Reflections in a Glass Vacuum Tube

Jonathan Gross

This month my little company will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. No small feat given that turnover in the film distribution business is fairly brisk, and that yours truly will not be lecturing at the Harvard Business School anytime soon, such are my skills in running any sort of organization. We will celebrate at one point with a party for our friends and perhaps something for our loyal customers. In my mind, it’s going to be a little bittersweet as I wonder where the decades went along with the life force I put into something that was never a Plan A, or even a Plan B. It’s A Wonderful Life indeed.

I’m going to trace the history of what is now Unobstructed View for you and, a bit for me. I could use the catharsis and, second, I hope to recollect and reconnect with some memories that will cause me to smile. 

The story actually starts out in the 80s when my father and I, somewhat half-assedly, got into the business of loading VHS cassettes for the professional duplication market, meaning the growing home video industry. He had a connection in Korea for tape and we sold them to people duplicating VHS movies and some industrial content. At one point we had the Disney contract for Canada and we made some dough. The company was called Veejay Video Products named after both the Beatles’ first label in the U.S. and a column I was writing at the time in the Toronto Star covering the burgeoning music video scene. I had hair at the time too, and was splitting my time between Toronto and New York because I was still writing for one of Rolling Stone’s publications plus promoting hip hop shows (I was sort of OG). But I had just gotten married and my father said I should straighten out. Stop being ‘artsy’ as I was called in Vanity Fair during a not so charitable story on a former, notoriously successful girlfriend. 

So I was charged with sales and one of my customers was one Kurt Glemser in Kitchener who I was familiar with from my rock critic days, because he was partners with Benny Hoffman in the legendary Record Peddler store in Toronto where bootlegs were sold openly back in the 70s amid the very expensive import pressings of all the cool UK groups. The store came complete with sneering sales staff who would openly scoff at your taste. I was doubly scorned because I was covering punk rock in Polo shirts and would regularly ask if they had anything new by “The Beach Lads”. Not cool. But I loved the scene. Kurt was one of those guys who started making money when he was a kid buying out the comic books from the corner bodega and then marking them up in the schoolyard. He then got into bootlegs and rarities to the extent he would fly to Australia and go to the Warner Music warehouse with cash because a Led Zeppelin single in that territory had an exclusive B Side. That progressed into picture discs he ferried back from Detroit in his Bricklin to cash sales at Sam The Record Man. It was off the grid, and it was cool until the copyright laws were changed and the RCMP did a little house cleaning at his place. But not in the basement because that’s where he kept his alligators. Are you following? 

Shortly thereafter Kurt saw that the nascent home entertainment business had a great lack of legal firewalls and proceeded to buy rogue masters and make deals on any title he could. He was making lots of money with every women-in-prison film ever made and we supplied the tape. Fun.

The business my father and I had eventually went away, partly because I decided to move to LA and become a writer for the screen. My son Connor was just born and Lisa, written about in past entries, took some time off her head hunting business and off we went, first for a few months and then permanently. I got some work, mostly because of my sister Marjorie, again seen in past entries and we had a pretty good time, the three of us. My daughter Madeleine was born out there in 1993, but by then things weren’t going great for me. My sister took ill and I was reduced to writing Flintstone talking books, which wasn’t exactly union money although I did get to work with the original Wilma. 

Out of the blue one day late in 1992 Kurt calls because he wants to unload some inventory and I try to help. He then calls me a few weeks later and reveals that he had actually sold the company a couple of years before and his confidentiality clause had expired. The guy who bought him had made a fortune retrofitting all the Blockbuster stores when it came to Canada but was now in serious trouble thanks to a gambling problem, and if I flew up “tomorrow” with a cheque I could buy the whole thing for ten cents on the dollar. Now I had seen Kurt’s numbers before he sold it and I could, perhaps, use the hedge, so I did fly up with my sister who kicked in half and there I was, sole owner of what was then called Video Entertainment Corp. We changed it to Video Service Corp. to reduce the association with the previous owner and away we went with Kurt managing things out of his building in Kitchener. Maybe I would even make a few bucks. It turns out the business model was old, as were the movies and I inherited a whack of legal issues regarding title and copyright on a lot of it. Five months later I flew up to Kitchener and mothballed the business, moving skids of masters, sleeves and duplication machines into the warehouse of a carpet company owned by my father. Never spoke to Kurt again, which I understand but business is business.

