Emerald City Video's Jim Loperfido closes one door, opens some others

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 02/26/09More articles
On Oscar Night at the Eastwood Palace, Owen Shapiro confided that he’d made a stop at Emerald City Video himself earlier that day.

“I got three seasons of Stargate on DVD,” said the founder of Syracuse International Film Festival, his eyes widening. “I was really pleased!”

Central New York film buffs have been trekking to Emerald City on Erie Blvd. East all month for the 25-year-old store’s going-out-of-business sale, which ends this week along with the lease. Owner Jim Loperfido, who lives in Auburn, is also an accountant and it’s tax season, so this has been something of an endurance race for him even though his son Jay and his wife Rita have been rivaling his own long hours.

Loperfido also sits on the board of the Syracuse International Film festival and has been significantly involved in both the nascent Film City Center, a festival off-shoot to bring film production to Syracuse, and he heads the festival’s DVD distribution project. He also founded the Auburn Cinefile Society, and he has been at the fore-front nationally of independent video dealers’ efforts to regulate and lobby for their industry. In 2005, Emerald City Video was voted the best video store in the United States.

Recently Loperfido sat back from his make-shift desk, set up in what was the foreign films section at Emerald City, and recollected that quarter century and what led up to it. Here’s part of that conversation:

NKR: Emerald City Video started 25 years ago but wasn’t always here – did this store actually start in Auburn?

JL: Yes it was first there. Our first store was built in 1983. And it was the old Schine’s art deco movie theater in Auburn. When I was a kid, every Saturday morning my dad would drop my brother and I off for the matinee. We lived there! When I was a young man, older, big screen movies theaters were going broke and that was vacant. Some people took it into a night club, and it was too expensive to heat. I just thought it would make one heck of a video store, so I made a deal with the owner. For a while we showed movies on Thursday afternoons for him, and he allowed us to have it for a video store. We ran that video store a little over eleven years. Then I sold it to my partner. My consulting business had taken off and I was doing very well and I thought, well, maybe now’s the time, I should move out of this, that I enjoy just a little too much.

NKR: I know you do taxes.

JL: I do – a lot of taxes, but my strength is in project management and business planning. We do a lot of start-up work. People have an idea and I try to turn it into commerce for them. And some accounting, a little bookkeeping. More actual business planning than anything else. We do about 30 percent non-profit work. So there’s always that left brain-right brain thing going on in my life! My dad is an accountant, and I’m sure I became an accountant because of wanting to please him. But the flip side was, I’ve been a film fanatic since I was seven or eight. Can I back up a little bit?

NKR: Yes, sure.

JL: Okay. Well I always had a movie theater as a child. I was about ten, and my Uncle Vince introduced me to an eight-millimeter projector. Those small reels ran a ten-minute movie, and honestly I was just hooked, Nancy. And wanted to be a filmmaker in the worst way. I was in eighth grade and Super 8 had just come out. It was a whole outfit, a projector and a camera and the whole nine yards. It was $205 – I still remember the price. I said, “Dad, how can I borrow two hundred and five dollars?” He said, “Are you crazy?” My father was a very conservative accountant! He said, “Well, let’s see how much you can earn and I’ll see what I can do for you.” I was pin-setting for a while. I washed cars. I’m lucky to have a wonderful Italian family. Tons of car-washing! I can’t tell you how many – and sweeping and shoveling and you-name-it, and it still wasn’t enough.

I borrowed my uncle’s projector and I started showing movies. I would fill the basement at a quarter apiece with tons of thirteen-year-olds. I had enough to almost pay for it and my dad put in the rest. And I was a filmmaker. I made a lot of movies as a teen-ager. My first wife starred in one of my productions. And we married very young. Our first daughter came very quickly. And filmmaking kind of took a back seat to school, from labor relations to business management to accounting. I was a labor organizer and later a lot of accounting work. I did more bookkeeping for more bands! But I always collected films, always showed films. And I’ve been collecting the movie props you see here since I was 13.

