Video Monks: Jim Knipfel on Bootleggers of Obscure Films

 A still from Jim Henson's made for TV movie The Cube A still from Jim Henson’s made for TV movie The Cube

Depending on your perspective, in the 1930s, bootleggers were either a blight or a blessing upon the American landscape, ducking the Feds to provide the public with a product that was not otherwise legally available. The same is true in the 21st century. Although wares differ, bootleggers are still making available something that is by all accounts illegal. Stakes are different, and the legal arguments more convoluted, but ultimately the game remains the same. Instead of bathtub gin, however, one of the biggest black market contraband nowadays is film.

There is a clear hierarchy in place when it comes to film piracy. At the top are the major Chinese, Taiwanese, and Balinese operations: mass-producing DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters that somehow make their way to the sidewalks of Times Square the day before the films officially open. It’s a billion-dollar business that also involves bribery, computer hacking, smuggling, and murder. Over the past decade the major studios have been working hand in hand with the FBI to put a stop to it, with about as much success as the G-Men had eighty years ago.

Below that is the online world of YouTube, file sharing, and BitTorrent downloads. The common mantra is that everything is out there—you just need to know where to look for it. But online behavior often leaves a distinct and easily traceable electronic trail, and officials tend to have very little trouble tracking down, say, a nostalgia-crazed 39-year-old accounts receivable manager who’s downloaded the entire episode run of Lidsville.

Far below the bright and often too-public world of high-tech video piracy there is a dim and shadowy world of basement hand-to-hand transactions—of collectors, obsessives, paranoids, geeks and shut-ins. Despite the ease and accessibility of computer downloads and online trading, most dealers in this lower tier remain adamantly lo-fi, preferring videotapes and discs—things they can hold—to digital files viewed on a screen. They rarely advertise their offerings online, content instead to stick with mimeographed printouts and word of mouth.

The films they’re dealing are not the blockbusters, not sleeper hits, and not cult TV shows. These bootleggers are after the forsaken and the lost—films nobody else wants. It’s not a billion-dollar industry, but in legal terms what they’re doing is just as illicit as what any mob is up to. And without them, film historians and archivists would be lost.

Up until 2005, any New Yorker who was looking for an obscure, experimental, or otherwise unavailable film knew that Kim’s Video (later Mondo Kim’s) was the place to go. Kim’s shelves were loaded with bootlegs ofincredibly rare films (noirs, Italian gut-munchers, Westerns, pre-code comedies). The store made no secret of it. Sometimes they would simply scribble a title to a card, stick it to a generic box and put it in the section. It wasn’t fancy, but where else were you going to find the latest horror films from Hong Kong or French avant-garde films from the 20s? Blockbuster?

Then, in June of 2005, over a dozen police officers raided Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks Place and began to grab the pirated material. The raid was at the behest of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), sparked by the bootlegged mix-tapes Kim’s was selling on the first floor. The only DVDs they grabbed were music-related.

In the end, there were 5 arrests, and 51 products were removed from the shelves. Police also took the store’s computers, but left the movies alone. Which is ironic, because according to employees, while Kim’s was not burning CDs on the premises, they were burning DVDs. It was a music raid, not a video raid.

Nevertheless, in the fallout afterward, Mr. Kim, the local chain’s owner, insisted that all bootlegged material—musical and cinematic alike—be wiped from the shelves of all of his stores. It should be pointed out that the bootleg films carried by Kim’s were not otherwise available in any legitimate form. If at any point a bootlegged film did see an official home video release, it would be replaced by the commercial edition, if only to avoid trouble. Most of the bootlegged films had such a limited audience that there was very little hope any studio or DVD distributor would take enough interest to invest the time, money, and effort into the remastering and packaging necessary to put out a sanctioned version.

 Photo of Mondo Kim's, courtesy NY Magazine Photo of Mondo Kim’s, courtesy NY Magazine

The fallout after the raid at Kim’s represented a loss not only to local film lovers, who found themselves confronted with Kim’s abruptly and surprisingly sparse shelves—it was also a blow to a handful of local bootleggers like Matt Bergen, who had been supplying the store with otherwise unavailable titles for years. Time was, Bergen could walk into Kim’s with a box of movies and walk out with a few hundred dollars. On the day of the raid, in fact, he was preparing to deliver a $1000 order. The RIAA crackdown cost him his livelihood.

