When Scarecrow Video began its pilot rent-by-mail program back in fall 2019, things were decidedly low-tech. Executive director Kate Barr, describing the system as held together by “bubble gum and duct tape,” remembered telling customers, “‘OK, get ready to get into your time machine and go back. …’ In order to get them set up, we would actually have to call them over the phone to get their credit card on file. There was no other way to do it.”

But a few things have changed since that early testing-the-waters program, which involved only a few dozen people. A global pandemic occurred, making many of us more reliant on stay-at-home entertainment. Reckless Video closed down, leaving Scarecrow — Seattle’s last video store, though a nonprofit since 2014 — to examine its place as a rare surviving outlet for physical media. And streaming services multiplied, offering more and more options but at increasing cost to consumers, particularly those who subscribe to more than one service — and a limited and ever-shifting inventory.

“It’s an illusion of endless content,” said John O’Connor, Scarecrow’s development director, of streaming offerings, “but there are so many holes.” Scarecrow, at the moment, has approximately 140,000 titles, on physical media. Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu — combined — have approximately one-third of that, and the ephemeral nature of streaming rights means that titles on those platforms come and go.

“A number of the people who signed up for rental by mail during lockdown were people who said, ‘We’ve watched everything we want to watch on Netflix and Amazon, and now I don’t know what to do,’” Barr said. “We were onboarding people who had never rented from Scarecrow before, turning to us during COVID because they were burned out on the limitations.”

Scarecrow Video has approximately 140,000 titles on physical media. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

So the time seemed right for Scarecrow, founded in 1986 and located in the University District since 1993, to take a big step: working to create a national rent-by-mail service. Earlier this year, the longtime local treasure for cinephiles (which has been a nonprofit entity since 2014) launched a campaign, called Scarecrow 2.1: The Future of Physical Media, to raise $250,000. The money will be used to update Scarecrow’s aging digital infrastructure: to overhaul the website and improve searchability, to implement an efficient and cost-effective rent-by-mail system, and to more effectively manage inventory. And it will be used to expand Scarecrow’s free community offerings, many of which had to be put on pause during the pandemic: the Silver Screenings program in community and senior centers, the Children’s Hour presentations at the store, outdoor screenings, film clubs and more.  

In short, Scarecrow wants to “take physical media, which people associate with 20th-century technology, and find a place for it going forward in the 21st century,” Barr said.

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The campaign, which staffers hope to wrap up this month, is going well, recently passing $180,000. An anonymous donor — a local person and longtime Scarecrow fan, said O’Connor — has agreed to pledge the last $50,000 if the campaign can reach $200,000.

A national rent-by-mail service — like what Netflix used to be (and still does), but with so many more options — would be a vast undertaking, but one that Barr said Scarecrow is ready for. During the pandemic, the test program expanded to about 600 customers, across 25 states. Logistics were worked out: Movies on Scarecrow’s rental-by-approval list — rarities that would be difficult or expensive to replace — are not eligible for the mail program; neither are new releases, because they have a two-day rental period that isn’t feasible through the mail; or VHS tapes.

But the bulk of Scarecrow’s titles — about 115,000, Barr estimated — are available to send out, using the same rental system applied to those who walk in the door (those renting need to have a Scarecrow account, with a credit card number on file). Like Netflix, Scarecrow provides a mailer for easy return.

Barr and O’Connor said they hope to use the funds raised in the campaign not only to launch the mail program but to change the user experience for those visiting Scarecrow online — currently, if you search on the store’s website, “our current database is pretty much title, maybe director, and that’s it.” They’d like users to be able to search by genre, or country of origin, and to be able to see in real time whether a title is available.

And they’d like to better showcase Scarecrow’s growing online options. Though the store was closed for many months during the pandemic, Barr said that no employees were laid off. (Scarecrow has a staff of 18, including both full- and part-time employees.) During that time, the store started a podcast called Scarecrow Radio and a biweekly radio show called Viva Physical Media, on the store’s YouTube channel. Employees have also been busy creating unique recommendation lists — among them, “Nicolas Cage Mega-Acting Primer,” “2010s Female-Directed Horror,” “Underseen Blaxploitation,” and many more — available on the website.  

It’s all part of Scarecrow’s longtime mission: to champion the role of film art in people’s lives, and to facilitate the access of that art to everyone. Both Barr and O’Connor cite the worrisome trend of older films disappearing; Barr noted that 50% of films made before 1950 are considered lost. “It’s really important that somebody is saying, ‘OK, we’ll be the ones to take care of these and have them available for future generations,’” she said. By sharing Scarecrow’s vast inventory, they are preserving film history.

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And as video stores have disappeared, it’s a mission that feels more urgent. “We would rather have a video store in every neighborhood, like it used to be,” Barr said. “But as more go away, people begin to realize how truly unique and precious Scarecrow is. We now have supporters from all over the world.”

O’Connor called the campaign results so far “incredibly encouraging. … One of the hurdles since becoming a nonprofit is people thinking of us as just a video store. I think in the past few years, folks are beginning to get a sense of what Scarecrow is. There’s literally no place like it on earth.”

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