NKR: It’s huge and the whole collection isn’t here.

JL: That’s right. I was divorced in ’88 and I met Rita in ’92 or ’93. And when she first came to the house she saw there were cans of film everywhere. And we decided to be together around ’96, and I had to promise her that I would do something with the film, or she wasn’t moving in. [laughs] So I built a film shed to store three or four hundred movies, probably five or six hundred cartoons and shorts and things like that. That’s my private collection.

NKR: What did you buy?

JL: Oh, my goodness. I have early sound experimental films from Ted Case in Auburn. I have a great silent film collection from the Black Hawk Series and the S & A series. I was nuts about screwball comedy so I started collecting the Affairs of Annabelle very early, the Lucille Ball films, from late 30s and early 40s – everything to science fiction films of the 50’s. All of the Universal monster films – I have them in 16 millimeter. I particularly enjoy the Warner Brothers cartoons. They’re very well made. And of course Disney. And so for 40 years now I’ve been scouring the land. Movies right up till today’s modern stuff. I have the complete Gene Autry series. I have the complete Roy Rogers series. About half of the Hoppalong Cassidys. I have wonderful early stuff. I met the film curator of the Cayuga Museum, who kept all the Case Library stuff together. He allowed me to set up a Cinefile Society in Cayuga Museum and once a week we would show 16-millimeter films from my collection. I couldn’t get enough of it.

NKR: I know you’re working on a book. Have you written other books?

JL: My first book is “The Video Compendium,” and it’s almost 400 pages of facts about film and Central New York. About 100 pages is just about people that have come out of Central New York and gone on in film. The father of music video was from Auburn originally. I was talking the other day about Blackwell, who gave Hitchcock his start and Valentino his start. There’s so many, so many from Central New York because film’s birth, in the United States, was centered around New York City. You know, Edison was there, in New Jersey. Edison’s projector machine shop fellow was a guy named Marvin out of Canestota. And when Dickenson left Edison he came up here and with Marvin formed American Biograph. And they made at the time the best projector that could be had. In the early 1910s, 1912s, 14s. The very first Civil War film was made here in Syracuse.

My second book, that I’m writing right now – I’m a little past the third chapter – is about Blackwell. His love affairs, his trials and tribulations with early silent film, his disenchantment with film in the States, his move to Great Britain, which is where Hitchcock came in. Next week I’m going to Cornell to look at their files on the old Wharton Studios because I’m sure there’s a connection somewhere.

NKR: Are you still president of the national association of independent rental folks?

JL: You see, the studios never wanted to rent film. A fellow by the name of George Atkinson had the very first rental store in Los Angeles. They tried to shut him down. So he got together with a lot of his buddies who were doing the same thing. They sued the studios for the right to rent. It was called the First Sale Doctrine. And they won. And video stores started sprouting up everywhere. It became the Video Software Dealers Association.

In the very early 80’s, I believe, might’ve been the 70’s. Video stores are sprouting up everywhere. New York didn’t have an association – or a chapter. There was one in New York City and northern New Jersey, but there wasn’t one in New York proper, so – now it’s ’83 and I had this video store and I thought I could make it happen. So I started knocking on doors all through New York State. We helped change some of the rental laws in New York. We lobbied a great deal to let our legislators know that we take ratings very seriously. So from state president of New York I was put on a lot of committees. In particular, the WIPO committee, which was involved world-wide copyright protection. China wouldn’t join. Now it’s the middle 90’s and China’s 90 percent bootleg. The US wouldn’t join, because China didn’t join and a few others of the big countries – Russia. So we knew if the US joined they could force China to go along, which was the real focus of our attention. So we lobbied vigorously and New York was a lead in that, even though in the end it was not really a very good law.

