Which film remake is next? Eddie Brandt knows

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In the span of an hour on a recent Friday afternoon, Donovan Brandt has lectured a screenwriter on the acting roots of Lon Chaney, explained the difference between the US and British versions of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" to a confused teenager, and rattled off for an audition-bound woman half a dozen movie titles that feature actresses speaking English with an Italian accent.

But Mr. Brandt is stumped when asked to identify his job title at Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, the Los Angeles-area video store where he has worked since he was 7.

"Um, jack of all trades?" he shrugs, before his train of thought is interrupted by a drama teacher seeking movies with clown scenes for a commedia dell'arte class.

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It's a typical day at this family-run business founded in 1969 by Eddie Brandt, Donovan's father and a former writer for "The Spike Jones Show" and "Beany & Cecil." While a nearby Blockbuster fills its shelves with dozens of copies of the newly released "Terminator 3," Eddie Brandt's staffers field requests for the 1955 version of "Kismet," a Muppets Christmas special starring John Denver, and movies with plotlines about disinherited children ("We could only come up with four," Mr. Brandt laments).

As budget-conscious film studios increasingly greenlight remakes of old films and recycled television shows (coming soon: "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "The Stepford Wives"), independent stores like Eddie Brandt's are finding themselves with a new role in the $9 billion-a-year video-rental industry. They are often used as research libraries and idea factories for the movie studios in whose shadows they lurk.

"We're another brain for them to pick," says Jeff Miller, a manager at Rocket Video, an independent store in Hollywood that specializes in foreign-language films.

When the director Keenen Wayans was looking for horror movies to spoof for his "Scary Movie" films, for instance, he asked Rocket Video's clerks to name some of the genre's most popular titles.

"Some of them suggested 'The Haunting,' and that ended up being one of the films he spoofed," Mr. Miller says.

Jay Friedman, Miller's former colleague at Rocket Video, places the value of a video-store clerk even higher: "If a magic wand waved and suddenly had me running a major studio, I would have all my executives work a week a year in a video store," says Mr. Friedman, who quit his job after he sold his first screenplay for a six-figure sum three years ago.

Besides the free-movie perks, he notes, clerks have unprecedented access to the tastes of the average filmgoer.

"You get to have an ongoing dialogue with all kinds of customers, and you get them in unguarded moments that just won't happen in a focus group," he says.

While Miller complains that some studio executives take advantage of the encyclopedic minds of video-store clerks, he acknowledges that the ignorance of the higher-paid executives can be lucrative. More than one-third of Rocket's profits come from late charges that often stem from videos on loan for prolonged research projects. Similarly, Eddie Brandt's derives 41 percent of its annual profits from its no-exceptions $1.50-a-day late fee.

Of L.A.'s handful of well-regarded independent video-rental shops, Eddie Brandt's trumps its competitors in terms of inventory.

The L-shaped store, tucked into a windowless former graphics studio, stocks 66,000 DVD and VHS movies, most of which are displayed horizontally on floor-to-ceiling shelves to save space. (National chains like Blockbuster, in contrast, average 10,000 DVD and VHS copies at a time.) Its roster of 44,000 clients includes the director Quentin Tarantino, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, actors Carol Kane and Jimmy Smits, and every major film studio from Disney to Universal.

Mr. Tarantino, who sends the staff a lavish basket of baked goods every Christmas, has been renting kung fu movies and old "Ironside" episodes from the Brandts for more than a decade. He even thanks Eddie Brandt's in the end credits of his latest film, "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," which draws from spaghetti westerns, Sonny Chiba martial-arts classics, and other hard-to-find films the store stocks.

Eddie Brandt, the store's eponymous founder, still shows up for work regularly, but he leaves the day-to-day responsibilities to wife Claire, whom he met when they both worked as animators at Hanna-Barbera Productions in the 1950s, and their son, Donovan.

Their collection began with a box of old movie stills that they sold for a dime each out of a former thrift store. They added Beta-format videos in 1976 and starting prowling swap meets and garage sales for hard-to-find titles. In 1998, the store moved to its current location in an industrial section of North Hollywood. It's a one-story house with a mural of a drive-in theater facing the parking lot.

None of Eddie Brandt's customers seems to mind the narrow aisles and scuffed linoleum floors. They line up to check out in front of a plywood counter plastered with movie posters from "The Bank Dick" and "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Clerks toss the empty video boxes into a plastic laundry basket that sits next to a couple of badminton rackets.

"It's mecca," says Brian Currie, a screenwriter who came to Eddie Brandt's in search of an out-of-print film with a plot that matches a screenplay he is writing. "Not only did they have the movie I wanted, but [the staff] came up with another movie with a similar theme," he says. Clutching two VHS tapes to his chest, Mr. Currie declined to name the movies, citing the nascent stage of his screenwriting project.

Back inside the store, Donovan Brandt nods knowingly at Currie's hesitation to discuss his project. "We get that a lot," he says, chalking it up to the competitive nature of the entertainment industry.

Mr. Brandt's own taste in movies leans toward westerns from the 1940s and 1950s, science-fiction epics, and "just about anything but musicals." Ask him to recommend a good comedy and he'll point you in the direction of "Champagne for Caesar," a 1950 send-up of quiz shows starring Ronald Colman and Vincent Price.

"Let's face it," he sighs. "All the best films were made before 1963."

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