A few months later the earthquake happened in LA and a good chunk of the duplex we were renting broke off and the experience was my wife’s last straw in a town that was still reeling from the Rodney King riots etc. She went back to Toronto with the kids. I stayed behind and then packed up our lives and headed ‘home’. Reality was setting in. I certainly was not going to pursue a writing career in Toronto. Not enough shows back then and very little back end.

There was a house, school etc. Backs were to the wall and I had the chattels of this business so I made some calls. Somebody I had known from the past told me that the old big box chain Zellers (now recently revived) was buying old movies on VHS in bulk and gave me the buyer’s number. I became friends with one Mike Davey, who played bass on the side and when asked how things were had one response, “Fair to middlin.” It’s okay because he bought about 80,000 movies from me at our first meeting. Didn’t care what they were, I just had to prepack fifty different titles in a box. Now I did have skids of masters and more skids of packaging and I had a friend from my old blank VHS days who moved his duplication business from Montreal to Toronto. His name was Kai Voigt, German jew born in the displacement camps after the war, a salty SOB but a good friend who gave me a desk and when I told him Zellers was only paying $2.65 a unit, he said he would make the copies for $2.25 a unit including the packaging but I would have to do the prepacks. More than once or twice did my 40 year old self pull all nighters in Kai’s warehouse boxing, sorting and skidding, wait for it, prepacks of every women in prison film ever made. 

And so it went. My father in law gave me a car and helped with my bank line. The car, a 1989 Saab 9000 is, historically, in the worst model year for problems in a brand that was trouble at the best of times. However, part of the package was one of those old cell phones hard wired to the console. Thirty years later I still have the same number. I even managed to rent what was a prison cell in one of those shared office spaces for what I believe was $250 a month. It was from there though that I sent a pitch by fax to my sister, then writing for Seinfeld, that became my claim to fame – a story credit on The Fusilli Jerry episode. As for back end, I will get residuals on this credit for the rest of my life. And my kids’…

I was eking out a subsistence for a start and then later in the summer of 1994 that same friend with the Zellers connection suggested to me that I do something with what was then the hottest show on the CBC, The Royal Canadian Air Farce, one of those slices of old Canadiana that entertained millions on radio for years and then took its simple brand of low risk social and political satire to TV and were pulling in a million plus viewers every Friday night. Today, if you get 200,000 views in prime time on the CBC you are a hero.

Fortunately, or not, I had been on the writing team for the 1990 Gemini Awards, noted for its failed live presentation of the next big thing, Hi-Def TV. Apparently the guns on the TV froze because it was being stored on the shipping dock in November. Fade to black. That was the high point of that edition of what were once Canada’s Emmys. At the writer’s table with me was the Air Farce veteran Roger Abbott who remembered me when I got him on the phone and pitched him and, later, his partner Don Ferguson. We cobbled together what was the first TV show compilation at the CBC and the thing sold. Back then you could buy videos in Eatons and The Bay. Yes, there were still Eatons. By the third edition I was making enough to effect a little renovation of the house. My sister had passed away in the summer prior to that big seller and I have always said that she’s been looking after me ever since, because after a somewhat poor selling edition the next year it was all kind of over for us at the Air Farce and I found myself sitting in what was now our small non-air conditioned warehouse in a pretty rough corner of the city openly wondering what the hell we were going to to do now. I had long run out of sleeves of those women in prison films and I believe so had the public’s taste.

I had a young guy working in the warehouse named Jim McStravick. He saw we were at loose ends and suggested I do something with this kid in Ottawa who was making a name for himself with some outrageous stunts on local TV. I was in my mid-forties by this time and not plugged into the public access cable scene and I had never heard of one Tom Green. 

I flew up to Ottawa in January with a business plan to sell maybe 10,000 videos. It was my good fortune that Tom was signing his deal with MTV on that very day and I walked out of town with a deal that yielded about 100,000 videos and kept my kids in their fancy summer camp.

Two years later it happened again. We were desperate enough to release something called The Puppetry Of The Penis, which was exactly what it sounds like. Thankfully, I got a call from a fellow Brooklynite who was shooting a doc on Wayne Gretzky’s selection of the Team Canada headed to the 2002 Winter Games In Salt Lake City. Cool I said, but the real play would be some kind of highlight reel and doc if they win the Gold Medal. With Wayne these guys had some access, and after a rocky start Team Canada won in dramatic fashion and we had a master five days later and were shipping about 250,000 units combined VHS and DVD the next week. I owe Wayne for that and a couple of other releases in our hockey catalogue.

