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Mail-Order Movie Madness!

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Did the last movie you rented at Blockbuster seem pretty much like the one you rented before that? Do you find it hard to tell Ben Affleck, Chris O'Donnell, and Ethan Hawke apart? And do you really care to?

Maybe you'd like to see something a little different. How about the latest hit from Iran? Or perhaps a bloody horror film from Italy is more to your taste? Don't like foreign films? Then maybe a sleazy, tawdry sex film is more up your alley? Or an old B Western?

You can find all of these films and more by picking up an issue of Psychotronic Video or Cult Movies, magazines devoted to cinematic fare that usually gets overlooked come Oscar season. You'll see dozens of ads for mail-order outfits such as Sinister Cinema, Something Weird Video, European Trash Cinema, and Midnight Video. These companies sell thousands of offbeat titles from just about every genre imaginable.

By the standards of this young industry, 15-year-old Sinister Cinema has a long history. The Medford, Oregon-based firm has about 1,600 titles in its library, with an emphasis on old serials, Westerns, and horror movies. "Everything from Buck Jones to Bela Lugosi," says founder Greg Luce proudly, explaining that Sinister grew out of "his fanatical love of old movies."

Before starting Sinister, Luce had been collecting such films as an expensive hobby. Then another collector told him that many of the movies in his collection were in the public domain. That meant that the copyrights had expired and anyone could copy and sell them. "I put some out on videotape and sold them to offset my expenses," Luce recalls. "Things just grew from there." Today, Sinister's catalog is still dominated by public-domain material, though Luce has licensed or bought the rights to some films.

The ability to get film rights cheaply or for free is vital to the mail-order houses, which generate relatively low revenues. "Up until about 20 years ago, small companies that did low-budget films didn't always register their movies with the copyright office," says Lisa Petrucci, the artistic director of Something Weird, which carries about 2,000 titles. "And even if they did, many of those outfits just aren't around anymore, so the copyright has lapsed." Founded in 1990, Something Weird focuses on exploitation flicks with titles such as I Eat Your Skin. Like Sinister Cinema, most of Something Weird's catalog is in the public domain, but the company does license some films, including a few new movies from underground producers.

Sinister and Something Weird are unusual among the outfits that sell public-domain videos because they transfer films to video themselves to maintain reproduction quality. Most sellers simply copy tapes bought from the companies that have done the legwork of tracking down obscure films. An irony not lost on industry players is that the same cheap, popular VCR technology that helped create their market in the first place also makes it easy for their tapes to be copied and resold by others. It's a sore point, but absolutely legal in the world of public-domain media.

"Copying is rampant in the business," says Craig Ledbetter, who runs European Trash Cinema, which also does its own transfers. Originally started as a zine, ETC sells mostly foreign drive-in movie fare (e.g., Lonely Violent Beach, an Italian film about a couple terrorized by a biker gang), but also carries art films by directors such as Jean-Luc Godard. The firms that do their own transfers have responded to knock-off competitors in several ways. Some put their company logo in the bottom corner of the screen on their tapes. Others simply offer better service and cheaper prices.

Not surprisingly in an industry born out of technological innovation, such companies are also hoping that newer technologies will help grow their markets and increase their brand reputations, even as they potentially increase competition. "I've seen dozens of new Web zines devoted to cult films spring up over the last few years," says Sinister Cinema's Luce. "It's cheaper and quicker to publish on the World Wide Web than to actually print a magazine." Fans are also gathering in Usenet groups to discuss films and to trade advice on dealing with mail-order companies: Who has the best copy of a particular film? Who has the best prices? Who is reliable and who is just a rip-off artist? Luce is confident that as fans get more information, mail-order houses with quality tapes and good prices will flourish.

Luce, who can't hide his excitement when he tells of discovering a long-lost Bela Lugosi serial, is sure of something else, too: "That there are many more films out there to be discovered."

Contributing Editor Charles Oliver (c-oliver@usa.net) writes for Investor's Business Daily.