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Vanguard's 'Heart of the Beholder' Tells of Rentailer's Saga

22 May, 2008 By: Thomas K. Arnold

Next month, independent DVD supplier Vanguard Cinema will ship to video retailers a movie about a video retailer.

If you're thinking a Clerks clone, forget it. Heart of the Beholder, which is being released directly to video on June 24, tells the true story of pioneering video retailer Ken Tipton, who lost the Video Library chain he had founded and built after battling religious extremists in St. Louis, Mo., over his decision to carry Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

The independent film, 12 years in the making, was written and directed by Tipton, who in 1981 pooled his savings and with his pregnant wife opened Video Library as the first video rental store in St. Louis. The store was an instant success and soon grew into a multimillion-dollar business, with six stores twice the size of the average Blockbuster and another six Movie Machine video kiosks.

But with success came attention from the St. Louis chapter of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's National Federation for Decency (NFD). The NFD insisted Video Library remove films they deemed obscene, from Blazing Saddles to Splash, the latter drawing their ire because they felt Tom Hanks making love to a mermaid promoted bestiality.

When Scorsese's Temptation was released on video in 1989, Video Library was the only video chain in St. Louis to offer it for rent. The NFD picketed Video Library stores and the Tiptons received death threats. The local prosecuting attorney filed obscenity charges against the retailers, and while they ultimately prevailed in court, the negative publicity and legal fees bankrupted their business and led to the breakup of their family.

Tipton was compelled to make a film about his story after being approached by a producer for a possible TV movie in 1993. The networks liked the idea but deemed it too controversial. Tipton persisted, ultimately teaming with television standards and practices executive Darlene Lieblich, who optioned the story and raised $500,000 to make the film, which was shot in 18 days in the spring of 2004. Post-production was completed in April 2005. A short time later, Heart of the Beholder was screened at the 2005 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, where it was awarded the Critics Choice Award for best narrative feature film.

Freyr Thor, president of Vanguard Cinema, heard of the film through an Internet article and contacted Tipton and his team — who, coincidentally, had just sent Vanguard, which specializes in independent cinema, a copy for submission.

“The film is a perfect fit for us,” Thor said. “We have never shied away from controversy, and this film is unique because it depicts an era when video stores were the new frontier of media delivery to the public. That's why they became the flash point of controversy over free speech.”

As an independent video distributor, Thor said, “we always look for films consistent with our mission to promote new talent in cinema, and films with subjects of importance to our current world. We look for consistency in production qualities and we look for stars and critical acclaim. This one stood out because of its storyline, derived from video industry history. We were aware of the film for a while and knew it had met with some resistance due to its subject.”

While the movie is a testament to his convictions, Tipton concedes if he had it to all over again, he would have done things differently.

“I would have removed The Last Temptation after the NFD demanded I do so,” he said. “It's one thing to stand up for yourself, but my actions affected my family and my employees, many of whom went bankrupt, just as we did.

The Last Temptation of Christ was a good movie, but not good enough to justify the crap my family and employees went through. Ask Scorsese if he would make The Last Temptation now, knowing the brutal harassment his family and many others went through. My gut says he would pass on it, also.”

In his new role as a filmmaker, Tipton said, he's already planning a sequel to Heart of the Beholder that chronicles “all the strange things we went through to make [the movie].”

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