And on it went, with some misses (like not getting the Trailer Park Boys) to hits like Corner Gas and Kenny Vs Spenny (Spenny is a cousin) and Russell Peters’ first DVD. I knew Lorne Michaels from a past life and he always supported the home team, so we worked with Fred Armisen on Broadway Video’s Portlandia for the series run plus my favorite release of all time SNL’s 25 Years Of Music boxed set, now a rarity. We then got into the theatrical business with Magnolia Pictures and distributed some cool films including, my favorite experience, the 2014 TIFF Midnight Madness audience winner What We Do In The Shadows. But things went downhill again in 2017 and I was on the verge of closing after a couple of big customers went belly up. We even changed the name of the company to Unobstructed View in honor of all those ‘obstructed view’ seats we sat in at concerts and sporting events because we just wanted to be in the building. Thanks for the push on that Gail Gendler.

And, like manna, I got a call from a friend at Entertainment One who said that they were going to fold up their distribution and send what they had to Universal Studios to cover but there was one piece that didn’t fit – The Criterion Collection, which would be the jewel in the crown of the lines we represented. Cost me $500K to get involved, but it was well worth it and when the pandemic hit and the malls closed our e-commerce site went nuts. So here we are, in a new warehouse, still slightly crazed after all these years, successfully staving off elimination as they say in the playoffs. 

No, this is not perhaps what my mother wanted for me. Should I have been a ‘doctuh’? Organic chemistry said no. And my Plan B was spending my valuable youth as a professional rock critic, which was fun but no way to invest one’s time because, as Lenny Bruce said “Nobody likes an aging hipster.” As far as working in the corporate world, I often refer to my kindergarten teacher’s comment on my report card, “Johnny doesn’t play well with others.”

The future? I don’t know. Yes, I am a little tired of the grind. As I have often said, in my world Arthur Miller wrote comedy. And the movies? We no longer work the theatrical market because, well, it’s pretty much dead, and the films being made today are, for the most part, can’t reach someone of my vintage who has to save whatever suspension of disbelief I have for my ECG readouts. What I do enjoy, and it happens less and less, is finding an old chestnut, restoring it and sending it out to market as ‘frame off restoration’ to borrow from the auto auction houses. Most of the time our suppliers have done the work but occasionally we happen upon something that we can handle ourselves. Proud that we restored and reintroduced films like Hard Core Logo, Face Off, Black Like Me and The Rutles into the marketplace. Won’t forget Eric Idle being pissed at me during the commentary track we did for The Rutles. Looking forward to doing more of that. 

And really it’s kind of a metaphor for a life that had to be restored a few times due to tragedy, failed dreams and whatever. A little makeover, spiritual, emotional or physical, sometimes can take your life in a whole new and perhaps more genuine direction. I’m okay with the future. I’ve got a little runway left. It’s the past I have to reckon with.

On that note I want to thank some of the people that made these three decades possible. If you are looking for your name and it’s not here it’s possibly because I forgot. Because if you think your name should be here then it should. Love to all below:

Kurt Glemser, Henry Kates, Helen Clune (you saved my life), Steve Sweigman (you gave me your best years), Cori Clegg, Kerry Kupecz (for two decades the office wife, full stop), Janet Lipps, Steve Cole and everyone at the home office these days. And to Sean Breen for all his work when the work was tough. As for suppliers I would like to go back and thank the late Roger Abbott, for whom I got to write an obit of thanks in the Globe & Mail, his partner Don Ferguson, Luba Goy and the equally late and wonderful John Morgan. And Barry Brooker for the advice on Zellers and the Air Farce. Karen Bower on the business side. The great actress Carol Kane for helping out with our release of Wedding In White.  For all the great hockey stuff we did I want to thank Scott Smith and Bruce Newton, both formerly from Hockey Canada and Paul Patskou for all the archival help plus Wayne Gretzky and the late legends Gordon Howe and Robert Marvin Hull who took time to participate. Will not forget the pleasure of working with Don Cherry and his son Tim on the last five volumes of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Hockey. Then there’s Art Hindle, the iconic star of Face Off, who became a friend forty years after I first met him. And to Mike Landsberg for putting me on Off The Record, every time I needed the publicity and a good time. Yes, Lorne Michaels, Britta Von Schoeler and everybody at Broadway Video. The Sharknado Davids – Rimawi, Latt and Garber. Plus Paul Bales. Colin Quinn, Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis for getting us into some great comedy releases as did Alan Blye who brought me into the world of Bob Einstein and Super Dave Osborne. Bill Hudson, you’re a goniff, but you told great Hollywood stories. And on that note, the late, so frickin’ great Sandra Faire for putting me on TV when I was young and for getting me into the Russell Peters business. Yes Kenny Hotz and my cousin Spenny for letting me handle their now landmark TV series on DVD. Yes, the staff at CTV and Prairie Pants for all those great times putting out over a million copies of Corner Gas. Second thanks to Kerry for doing an in-store with Brent Butt in a blizzard in Regina. And to Brett for being a gentleman for all those years and to Cathy Scianitti, now retired from Bell’s business affairs, who gave us a long leash. And to Jordan Froese for delivering the series to us. Not enough lunches left in my life to pay for that. Though we no longer speak, I owe our former publicist Ingrid Hamilton for introducing me to my favorite Czech this side of Jaromir Jagr, Sarka Kalusova who keeps our website fresh and social media posts coming. Yes the Bellytwins, Neena and Veena, for getting us into the snake wrangling business.  Alyson Joy for stretching with us. Don Zirlin and Lizzie Troiano for the graphics. And the late Steve Bass of the garden spot Niagara Falls, New York for helping me with my Roller Derby documentary. Rolling Thunder and our WHA Chronicles. RIP my friend. And, yes, Uncle Larry for his direction. Steve Hecht, a home entertainment legend himself, for getting me into the ALF business and much more over the decades, we have been good friends. And I don’t know what I would do without Mark Balsam in New York who keeps me busy and put a word in for me at Criterion to help push it through. And yes, Criterion’s Jonathan Turrell, Angie Bucknell, Brett Sharlow, Justin Onne and the whole team.  Not to forget Alex Agran at Arrow, Michael Rosenberg and Demitri at Film Movement, by brother Alan Fergurson at Kino Lorber, not to mention Richard Lorber himself plus Susanne Leahy, Wendy and everyone who has helped make it work in Canada. Joseph Barrett and my Ranger sister Janet DiDonato at PBS, Lisa Holmes at Music Box, Stuart at ITN, everybody at Cinedigm, Distribution Solutions and MPI. Thank you Hamza. And not to get more morbid but the late great Jimmy Fotheringham from Entertainment One who was a mensch through and through. Bruce Vernum, Gary Drake and Vic Moskal from the old days at Music World. On that note my ‘nephew’ Thom McAuliffe formerly of the formerly in business HMV who remains a great friend.  Emmanuel Michael at Unison, Bruce McDonald and Dany at Shadow Shows, the latter two for being great Canadians. Rob Siegel, a true major league talent and loyal compadre. Bruce Hills at Just For Laughs, Natalie at the NFB for being Natalie. Christina Rogers, a big macher at Netflix now but a solid supporter when she was at Magnolia. And the home team – Goggins, Noach, Hudakoc, AA, Brad Pelman, Paul Gardner, Melluso and my shyster attorney Lon Hall who has become, over decades of service and support, one of my most cherished friends. Ditto for Jessica at Fruitman Kates. Sharon Stevens, David Kines and recently retired Ellen Baine from Hollywood Suite. Tory, Natalie, Genevieve and everyone at Crave. Isabel Machard at TVA. Not to forget Maria, Lizzy and the gang that got me through a lot of post including our reality/game/makeover Frankenstein Hair Wars. And I will never forget the kindness and professionalism of the Dairy Queen herself, Shelley Buckton, when she was at Technicolor. Clinton Young of MIJO, though retired, gets a shout out as does our long suffering delivery expert Sandra Gabriel. Much love. Way at the top of the list but saved for here so you will remember, my good friend Ed Seaman from MVD somewhere outside Philadelphia. A shiddach arranged by the aforementioned Mr. Voigt and one that survives on a tremendous level of empathy. I’m also very proud to have former employees like Marko and Lydia who are now firmly in the business and thriving. I was lucky to have you.  Finally, my brother from another mother, Danny Kliman who gives me at least one good reason to schlep out to LA. 

  1. Yes and not to Forget the DREAM of a Million Dollars in sales of ” the Discovery of EILLEEN SHANIA TWAIN” well I think the 10 thousand are now valuable as a collectors Item

  2. just came across this. Great blog. Thanks for the mention. it was a great 23 years (yikes) working with you.

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