And we negotiated with the studios. That was getting better boxes, better posters. And making it easier for independent stores to have a set of rules. I was fortunate enough that they actually hired me to write the accounting handbook for the video industry in the 90’s. Which was used in some 20 or 30,000 new stores around the country. That was a nice step.

Things started to change around 2000. DVD was starting to come out at a good price and Blockbuster was very strong. Hollywood Video was coming on its heels, and the independent stores were getting hit from all sides. All of a sudden there were new, big box players – Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy. The price of DVD flip-flopped the industry. Over a couple of years the industry went from an 80 percent rental industry to an 80 percent sale industry. Yeah. It went that quick. It always had double digit growth until just a few years ago. So there was a need to have a specialized division in the Video Software Dealers Association. And I was part of that crew that helped put that together. I was elected its second chairman. Before I was on the board. And then I stayed as chair for four years. I just gave that up in the last year.

We worked with video stores around the country, met with the studios. The studios by then are saying, “You guys are dinosaurs. Get the hell outta here. We’re making much more money at Wal-Mart.” By then we were about 12 percent of the industry. And 12 percent of $24 billion wasn’t too bad, you know? We went to great lengths – talked magazines into doing surveys, talked consulting companies into taking better looks at us – in order to measure what we were worth to the studios. Then we went back to them and said, “Look. This is what we’re really worth to you guys! You should pay a little more attention to us.” And they started to. The magazines gave us a half page every week. I wrote a column for about a year and a half, weekly, and we put in our stats and things like that. That division meets every month and did very well, even with the turmoil in this industry right now – with Blockbuster close to bankruptcy and Movie Gallery in bankruptcy – you know, the top two guys aren’t doing so well. And most of our people, they hold their own. Believe it or not, there’s still some people opening up video stores!

NKR: What’s the Netflix factor in this?

JL: It’s getting bigger. We know what their numbers are but we don’t quite know what their percentage in the market is. I can surmise that they’re probably in that 20 percent range. They hurt us personally at Emerald City. They’re a well-run company. I mean, it’s the lowest common denominator thing with them. They make sure they have enough – or almost enough – to fill that lowest common denominator. They do it well. They have an eye on the future. I know some of the people and in fact the fellow that started Netflix was an old friend of mine, from out of the San Francisco area. He was a video store operator, believe it or not. I don’t know what we’re gonna do about it. You know, there was a “Consumer Reports” last month that rated – surprisingly – Netflix very high. But it rated independent stores as the best service in the industry. And I believe we are.

NKR: Before you started getting rid of your inventory, how many titles did you have?

JL: It’s debatable. My son is convinced that we had 56,000 movies. We don’t. I think more like around 36,000. Individual titles we have somewhere around 27-28,000.

NKR: You say nothing will be held back, you’ll try to sell everything. But are you entertaining thoughts of remaining a resource in Central New York?

JL: There are plans that are just a bit confidential. But – yes, the answer’s yes. I hear you. As you know, my first love is film. That’s what the Cinefile Society is all about. By the way we have a nice website – it’s Auburncinefile.com. If you have a chance, take a look. I post a monthly newsletter and we sell DVDs for the festival there as well.

NKR: The festival has always used outreach to create a cinema-friendly environment, rather than being a once-a-year blow-through-town event. That grows the audience.

JL: I agree, I agree. Better said, it has widened our palette. Especially for some foreign product. And it has humanized the foreign product – we have met the filmmaker. We’ve sat with him in the audience. And I can’t thank Owen and Christine enough. And you know, they’re part-time people doing full-time work. I met them here. One of them came in one day to get a movie and said, “You know, we got this film festival idea.” This was right in the beginning. They left a card so I called them and I said, “Sure this is cool.” They left a budget for me to look at. And I said, “Guys! I don’t know! Can we meet?” So we decided to meet at the place with the motorcycles downtown – Dinosaur. And I just fell in love. They were so broad in their thinking. Generous, and wonderfully unknowing! I couldn’t wait to help them. My blood was boiling. My hair was curly again. I could rock’n’roll with these people, you know?