“Every week you’d go to Kim’s and there’d be something different,” he says of the films he’d been supplying. “Strange little films from Republic or Eagle Lion. Sometimes I had a hard time selling them because no one had ever heard of them.”

He began collecting rare films in his teens, taping old Westerns off cable and maybe doing a little trading with friends. “Then I started reading the satellite magazines and saw what I was really missing. I started trading films with people who advertised in the back.”

Connections led to more connections, and these days he admits he has no idea how many films he’s collected. He also admits they aren’t very well organized (“Maybe when I move,” he says). His association with Kim’s began in the mid-90s.

After the raid, he tried taking his business to a comic book store in midtown. “I began selling them old TV shows, then moved on to movies. They were trying different things.”

It didn’t last long. In January of 2006, the store dropped him as well. “They said they didn’t want to become another Kim’s.” And perhaps the store was on to something, given that Kim’s went out of business shortly thereafter. In a way, so did Bergen.

“There was no paper trail,” he says of his bootlegging days. “It felt like things were wide open. I wasn’t afraid. Maybe I should’ve been. These things were so obscure, I couldn’t see doing five years in prison and paying a $25,000 fine for Plunder of the Sun.”

When asked if he was at all concerned these days about the possibility of getting busted, he was clear. “Not anymore, because I don’t do it anymore.” But then he added, “I was able to make a living doing something I loved. But there’s no venue for me anymore. Though I might put some things up on Amazon.” (Bergen asked that I not use his real name, just in case he decides to get back into the business.)

Matt Bergen was a rarity among the rare film bootleggers in that he was able to find a way to turn his compulsive collecting into a profitable enterprise, if only for a short time. Most don’t. In fact most don’t even try. It’s films that matter, not the money, And should the right film come along, most would be willing to pay whatever it takes to get their hands on it.

Josh Rudder, a dealer who used to sell arcane videotapes online for hundreds of dollars, has these days all but removed money from the equation.

“I prefer to trade, but occasionally will sell films to people who desperately want some specific film and don’t really have anything obscure which might interest me. These are folks who just have family vids for the kids and copies of Three Men and a Baby and Jurassic Park.” Rudder is a former Brooklynite who now lives a quiet life in upstate New York. “But gee-whiz, this guy just wants to see that particular TV movie that he used to watch over and over again on the late show in tenth grade. He wants it so bad that he Googles for two months and finally finds me via some archived e-mail thread on a discontinued Kim Darby fan club list-serv. So I burn him a disc for $15. But let it be known: profit is not a motive, and I am in no way infringing on artists’ rights.”

Rudder dropped out of film school in the early 90s, and only then began his education in film history. He started reading books and video magazines, he worked in a video store, and frequented the screenings at MoMA and the repertory theaters around New York. He also began collecting films through the higher end video stores around town and through ads in the back of magazines like Video Watchdog. Today his collection numbers over 3,000 titles. He’s quick to dismiss those people who have described him as a recluse who speaks to no one, preferring instead to sit alone in a dark house all day copying films.

“I didn’t then, and nor do I now, watch six flicks a day and take Vitamin D supplements,” he insists. “I have a life, and many interests beside Stan Brakhage.”

Like Bergen, Rudder questions how much energy the FBI would expend pursuing a dealer in obscure films (though he no longer advertises online). But unlike Bergen, he hasn’t let the threat stop him. In fact, he’s made it a political issue.

“The feds would never ever be interested in me. Trading unreleased Godard films without English subtitles doesn’t matter in a world of audience-made burns of a Ron Howard movie that hit the streets the day before the official release,” he says.

“The films I love and that I trade are primarily for those who our culture ignores, denies, fears. I help to keep these films alive by sharing them with the people who care enough to seek them out.”

Writer, programmer, and film historian Michael Chaiken feels the same way, though his own collecting and bootlegging were much more focused. When he left school in the 90s he was obsessed with the films of Jean-Luc Godard, but soon discovered how difficult it was to find them.

Breathless, then Alphaville, then Weekend. Nothing else was available here.”

He began researching, writing letters, contacting distributors, archives, and other collectors. “You read a description of a film, you see a still, and you still have no idea what a film looks like or sounds like. You just have to see it, no matter how shitty the print.”

He went to some extreme lengths to track down those missing films, and the more he saw, the more he learned, In time he had amassed what would become a legendary collection of rare French films. So much so that he was once approached by The Swiss Institute in New York. They were trying to put a film retrospective together, and had heard that Chaiken—then just a kid living in Philly—might have a few of the films they couldn’t find. He did.

