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Not for Resale
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by Jay Seaver

"The changes in the business aren't a game."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: There's been a lot of recent talk online about the potential death of physical media for movies as I begin to flesh the capsule I wrote the night I watched this out, but that's not much of a coincidence; that talk started the moment Netflix announced the "Watch Instantly" option and hasn't slowed down since. "Not for Resale" covers how that same dynamic is at play in the world of games, from the point of view of the proprietors of video game shops, but it's worth a look even for those of us whose most recent game system purchase is a Sega Dreamcast; this medium is different from others in many ways, but in others it's just a few steps ahead.

It starts by introducing Neil Crockett, who has owned and operated GameZone in Salem, Massachusetts for over 25 years, long enough to see his business go from retail-priced new releases to buying and selling used copies to stocking "retro" games from the days when he first opened for the collectors' market. Other people operating such stores across the country are similar, although some are younger, not necessarily having been alive to play the Atari 2600s in the back when they were new. Despite the video game industry growing to massive size, this sort of retail long been a business for people aiming to make a little money off their hobby rather than a lot, and times are getting tighter - new games often don't get physical releases at all, and as older gamers leave the hobby, there aren't as many new collectors looking to buy what they're selling off.

There's a recipe for despair in that, and I suspect that director Kevin J. James probably wound up talking to some people whose shops closed by the time post-production was done, and who could have provided some bitter interview footage. He doesn't show much of that, to the point where one of the things that struck me early on about Not for Resale, compared to other documentaries about industries in transition, is how positive many of its video game retailers were about the shift to digital marketplaces; they're too much in love with the medium to look past that potential. It's an attitude that manifests in the film, which is able to look at its subjects in whole without framing them as quixotic.

It doesn't hurt that those subjects are by and large interesting individuals and the filmmakers seemingly favor the less polished, though without emphasizing their eccentricity in ways that make them into weirdos, instead letting the implication stand that you maybe have to be a dedicated lifer to start a business whose end you can see coming even if you're not sure about the timeline. There are two or three threads where it's easy to grow very attached in not a little time. There's a family in Tennessee where you know the father who spends all his time helping out around the store used to tell his son to stop wasting his time on these things, a woman in the Pacific Northwest whose shop is as full of tie-in merchandise as classic games.

And then there are the guys who realize that they're taking in more in trade than they're selling and decide to start a museum, and that's one of several ways into the movie's other main thread, on just how the medium's history gets preserved beyond collectors passing things around. Encased inside the nostalgic material around it, these portions of the movie ask its most fascinating questions, from which games from the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, are worth the effort (so much of that was primitive, knock-offs, or both), to who is responsible and how to do it. There's a visit with the relatively junior staffer charged with this at the Library of Congress, talk of how the technology has changed so quickly over the past forty years that reading old data is impossible, and how planned obsolescence and walled-garden arrangements have caused even relatively recent games to fall into limbo.

Even if they aren't particularly interested in video games, that material should probably alarm most viewers; the general shift away from physical media means that legitimate access to titles can become aggressively ephemeral for games in particular, but also for music, television, film, and more. It's a topic that deserves to be more than half a movie but which might make as much of an impact here as in articles directly covering the subject. The likable folks with cool shops are deservedly the stars of the film, but it's got something to say even if they do accept that the industry is evolving past them.

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originally posted: 09/04/19 10:31:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Kevin J. James

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