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Which film remake is next? Eddie Brandt knows

By Laura RandallContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2003


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.

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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.

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.