Chaiken put the bootlegging behind him when he took a job as the film programmer at Philadelphia’s International House, but says he has no regrets. “They were good days. I met so many great people who went on to become filmmakers, writers, curators. I find that happens a lot. These cinephiles and bootleggers, as they mature, turn their love of film into something creative.”

He even credits the network of contacts that grew out of the bootlegging community for helping to build his career. These days he works with Lincoln Center, writes for Film Comment, and when we spoke he was helping put together a set of Norman Mailer’s films for the Criterion Collection.

“I think the statute of limitations has probably passed by now,” he says.

Our existing copyright laws and intellectual property rights, Josh Rudder argues, do not protect the artists, and certainly do nothing to help the people who love these films. They’re written instead to protect Disney, Paramount, Universal, and the other corporate studios. “Piracy—to a point—may be a step in the right direction,” he says, adding that he admits there are good pirates and bad pirates. When there’s no profit motive, who loses?

“Barter, even now, breaks no laws. Even when I do sell, the cost in a way only covers my basic costs—the energy I expended on obtaining the rare film (sometimes considerable; I challenge anyone to find films by van der Keuken!), the cost of maintaining it, and then copying it and shipping it.”

Despite the confidence of collectors like Rudder and Bergen, over the past decade the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has cracked down hard on bootleggers, and their efforts have had a much more profound chilling effect on the small-timers than it has on the Chinese gangs. Rare film dealers have been fined and have been threatened with prosecution, mostly as a result of their online presence. Or at least the rumors of such things abound throughout the community. Bootleggers are regularly bounced off eBay, but when Cryptflicks, a major source of hard-to-find films, mysteriously vanished one day, the story began to spread that the owner had received an unexpected visit from three thick-necked federal agents.

I’ve been unable to find any solid verification of this story, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The rumor was enough to put the fear in people. Although a few may still occasionally post on sites like iOffer, a number of dealers have stepped away from the internet completely. Most of the bootleggers I contacted refused to go on record, out of fear that having their names appear in print would immediately make them a target.

Part of the problem is the increasing complexity of intellectual property rights laws, especially with the cultural dominance of the internet. Nobody apart from the lawyers seems to know what is public domain, and what isn’t. The general perception among the bootleggers is that if a film is not otherwise available, it’s free for the taking.

David Cairns writes the well-respected Shadowplay blog, and regularly contributes articles to a number of publications, including Film Comment and Mubi. His own personal film collection is the envy of most of the bootleggers I’ve met. He began like most, taping things off the television, then copying the tapes of other collectors.

“Now technology allows us to do the same thing via torrent sites.” he says. “It is exactly the same thing. My view is that if I’m grabbing a bootleg of some new release, I’m robbing the copyright owner and that’s naughty. But if the film received is not commercially available, I’m not robbing anybody since the copyright owner would be making zero money on that property without my downloading, and they’re not making any less money if I do download.”

Beyond the money, when it comes to the simple question of intellectual property Cairns seems to think the digital age has made piracy far to easy to undertake, and far to difficult to prosecute.

“We may eventually arrive at a point, when all art save some of the heavier sculptures are digital, a succession of 1s and 0s, when intellectual property disappears as a concept because it’s impractical to enforce. I’d be a little unhappy about that because I want to earn a living making movies, and movies might not remain financially viable without copyright protection.”

As things stand now, rare film pirates avoid confusion by remaining content to operate quietly and in the shadows, like drug dealers. Andy Lampert, an archivist and programmer at New York’s prestigious Anthology Film archives, can understand this, given the red tape that comes with doing things by the book.

“Say Warner Brothers makes a print of Harry Potter—it’s their print. If it is in our collection, and we lend it to the Harvard Film Archive, Warner Brothers can take that print and have it destroyed,” he says. “Possession is not ownership. Archives have traditionally been very secretive, because once it gets out what we have, you’re opening the door to a variety of people, from the studio, to the son of the filmmaker, to the actor, to the distributor to say, ‘Hey, that’s mine.’ You don’t want to do that.”

What protects the bootleggers is that they’re so often after strange little genre pictures and foreign films. It’s a gray area where no one is really sure who owns the rights. As Lampert puts it, “Just try to track down the owner of a 1960s vampire Western from Argentina.”

That said, he admits that he’s also seen many cases of people selling burned copies of films by living filmmakers—in a few cases filmmakers he knows—and that upsets him.