NKR: So your son Jay – I was chatting with him the other day – he said, “Well, really the straw that broke the camel’s back is that my grandfather died. We had all been doing this together.”

JL: Yeah. That’s right.

NKR: Would you talk a little bit about that?

JL: Well, it’s a little hard still but yeah I would be happy to. Again, big Italian family. My mom was gracious to allow my father to be the titular head of the family. My father was a very quiet man. My mother is quite boisterous. He was one of those guys who never let you hang. And always had time. I told you, I had sold the Auburn business. But I was just bloody going crazy. It wasn’t enough. Ironically I was doing work for the bankruptcy court. They hired me to appraise three video stores in Syracuse. There were two family-owned stores and the Emerald City Video store. I asked my dad to help because it was too big a job for one person and he had just retired from GE. And he just took a liking to film. To video.

NKR: At last!

JL: At last was right! You hit it right on the head. I said, “Dad, you know, these aren’t bad stores.” The fellow that went out of business didn’t go out because he wasn’t making money. He went bankrupt because he also owned a nightclub. And the nightclub went bad. So I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “Well, your mother’s gonna kill me. She’ll just kill me if I stay home.” I said, “Well, well, think about it.” We wound up forming a loose partnership – he was the guy and put up most of the money and we bought those three stores. And he just loved having a place to go. He loved meeting people. I worked one day a week and he worked the rest of the time. And actually had a following. They’d come every day and meet and talk – not particularly about film – and we started growing as a result. We had a store in Franklin Park Plaza and we built that store up to doing about three times what it was doing.

Give you just a quick story. We never talk about it, but we’ve always had a back room in our stores for differing tastes. One day – my dad would go back there and he loved inventory, he would count all day long – and he had fallen asleep in that room. The young lady who was working with him that day thought he died. He was just so still. She calls us about two in the afternoon, she says, “There’s a problem. Grandpa Pat’s in the back room and I think he died.” I said, “Christine, just go back in and nudge him. Please. Please do that or I’ll go crazy. I’m ready to jump in the car but please just go back in and nudge him.” “Do I really have to?” “Please. Just go back in.” And sure enough, he woke up! And my mother gave him a long lecture about staying out of that room! And of course Christine was scarred for life. [laughs]

When we opened an Auburn store again, we moved him there so he wouldn’t have to drive so far, and he’d have his morning coffee club. He would loan people $20, $30, $10. These were people who lived on the street. It was a lot of people – 30, 40, 50 people. When he decided to retire he still had the same little book with all these people listed who owed him money. And one fellow took it upon himself to collect it for him. Sure enough. Almost all of them gave him back those loans. After we closed the Auburn store he came into my consulting office and worked there for about a year and did nothing but go over spread sheets. Tell us where the error was that the computer didn’t find. He could. Good times.

He had a stroke after Christmas of ’07 and it was his last one. He fought and fought and couldn’t get that left side to work anymore. He came home on Good Friday and died the day after Easter. Everybody came over to see him. He wanted to come home from the nursing home and wasn’t ready, but he was so demanding about it – so sorrowful – it just made you cry. We all thought we had better bring him home whether the doctors allowed it or not, so we kind of overruled the doctors and got him home. We had a big gathering on Easter Sunday. That next morning he just passed away quietly.

NKR: Jay said, “There are a number of reasons we closed, but it just wasn’t the same.”

JL: I don’t know how to put this so it doesn’t sound stupid, but money was never a big thing – wasn’t a chief motivation for this store. We wanted to make it. Who doesn’t want to make money? But this store probably didn’t do half of what stores this size did. Wasn’t about that. More about the product and the conversation that went with it. It wasn’t a hobby. It was a business. So when it was making money, or coming close to breaking even or just losing a little, that was cool. In ’08 it turned. It turned very badly. So much so that it was a real burden. That would’ve been okay too if the family was still together and doing it. But when the economy turned down and Netflix got stronger and the dollar boxes came out, and losing my dad and the lease coming up – and how many projects with films that we’ll be working on this summer? – all played a role in it.

