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Case Study #5: Northeast Historic Film

By Debra Franco

A man wearing a flannel and cowboy hat from 'Woodsmen and River Drivers.'

The co-founders of Northeast Historic Film (NHF) became video distributors by accident. In 1986, David Weiss and Karan Sheldon had completed a 30-min. film for the University of Maine on traditional New England logging. The 1930s archival footage they used had no sound track, so the producers asked a local performer to read the original script that had accompanied the silent footage as narration. The film was titled From Stump to Ship because it illustrated the process of long-logging, from cutting down the trees to getting them to market by schooner. The producers expected to exhibit the finished film locally a few times and then donate it to the Maine State Library. If a few hundred people saw it, they would have considered the film a success. But 1,100 people showed up for the premiere and they wound up arranging additional screenings to accommodate the crowds.

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Case Study #5: Northeast Historic Film

Weiss and Sheldon were unprepared for such a strong public response. They recognized they had touched a deep lode of popular interest in local history. As Weiss puts it, "This wasn't a genius film, it was the material itself that had the power. We saw first hand the potential of regional film."

Based on this response, the producers decided to try to sell the film as a video. They had received a Maine Humanities Council grant to produce the film and to conduct a series of statewide screenings when it was completed. At the screenings, they handed out comment cards to all audience members and collected 3,000 names. They then mailed these people a flyer offering the video at $29.95, netting a 15% response. They found themselves in the home video business.

Sheldon and Weiss next targeted logging enthusiasts. They bought mailing lists, took out ads in logging magazines and struck a deal with Bailey's Logging Supply, a cataloger specializing in logging paraphernalia. In spite of the film's regional bias, it sold 100 copies a month continuously through the catalog, to logging enthusiasts across the country. They also marketed the video to librarians and educators in schools, libraries and colleges across New England. In addition, Maine public television broadcast the film and used it as a pledge gift. The producers also offered it on air; 30 to 50 videos were sold each time the film was broadcast. In all, From Stump to Ship ended up selling thousands of units through all avenues.

During the course of exhibiting and distributing the film, the producers met people who offered them boxes of old film wasting away in attics and garages about similar subjects. Sheldon and Weiss decided to set up an archive to collect this kind of material and to continue to produce titles on subjects pertinent to New England history. Northeast Historic Film became that nonprofit organization.

By 1992, NHF had created, compiled or acquired 12 titles on New England regional history and interests (including early Maine films and television, skiing, sailing, forestry, railroads) and were selling them to consumers through their catalog, for which they now had a 5,000- name customer base. The next level of marketing was to get their tapes into video and specialty stores. To do this, they would have to give their product line a unified identity. They incorporated the diverse subjects of their different titles under the tag "Videos of Life in New England" and began to try selling to retail outlets.

After an initial attempt, they concluded that they would need to re-package their line to promote the new identity and create point-of-purchase displays for stores. They applied for and received a grant from NVR to put these strategies in place.

These promotional tactics helped increase their retail sales, but not in the way they had anticipated. Video stores would request displays but then not use them; the stores had their own shelving systems and NHF's displays were not the glossy Hollywood-type ones expected. NHF also discovered that customers do not generally look for special-interest videos in video stores. All told, video retail was "pretty much of a bust." But regional bookstores turned out to be a solid source of orders, as did gift stores at national sites, such as Acadia National Park. By the end of the one-year NVR grant period, NHF ended up doubling their average store order (from 2.5 to 5-6 titles per store), narrowing their focus to book and gift stores.

Since that time, NHF has continued to sell to their original retail accounts and has also added some of the bigger bookstore chains, including Borders and Barnes & Noble. Major retail accounts continue to be book and on-site gift stores at parks and ski and coastal areas in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. They have also added some museum bookstores in these areas. NHF currently has 110 retail accounts throughout the country, primarily in northern New England.

Today, half of NHF's sales are made through retail outlets and half through direct mail. Retail sales are almost all sell­ through; because their titles tend to be 30 minutes long, stores cannot rent them for much money. NHF has also opened their own store, 100 square feet in the 1916 movie theatre on Main Street in Bucksport, Maine (pop. 5,000), that serves as their headquarters. They sell archives-based T-shirts, movie books, mugs and their videos to tourists and locals. The store averages only about $100 in sales a week but as Weiss points out, "it's worth it for the community contact. Our community doesn't yet understand what an archives is, but they understand a store."

NHF faced a decision about educational pricing early on, when they took on An Oral Historian's Work, a video on oral history made by an historian for academics, historical organizations and community groups. They considered selling it to institutions for $ 149 but decided against tiered pricing in their catalog. Instead, they kept that title at a higher home video price of $39.95. To stay competitive with other videos sold through stores, prices for their other titles have gone down to between $14.95 and $29.95. Schools, libraries and universities, mostly across Maine and the rest of New England, buy the videos at these prices.

Today, Northeast Historic Film has 47 titles in their catalog. Some are so special interest that NHF does not even try to sell them to stores (e.g., Gilley: Portrait of a Bird Carver and a 12-hour series on sardine canning). The rest encompass subjects related to New England history and interests ranging from regional agriculture, logging and trapping, to children's and feature films shot locally. They have produced many of the titles themselves from footage collected in the archives. They sell 3,000 to 4,000 units of all titles a year. The top seller is still From Stump to Ship, which continues to average just under 1,000 units a year. Recently released are another title on railroading and performances by Marshall Dodge, a Maine storyteller and humorist.

Since its inception, Northeast Historic Film has grown into a successful nonprofit organization with a staff of seven, including an archivist and a technical services person. Committed to low-cost access, NHF also lends videos free of charge to members and lists both loan and sale titles on its website. Video sales bring in only 25% of NHF's annual gross revenue; the rest comes from membership, technical services work, stock footage sales, donations and exhibition. As Sheldon puts it, "The organization does not exist to sell videotapes, but sells videotapes to exist." As a result, NHF can choose to put into distribution some historically valuable titles that will not make money. But the videos have an important public education function and they continue to make a valuable contribution to the organization's mission "to provide one of the finest resources of regional moving images in the country, representing the people and culture of northern New England."

Northeast Historic Film
P.O. Box 900 Bucksport ME 04416 U.S.A.
tel: 207-469-0924
fax: 207-469-7875
contact: David S. Weiss