Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 5: May 2008


Offtopic or Not? Mill Creek & Libraries

Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find Offtopic Perspective: 50 Movie Hollywood Legends, Part 1—another set of reviews of old movies I watch while I work out on the treadmill each weekday afternoon. In this case, the set includes two dozen movies with big-name stars, nearly all in the public domain.

Maybe these perspectives aren’t offtopic. Maybe there is mild relevance for some libraries. I wrote about that in late 2006, in a section of another Offtopic Perspective cut for space reasons. That section is the basis for the first portion of this musing. The second portion offers a quick update on recent work from Mill Creek Entertainment, maker of these megapacks.

Would 50-movie packs make sense for public library collections?

I’ll suggest that they do make sense for academic libraries in institutions with any sort of film studies, but as “filler”—cheap sources of second-rate transfers of movies, many historic and mostly old, many of which aren’t likely to be readily available elsewhere.

If the answer for public libraries is “no,” then these essays appear purely for amusement value. Not that I’m uncomfortable with that!

But my answer is Maybe–and Yes.

Ø Maybe: I suspect it would be cumbersome for most libraries to acquire these packs as regular circulating items, cataloging them (typically, only the package—after all, spelling out all of the movies and stars would cost a lot more than the packs themselves) and circulating each 12- or 13-DVD set as one item. (A few libraries have opted to catalog each disc and circulate it separately; more power to them. See “Quick update” below.)

Ø Yes: I think a fair number of public libraries could use these as supplemental casual-circulation items—but not using traditional acquire / catalog / protect / circulate methods.

Here’s what I mean.

Some public libraries have informal paperback collections, fueled by donations and made available as casual supplements to the real collection. The paperbacks aren’t cataloged, have at most a genre mark or first-letter-of-last-name label on the spines, don’t have security tags and aren’t integrated with the rest of the collection. They’re in a separate area. Patrons know they can just pick one up that looks interesting and bring it back when they’re done. Or drop off the paperback they just finished.

I know I’ve seen such collections in some libraries I used in the past, and on most cruise ship libraries I’ve used. I’ve used and contributed to these informal supplemental collections. I suspect the ship librarian or attendant checks the paperback shelf once a day or so to remove anything inappropriate.

That’s what I’d do with the megapacks. Start an informal video exchange collection, one that could be fueled by patron donations of TV series and movies they know they’re not going to watch again. You’d need a DVD or CD browsing tray or two alongside the paperback shelf. Here’s how I’d do it, if I thought it was worth doing–and in a community with a fair number of retirees who own DVD players, I think it might be worth doing.

Ø Take $100 or $200 (the Friends might fund this) and pick up a few megapacks. Amazon has them at anywhere from $13 to $18 per 50-movie collection. There are other sources. Baker & Taylor and Ingram both distribute DVDs from the publisher, so your library seller might have them–but don’t pay more than $20-$25 unless there’s an awfully good reason. The company is currently Mill Creek Entertainment (formerly TreeLine). As of late 2006, there were 21 different 50-movie packs, including Drive-In Movie Classics, Nightmare Worlds, and Warriors (mostly “Sons of Hercules” and that ilk). There’s a little duplication among sets, but not a lot–and Mill Creek’s website offers a summary of each flick including which sets it’s included in. Which sets should you get? Explore. Gunslingers? Westerns? Musicals? Hollywood Legends? All good possibilities.

Ø Don’t catalog them, add security strips or repackage them in locking DVD cases or any other kind of DVD cases. Do that, and you’ve doubled or tripled the cost of the pack and the fact that these are (mostly) mediocre VHS-quality scans, some with missing frames, may be more of a drawback.

Ø Remove the contents of the cardboard box: 12 or 13 CD-size cardboard sleeves, each sleeve containing blurbs for the movies on the DVD in the sleeve. Those sleeves are your informally circulating items. I wouldn’t even stamp them with the library name (hard to do without obscuring some of the blurbs, although admittedly some of the blurbs are so wrong that they should be obscured). I’d cut out the back panel of the box, which lists all the movies, and have it available in the tray.

Ø There’s your collection. If you spent $100 at Amazon, chances are you now have at least 48 and maybe 60 or 72 circulating sleeves, most sleeves containing 4 movies totaling four to six hours. A few sleeves will have five or six short movies. A few will have two: There are at least two 13-disc packs where there weren’t enough very short movies to fit 50 on 12 discs.

Ø Enhancing this informal collection: If you have a couple of staff members who purchased TV series on DVDs and know they’re done with them, add those series to the informal collection. That’s a little more difficult. You’ll need to purchase slimline or regular CD jewel boxes (not press-to-release DVD cases). For single-sided discs, just put each disc in a jewelbox. For double-sided or if you want to get fancy, photocopy the booklet (or the DVD case back on cheaply-packaged sets) and add the appropriate page as an insert in each jewel box.

Ø Worst case: The DVDs disappear and the experiment’s a failure.

Ø Second worst case: Patrons don’t understand the disclaimer–these are not part of the formal library collection and the library won’t be cleaning or replacing them–and it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Ø Best case: You wind up with a nice little extra service with no ongoing labor costs and fairly minimal supplies cost. Patrons who love old movies or want to sample TV shows are happy.

Crazy? Maybe. But there’s a lot of good stuff in these sets–old detective series, good old B westerns, and lots of old movies (some of them classics) that didn’t have copyright renewed for one reason or another. Some of the sets include newer movies, presumably licensed at next to nothing. One pack is composed entirely of TV movies—and many of those are also good entertainment.

If this seems ludicrous, then assume I’m including the Offtopic Perspectives for the same reason as My Back Pages: Leavening.