The most extreme deciding factor was the lease was up and our landlord wasn’t going to settle for no rent increase this time. We’ve been here five years, four years on Bridge Street before and then the rest in East Syracuse or Auburn. Great customers, really great customers. We’ve been seeing a lot of them and it’s hard to commiserate. Oh my God! They get so serious. One fellow got mad at us. How dare we close? That one kind of rubbed us the wrong way. We understood it because we all said it to ourselves. Film is important so I’m gonna stay in it.

NKR: Well, you have other ways to do that now. You were telling me some tales the other day about the Russian projects.

JL: Last year Owen wanted to have a video distribution seminar at the festival for the 60 or so filmmakers who came. I called some friends in the industry and we combined those representatives with some local people and we put together three good seminars. A seminar on distribution that you do yourself, a seminar on distribution and filming in Central New York, and a seminar on games. In the one I was facilitating there was a filmmaker named Farid Gumbatov, who did “Caucasia.”

Afterward Farid was following me around, only he didn’t have his interpreter and I had no idea what he was talking about. Finally that same evening he was in the lobby at the Marx – the Renaissance – and as I was walking by his interpreter said, “Would you have a drink with Farid?” Who wouldn’t want to have a drink with a filmmaker? He talked about needing someone in the States for his next film. And would I help? And I tried to talk him out of it. To tell you the truth. I thought there would be better people than me to help him. He asked me for breakfast the next morning.

So I grabbed John Craddock and we met him and it was a Russian breakfast. It was very hearty and it included vodka. He asked for three water glasses and we talked more about film and how we could help him in Syracuse in making his next film. He poured vodka in the water glasses, about six or seven ounces each. We finished one piece of the meeting and he said, “Now we drink.” And we all downed the six ounces of vodka. We put our glasses down and we talked some more. We went another half hour and he said, “Now we drink.” And he did it again. Well we wound up having three glasses of vodka. And out of that meeting he hired me to help him. With not only his new film but with the DVD distribution of “Caucasia.” And I fell asleep in the library after that for a few hours trying to sober up before I could go anywhere.

We’re waiting now for the exchange rate of the dollar against the Russian currency. He’ll do most of the interiors in Moscow and the exteriors here. Good stuff, all good stuff. We’re very serious about attracting filmmakers. River Bend Pictures is going to help with DVD distribution. We’ve got two films going on right now for DVD – the Czech film “Schriteck” is coming out in May and after that “Caucasia” either in August or October. Mary Angiolillo is in “Schriteck, “who’s from Syracuse originally. She brought all those Czech filmmakers here and they’re coming back this year. We have “Black Snow” from China, “The Spectator” from Italy. A few others on the line. Eugene Zycoff is coming from Russia again with five or six films.

NKR: Is there any last word you’d want to say at this point?

JL: Little stores like us – that are more like small independent film, that are a little quirky, but stay with you a lot longer – are unfortunately going by the wayside. We just can’t wait for the cycle to turn. Film is another story. There’s such a vibrant independent market today. Much stronger than it’s ever been since the 20’s. It’s so good to be involved in that. This is about America and what made us so strong. The same independent people, the same spirit – have an idea and want to do something with it. And for not that much money can go out and shoot a film and express themselves and show us something in a new way and become as a result a part of our American fabric. And that’s fantastic.

Nancy covers the arts and since 2006 has written the film column “Make it Snappy,” reviewing many films on DVD and VHS courtesy of Emerald City Video. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

EDITED: (02/28/09)

TAGS: Nancy Keefe Rhodes, Emerald City Video, movies, Jim Loperfido, Owen Shapiro, Farid Gumbatov, Syracuse International Film Festival
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.0/5 (10 votes cast)

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