dominant media technologies. Though many people have both, some have only DVD and some have only VHS players. There are many new releases available only on DVD and many old releases still available only on VHS. Then there is that strange place somewhere in the middle where highly desirable films and other programs are out-of-print or prohibitively expensive new in VHS but not yet available on DVD. Obviously, that middle place can be fertile ground for sellers, who in turn can provide a valuable service to collectors and other buyers, particularly those who are still VHS-only.

I've found the VHS drama, comedy, and children's markets to be especially saturated. Having no desire to be a penny-seller and realizing that we're living through a renewed interest in documentary films, with Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, and March of the Penguins recently scoring big at the box office and with critics, I turned to the nonfiction subjects that interest me and found a thriving market for documentary films and TV programs and other nonfiction programming on VHS. Applying my experience with the nonfiction book market, coupled with some understanding of the legal and technological state of new media, I've had some success finding and selling documentaries and other nonfiction on VHS. This article shares a lot of what I've learned.

General Rules

  1. Prefer brand names over generics and bargain tapes.

    The marquee names in documentary film production and distribution are: PBS, BBC, A&E, TLC, and the History Channel. One exception is National Geographic, a world-class producer of nature, natural history, and cultural documentaries. Generally, there are just too many copies of NG videos in circulation. (I'm sure there are exceptions to this exception, but I personally haven't found any yet.) The market for the bargain tapes - Reader's Digest, Time-Life, etc. like their print cousins, NY Times bestsellers and remainders - is saturated. Likewise for the generics - which often feature reused, public-domain nature or WWII footage - if they can even be sold on fixed-price venues like Amazon, which requires the tapes to have an ISBN or UPC in order to list in Amazon Marketplace.

  2. Prefer sets over singletons.

    This is one of those cases where the whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts. Buyers will pay more for a complete set than for the individual pieces separately - particularly if the set comes in a "housing box" or "slipcase" that holds all the tapes, but often even without it. This fact provides an additional advantage for sellers. If you find a broken set, it's frequently possible to complete it at a very reasonable cost -by picking up the missing pieces on eBay or Amazon - and raise the price of the resulting set considerably.

  3. Prefer the obscure to the tried-and-true (aka, the tired-and-trite).

    Scoop up the shelfful of "how to play" the mandolin tapes; pass on the Paula Abdul videos. Forget the thousandth version of aerial combat footage that was advertised on a late-night infomercial; do pick up something like Plane Crazy, PBS's three-tape documentary on the quixotic quest to build a new airplane in 30 days. Always take copies of the History Channel's "History of Magic" series, hosted by the enigmatic Ricky Jay; always leave behind Kathy Smith's "Step Workout" tapes.

Keeping Your "Eyes on the Prize"
(and "The Prize" and the Prizes)

It may be a personal prejudice, but historical and historically informed documentary films are for me the most interesting. And in fact they may also be the most profitable type of nonfiction video for secondhand sellers.

We've long been inundated with footage from World War II, the first fully filmed armed conflict in history. From my youth, I recall the endless repeats of Victory at Sea. The abundance of historically interesting footage, likely available at reasonable rates if not free from the government archives, has proved endlessly tempting to public and educational cable TV broadcasters. It's not for nothing that the History Channel has frequently been dubbed the "World War II Channel."

Documentary filmmaking after the war spanned the gambit from The Titan: Story of Michelangelo to Woodstock, from Jacques Cousteau's World Without Sun to Scared Straight (all Oscar-winners for best documentary feature). If you are going to be hunting for documentary videos, it wouldn't hurt to have a working familiarity with Academy-award nominees and winners from the period. For example, I recently found an unopened copy of Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A. I remembered that she had won a couple of Oscars (including for that film) and was able to quickly sell that copy for 25-times its thrift-store price.

The 1980s saw a renaissance of historically oriented documentary filmmaking. Ken Burns began a series of short films on quintessentially American subjects: the Brooklyn Bridge (1981), the Shakers ( 1984), the Statue of Liberty (1985), and others, culminating in his 12-hour epic The Civil War (1990). The Civil War reinvented the war documentary by capturing the events and emotions of the bloodiest conflict in American history without the use of any moving pictures, concentrating instead on contemporary photographs and the reading of contemporary documents and interviews with historians. It also won two Emmy awards. Burns has gone on to tackle other big, American subjects like Baseball (1994) and Jazz (2001). His videos, when you can find them, are almost without fail quick and high sellers.

Ken Burns's work was not the only important documentary filmmaking of the 1980s and '90s. A group of talented African-American filmmakers, led by Henry Hampton, plumbed the depths of the archives of the modern civil rights movement for images, footage, songs, and sounds to tell the story of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965) (1987) and its sequel, Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads (1965-1985) (1990). These films, made on limited budgets and with 14 hour-long parts in all, won so many awards and became so popular, not least as educational tools, that they totally swamped their original intellectual-property licenses. That is to say, the producers, not expecting such an overwhelming reception for their films, obtained the rights to use the underlying materials on only a limited basis. The process of renegotiating and paying for new licensing rights has proved so difficult that the films have never been released on DVD or re-released on VHS. Consequently, secondhand sets of the original VHS release now routinely sell for more than $600. (This situation may not last much longer, however, as the producers have recently received private foundation grants to allow them to license the necessary materials and finish the DVD productions. See the articles from Wired News listed under "Resources" below.)

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