Quick Update

I should have checked first! (This note added in late November 2006.) Some libraries have acquired some of these sets–at least 24 show as holding Mystery Classics, which strikes me as a fine choice although I haven’t picked it up yet–and a few have chosen to catalog each disc as a separate item. Those libraries and library cooperatives know what they’re doing. I should also note that some of the sets already had cataloging in Worldcat in late 2006, spelling out the contents in full.

What’s Up at Mill Creek?

Since I wrote the comments above, I’ve been staying on the treadmill watching old movies (and in some cases TV movies), posting reviews on Walt at random each time I get through one disc, adding a new Offtopic Perspective each time I finish half a box. For a while, it seemed as though the company—Mill Creek Entertainment—was running on empty, just distributing 20-odd sets assembled from public domain, TV movies and other sources where it didn’t need to pay royalties.

In March 2008, Seth Finkelstein of Infothought sent me an odd email, assuring me it wasn’t spam and he wasn’t getting a commission. He reads C&I sometimes and knew I watch these old flicks. He saw that was having a two-day sale (sorry, it’s over): Two 50-movie packs for $25. I didn’t need more movies—I’m on disc nine of one set and disc seven of another, with two more packs (100 more movies) waiting after that—but 100 movies for $25 is a pretty good deal. I checked it out—and found a couple of sets I wasn’t aware of, one of them released in March 2008. I ordered two of them (I now have more than 200 movies waiting to be watched—I intend to keep using that treadmill for years to come), and decided it was time to take another look at Mill Creek Entertainment.

Here’s what I found: The company’s active and it’s come up with even bigger packs. As I write this, there appear to be thirty different 50-movie packs, up from 21 in late November 2006. 50-packs I don’t remember seeing before include Box Office Gold, Combat Classics, Drive-in Movie Classics, Family Fun, Frontier Justice and Nightmare Worlds. Amazon sells them all, at prices ranging from $13 to $18 (newer sets sell for a little more); there continue to be other outlets.

There are also nine hundred-movie packs—most of them straight combinations of 50-packs with no duplications (e.g., Action Classics combines the Action and Suspense 50-packs), all of them (I believe) composed of movies that are also in 50-packs. There were already some smaller subsets and that continues—I see 24 20-movie packs and nine 10-movie packs. I could see some people going for the 20-pack of John Wayne flicks, most of them early and short, and some of thematic packs are interesting. Amazon lists the100-packs at $27 to $45 each.

For libraries where the “‘informal circulating collection” model suggested in the earlier post makes sense, Mill Creek now has something else to offer: 250-Movie Packs.

That’s right. Four packs—Family Collection, Horror Collection, Mystery Collection and (predictably, given the 50-packs) Western Collection. The “foil collectors boxes” still have individual cardboard sleeves for each disc. Buy all four and you’d have 240 informally-circulatable items, each with four or more old movies, for a total outlay of no more than $400 (list price is $99.95 for each set) and probably less.

Make that definitely less if you can buy from Amazon: I see all four 250-movie packs listed at $50 each. That’s a thousand old movies for $200—less than a buck per circulating DVD, roughly twenty cents per movie. You couldn’t download them and burn them to blank DVDs for that price.

I’m not shilling for Mill Creek. There are a couple of 50-movie packs I’d be reluctant to buy for myself (two recent packs are heavy on R-rated schlock), and lots of these movies are from damaged prints, nearly all VHS-quality or worse. When it says “Digitally remastered,” it means the movies were converted from analog to digital form to go on DVDs It does not mean restored or anything of the sort: Not at these prices!

That said, Mill Creek Entertainment is doing a fine job of using the public domain for all it’s worth, and I think that’s a good thing. Sure, you can download a lot of these movies--but why bother?

Mill Creek has other stuff—collections of cartoons (300 in one box), TV boxed sets and sets mixing TV and movies, even a few indie movies and fitness sets. But mostly, Mill Creek is boxes of public domain movies at fair prices. The prints may be so-so and lots of the pictures are B or less—but there are some gems. Within the last two weeks, I’ve watched McClintock! and the original, black-and-white, Irene Dunne/Charles Boyer Love Affair. Good stuff.

Checking Worldcat

I’m guessing that libraries choosing to start “paperback DVD” collections might not show up on—why catalog something you’re going to circulate informally? Some libraries clearly are buying some of the packs. I didn’t find any 250-movie packs (at least not searching “250 movie”), but did find one library with one of the 100-movie packs—and quite a few 50-movie sets.

Searching “50 movie pack” as a phrase, I see 190 records. That makes sense—because some boxes are held both as released by TreeLine (the original name) and by Mill Creek Entertainment (the current name) and because some libraries catalog each disc individually. The boxes are also vague as to whether it’s “50 movie pack Comedy Classics” or “Comedy Classics 50 movie pack,” and both forms appear. For that matter, some libraries catalog the DVDs based on the titles on a disc rather than the disc itself…

Comedy Classics is held by at least 18 libraries. Mystery Classics by more than 50. Family Classics by 47 or more. Martial Arts (yes, there’s a 50-pack of martial arts flicks) by nine or more. SciFi Classics, 30+ libraries. Western Classics, more than 20. Those are all places that chose to catalog the boxes (or the individual discs).

Offtopic or Not?

That’s your call. I’d say Mill Creek Entertainment operates at the junction of libraries, media and policy: They’re navigating the public domain to turn out inexpensive legal entertainment. They still use the standard copyright-infringement warning on some discs, unfortunately—and no doubt some of the TV movies and martial arts flicks are under copyright. I’d love to see explicit “Public Domain” stickers on some sets, which would clarify performance rights or your right to use these as source material for other purposes.

Don’t buy these in place of first-rate restored classics. Buy them for what they are. For some of you, that may make them worthwhile purchases.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 5, Whole Issue 102, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

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