“There is this definite duality of the situation. On the one side, people are hurt, because the artistic intentions of the film aren’t being respected. Or, on the other side, you have all this stuff that will never come out for whatever reason. People are putting it out in very limited editions, under the radar, to an elitist audience of aficionados, and I would say that nobody ís making a lot of money off it.”

In many ways, Lampert is correct. For all the bootleggers I’ve spoken with, none have become wealthy as a result of film piracy. In fact, like Josh Rudder, many don’t even bother with money, and use the films as a substitute currency.

Artist, writer and rare film collector Richard Daniels (not his real name) sold films for a brief time, but now only trades. He’s a small, energetic man, extremely enthusiastic about pre-code movies and the conditions that inspired them. “There’s this very dark stuff in these films that percolated up in the culture,” he says, “but was lost and forgotten, so often because it was suppressed.”

He also has an interesting and counterintuitive take on the economics of rare film piracy. “The bootleggers and collectors are actually creating a market for a number of these films. For years the best anyone could do was a grainy fifth-generation videotape of Blast of Silence. But the more people saw it, the more people talked about it, and the more people wanted to see it. Then all of a sudden the Criterion Collection put out a pristine edition, and everyone had to have that.”

Unfortunately, creating (or at least revealing) a market backfired on the bootlegging community in several ways. Official releases made their burned copies all but worthless, as any attempt to sell them could easily result in legal action. Collectors, who do seem to be obsessive as a rule, had to drop the cash on the often exorbitantly-priced new edition, in order to have the best available print. More importantly, it revealed that the biggest threat facing them was not the FBI and copyright law, but corporate interests—the big studios, parent companies, and distributors who had no interest in these pictures until the bootlegged copies revealed a market.

Between 2005 and 2010, people looking to snag a copy of the made-for-TV wonder Bad Ronald or Jim Henson’s near-mythical early film The Cube might well have found themselves directed to A Different City, an online store specializing in rare films, television series, and forgotten made-for-TV movies.

When the medical bills surrounding his wife’s pregnancy became overwhelming, out of desperation long-time rare film collector Leaman Crews decided to try and sell copies from his personal library online. He was shocked by the response.

By the time his daughter was two weeks old, they had already cleared over $5000 through a combination of the site and eBay sales.

“I knew eBay couldn’t last forever, because they frown on that kind of thing,” he says. “But from a financial standpoint, eBay was great.  I had people paying $50 for DVD-Rs that they could buy for $12 over at the site.  We’d get warnings from eBay, but we tried to outsmart them by using both my account and my wife’s account.  When they shut down my wife’s account, we decided to stop tempting fate and just what could happen there via word of mouth.  I guess you could say this was our first run-in with a big corporation.”

Crews continued to track down copies of rare films and offer them on the site, and sales continued to be brisk. He even began hearing from actors, directors, and crew members who had worked on some of the films he was selling. They weren’t threatening legal action—they just wanted a copy of the film, for their own libraries..

“By this point it wasn’t about the money at all.  I was still moving up the ladder at my job, and anything we made off of A Different City was okay. I was just happy to meet all these great people and feel like a part of a community, a community dedicated to hunting down these treasures.”

Then in October of 2010, would be customers visiting the site would only find a long note which read, in part:

We made a lot of good friends, and even made a little bit of change along the way. But the major corporate interests caught on to our game, and started putting out the movies themselves, or just plain asking us to stop selling them, using the DMCA {The Digital Millennium Copyright Act}  or whatever tools they had at their disposal to stop us. The main online payment brokers dropped us like we were the plague. What was once a great joy turned into frustration and sadness.

“I knew that our business was no longer viable when I found out that Amazon would burn their customers a copy of Dusty And Sweets McGee on DVD-R upon request. Whatever business we had left, the big boys took it away from us. I guess they figured if they couldn’t beat us, they’d join us. But by joining us, they actually did beat us in the process.”

By 2010, however, it wasn’t just the corporations the dealers selling burned DVDs had to worry about. Along with streaming options from Amazon and Netflix, torrenting sites like Pirate’s Cove were offering digital downloads of otherwise unavailable films which users could then watch on their computers and hand-held devices the way they did everything else. I asked Crews how well he thought A Different City would have competed as the very way people watched movies was changing. He insists he was prepared.

