Indie film chronicles vid store's demise caused by 'Temptation'


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

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

"Heart," 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. The NFD insisted that 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 though 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 telefilm 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 spring 2004. Postproduction was completed in April 2005.

"Heart" screened at the 2005 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, where it won the Critics Choice Award for best narrative feature.

Freyr Thor, president of Vanguard Cinema, read about the film online and contacted Tipton and his team — who coincidentally had just sent Vanguard, which specializes in independent cinema, a copy of the film 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."

Although the movie is a testament to his convictions, Tipton concedes that 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." (partialdiff)

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 is already planning a follow-up: a sequel to "Heart of the Beholder" that chronicles "all the strange things we went through to make (the movie)." (partialdiff)