WOODY WISE: PRESERVING HOLLYWOOD’S ATTIC

Visiting the average video store can be a rather depressing experience for the serious movie lover. After all, the bulk of the titles being presented for sale or rental are either the latest Hollywood offerings which were recently clogging up the local multiplexes or straight-to-video junk which wasn’t good enough to get into the theaters. Anyone seeking classics or even the not-so-classics of years passed often come away disappointed at the lack of easy access to the cinematic treasures of earlier years.
That’s where Woody Wise comes in. Actually, he’s been there for quite some time. As the founder and president of the mail order video company Hollywood’s Attic, Wise has spent the past 21 years bringing a wealth of older films to new audiences. With over 3,500 titles in his catalog, including genres which are conspicuously absent from most video stores (including silent classics, the all-black “race films” of the 1930s and 1940s, the naughty-but-nice burlesque films of the 1950s, B-Westerns and serials, and even kinescopes of old-time TV), Hollywood’s Attic is a cinephile’s dream come happily to life.
Wise’s career in the film world actually began in his teen years. “I started as an usher in a movie theater when I was 15,” he says. “I went from usher up to general manger of a small chain of theaters on the east coast. In 1973 I accepted a position as curator of the Harold Lloyd Estate in Beverly Hills. After two years of being open to the public the estate closed and that is when I turned to video.”
During the 1970s, video began to slowly make its way into the consumer market. For those who recall the era, there were several factors which kept the spread of video from proceeding with great speed: the duel of formats between VHS and Betamax, the reluctance of many film companies to put their titles on video for fear of bootlegging, the argument by many in Hollywood that films videotaped from television was equivalent to pirating, and the fairly high cost for the VCR technology. When Wise decided to go into the video business, it was a decision where the benefits outweighed the costs…although the costs ultimately influenced his start-up strategies.
“Hollywood’s Attic began in my living room in Burbank in 1979,” recalls Wise. “Being a movie buff I, of course, wanted just about everything that was released. At that time the machines were still expensive as well as the tapes–a new Sony Betamax machine was $1200. To offset the cost, a friend of mine who was in the video mail order business suggested I open one of my own and purchase from him wholesale.”
One category of film which was easily available for video release at that time was public domain titles (films whose copyrights either expired and were not renewed or which were never initially copyrighted). Concentrating his mail order business on public domain titles, Wise found his business growing quickly as public acceptance of videos began to take off in the early 1980s.
“The business grew and in 1981 I opened the very first video store in Burbank,” he continues. “After two years video stores were opening up on every corner so I closed the store and went back to mail order. I love mail order. Every trip to the post office brings mail from every corner of the world.”
Today Wise, who is 62 years old (“A young 62, I’ll have you know!” he adds), finds himself adding 20 to 30 new titles each month to the Hollywood’s Attic collection. “I acquire titles for my catalog from every corner of the world. There are many companies that sell public domain films and than there are the many films collectors who have old film prints in their basements that I rent or trade for.”
With an audience that includes collectors, schools, colleges, libraries and retail stores, Wise presents a staggering array of films. A casual thumb-through the Hollywood’s Attic reads like a history of world cinema: films from D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, Sergei Eisenstein, Buster Keaton, F.W. Murnau, Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, John Huston, Francis Ford Coppola, and even Edward D. Wood, Jr. are present and accounted for here. Classic titles which everyone’s heard about but few people have actually seen (such as “The Great Train Robbery,” Walt Disney’s pre-Mickey silent cartoons, the US government-produced documentary “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” Yiddish-language classics including “Yiddle with His Fiddle,” the “Why We Fight” propaganda films of World War II, Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story”) are also in residence at Hollywood’s Attic.
Yet despite the quantity of titles, the company itself is still very much a small business. “There are three of us at Hollywood’s Attic: myself, my wife and my ex-wife….how about that?” says Wise with a laugh.
With over 3,500 titles, is there a most popular offering? “Choosing the most popular titles is very difficult,” says Wise. “Recently we acquired a very rare find: an early Shirley Temple film titled “The Red-Haired Alibi” and it had very good sales because of its rarity.”
Another popular seller are the independently-produced all-black films. Originally created exclusively for the racially segregated theaters from the 1920s through the late 1940s, these films provided the only opportunity for African-American performers to essay screen roles which placed them at levels far above the demeaning stereotypes offered by Hollywood during that era; many of these films were directed by African-Americans, who were denied behind-the-camera opportunities in mainstream films. “We have probably the largest collection of these in the world,” notes Wise, who collected dozens of all-black musical short subjects into a six-tape series “Music and Comedy Masters” that features ultra-rare footage of legendary performers including Bessie Smith (in her only film appearance), Billie Holliday, Marian Anderson and Dorothy Dandridge.
While celebrating the past, Wise is still aware of today’s digital culture. Two years ago, Hollywood’s Attic opened its doors to the Internet at www.hollywoodsattic.com. To date, though, only approximately 30% of the company’s titles are on the site. “It will probably be another year before all titles are entered,” says Wise. “At this time only about 20% of our sales are from the Internet, but that’s growing every week.”
Promoting Hollywood’s Attic is a fairly low-key effort for Wise, who has built up a highly loyal customer base. “I do very little advertising,” he says. “Having been in business for over 20 years, I have built up a large mailing list of customers. The biggest area of advertising of late is to get the web site into search engines. And there are no special promotions planned for the immediate future. My biggest promotion is for those who join the e-mail mailing list on the web site. Everyone on the list becomes a ‘preferred customer’ with special low wholesale prices and regular updates on new titles.”
So what advice can be offered to any aspiring entrepreneur who wants to become the next Woody Wise? “At this time I really could not suggest that anyone go into the video distribution business,” he comments. “There are many in it at this time and unless you have a very special product to offer, you will only be in competition with thousands in the same business.”
[ To get information about how to obtain some of these classics, visit ] Hollywood’s Attic.
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Posted on December 9, 2000 in Features by
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