“Even in 2010, streaming, torrenting and YouTube were cutting into our sales,” he admits. “What I wanted to do then, and would do now if I were still in the game, would be to offer tiered pricing on titles, and in those tiers you could get a MPEG-4 video (suitable for iPod / iPhone / iPad / Android) to download instantly, access to private content hosted on YouTube (or Vimeo, or some other popular video site), and the DVD, or some combination thereof. I don’t know how well it would work, but my theory is that you can’t fight these developments; you should try and work them to your advantage and give the customers what they want.”

Crews is a near-singular voice among the bootleggers I spoke with when it comes to the internet and digital downloads. In fact most of the old-school collectors react with an immediate, almost shocking contempt.

“People say everything’s available these days, that it’s been posted online,” says Richard Daniels. “First, if you’re content to watch a film on your computer or your phone you’re an idiot. And second, everything is not available. Sometimes you need to know where to look and when to look. There may be just one guy who has a copy of a film—just one—and if he dies it could be gone forever. Unless of course you’re lucky enough to get to the estate.”

Daniels isn’t joking, either. In 2008 he lucked into the estate sale of an Upper West Side recluse who’d been dead for three days before the body was discovered. The man had no furniture and no refrigerator. He did however have thousands of videotapes stacked floor to ceiling. Despite the stench and the roaches, Daniels made three trips, and came away with some 1500 tapes. Later he discovered that the recluse’s collection contained films from another collector—many of which hadn’t been seen in decades.

Part of the reaction against the internet, one has to figure, is the simple fact that the easy availability of so very much (if not everything) online—lost Buster Keaton films are just a few keystrokes away—robs the serious collector of the thrill of the hunt.

“Sometimes you could search for a film for years before realizing it was right there all the time, as some fucking public domain release under a different title,” Daniels notes.

Without question the elitism that has always been part of obscure film circles plays a major role in that contempt. The joy and pride in finally snagging a film you’ve been tracking obsessively for so very long—of finally being the only one with a copy of a certain film—is gone completely if suddenly you find it posted on YouTube with a string of moronic comments from 13-year-olds beneath it.

Michael Chaiken disagrees. His bootlegging days ended before DVDs became the dominant technology, leaving him with thousands of videotapes. He’s since donated them to Hunter College, but only after digitizing the entire collection.

“If we had torrenting sites like these back in the 90s, I would’ve been in heaven. You scroll down these lists of what’s available for download at the touch of a button and it’s just amazing. I meet young kids on these sites who have already seen everything Godard ever made, and now they’re looking for things that are even more off the charts.”

That’s what drives the collectors on, though—the simple fact that everything isn’t out there. Every bootlegger I spoke with could hand me a list of personal holy grails, the films they’ve sought for years. They were all different, depending on the particular interests of the collector, and a few had appeared as commercial releases, but the rest were still out there, and they would find them.

“People talk about lost films,” Chaiken says. “But everything’s out there somewhere, because if a print existed, some maniac taped it.”

And for that obsessiveness, film archivists, scholars, and historians are grateful.

“The bootleggers and collectors help us to redefine film,” says Anthology’s Andy Lampert. “Film history is constantly being rewritten. It used to be the first feature was Birth of a Nation, the first close-up was this or that. The first feature film was 1907, in Italy, the first close-up was 190-whatever. It’s a landscape that’s constantly changing, and it’s because of archives and collectors. Any textbook you have on cinema that’s 20 years old, I feel, is grossly out of date.”

Richard Daniels sums it up neatly. “They keep these films alive. They’re the new monks. Without them, the film historians would have to rely on scratchy memories of bad prints they saw on TV once.”

“As somebody who has borrowed tapes from a respected, deceased film director’s personal archive,” admits David Cairns, “cassettes jammed into my pockets and sleeves until I acquired the clanking, clacking walk of a plastic toy robot, I suppose I have to face the fact that I’m an unscrupulous film pirate of the first order. But I do hold to the notion that films are most valuable when they’re seen. Not by the largest number of people, but at least by anybody who wants to see them.”

In the end, regardless of the laws, the threats, the fines, the corporate intrusions and the guilt trips, so long as there is readily available technology on the market that allows people to reproduce copyrighted material, they will. And rare film bootleggers will continue to circulate films no one else wants to see.

“If cheap videotape had existed in the 70s, this would have been happening then,” says Chaiken. “It’s amazing that it’s still happening now online. Who knows what will be happening five, ten years from now?”

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, These Children Who Come at You with Knives, The Blow-Off, and several other books, most recently Residue (Red Hen Press, 2015). his work has appeared in New York Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and dozens of other publications.

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