FilmBlood, sweat and DVDs: owning a video store in the age of Netflix
What must a video rental shop do to stay open in 2015?
Not everyone remembers the video store of their youth. By this point, not everyone has everyone grown up with the concept of a tangible, physical media. But for the lion’s share of contemporary movie maniacs, there remains embedded in memory that neighborhood mom-and-pop rental place - the one with the discount deals, perhaps a couple mildewed life-size cutouts, laserdisc overstock, cheeky staff picks and/or a questionable adults-only room in the back. In the wake of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, nobody has been surprised to see these shops closing their doors for good. In fact, type the name of nearly any independent shop into Google, and you’ll see the next prompt down: “closing”. (This is even true for the ones, like Video Free Brooklyn or Vidiots in Los Angeles, which have managed to stay open.)
What does it mean for a local film culture when its video store goes out of business? Does a good relationship with your neighborhood spot make you better at liking movies? How many independent shops will fold before cinephilia acknowledges it has a streaming problem? Does this mean we are doomed to forever choose slick, invisible convenience over raw humanity? These were some of the questions running through my mind as I reached out to a handful of video store owners and employees, subdivided under one much bigger question: what must a video rental shop do to stay open in 2015?
Video Free U.S.A.
Video Free Brooklyn owner Aaron Hillis describes an “analog experience” offered by his store, but he’s not talking about cassettes; instead, he means the human bond of customer and clerk, with recommendations and disputes fielded from behind the rental counter.
“No one wants to feel stupid; some films are just challenging, and not for all tastes, and that’s okay too; our goal as amateur detectives is to try feeling people out, seeing what their comfort zone is, how far we can kinda stretch them while keeping it within their wheelhouse. Some of our customers have even aligned themselves with different employees,” Hillis told me. “Sometimes I recommend something to somebody, they come back, they’re like, ‘I hated it!’ We get into, ‘Well, why did you hate it?' And then even those same people will ask me, ‘What next?’ It’s all part of the experience.”
Hillis put in his bid to take over the 375 square-foot store in 2012, after founder Dan Hu announced VFB was closing after ten years of business. “Dan was living in Kentucky, wanted to get into some other business ventures, just wasn’t into it anymore,” Hillis explained. For him, it’s been a logical extension of his prior work as a film critic (Village Voice, Time Out) and programmer: “I’ve found that as a film journalist, in the post-Internet cultural landscape, the role of a critic has changed; at one time, there was a need for gatekeepers, but now we’re just swimming, drowning actually, in content. So I think it makes more sense to be curators. I work longer hours now, but it’s the best part-time job I’ve ever had.”
Replete with bespoke bike shops, hand-brewed $4 coffees and artisanal cheese shops, Cobble Hill points to a bigger trend that may be keeping the store in business: in New York, there’s a lot of money to be made in rarified nostalgia right now. “I know I’m not creating a model here that can be followed,” he told me. “This opportunity plays on a combination of my peculiar skill-set and timing - weird, weird luck. In 2015, you couldn’t just open a store like this in the middle of Nebraska; there needs to be a cultured-enough clientele, who are up-to-date and know what Godard’s Goodbye To Language is, because it’s a specialty thing. I would never have thought that’s cinephilia, but it is. Streaming is more like channel-surfing; the quality’s not that great, the selection isn’t that great. But it is convenient. But your chances of watching better movies are higher here.”
Video Free Brooklyn
244 Smith St, Brooklyn, NY 11231
Founded in 2002 by Dan Hu, Video Free Brooklyn is located in the neighborhood of Cobble Hill. In 2012, the film critic Aaron Hillis purchased the store which was set to close. Hillis was praised by Brooklyn Magazine as one of "The 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture." He is an NYC-based film critic who has written for The Village Voice, Time Out NY, LA Weekly, Variety, IFC News, Indiewire, Filmmaker, GreenCine Daily, Premiere, and Spin.
It’s impossible to talk about video rental places in New York without invoking Kim’s Video and Music, the East Village bastion (or cluster of bastions) that operated roughly between 1987 and 2014, with an all-time-greatest run as the city’s go-to zone for weird, foreign and/or bootlegged esoterica. I offer that Kim’s had something of a reputation for an attitude problem, to which Hillis replies: “Well, the library was fantastic, but yeah - they were such snobs about things. I think in this day and age, it’s ludicrous to want to be exclusive like that. I want to turn people on to new things, not to make them feel like their taste doesn’t match up with mine. I like junk food movies too; when I started coming to the store as a journalist, I was already seeing all the indie films I could want because that was my beat. I wanted to use this place for junk food popcorn movies that I wasn’t going to press screenings of. I don’t believe in genre hierarchies. But,” he adds, “Kim’s could get away with that attitude, because they had the space, and because they had everything.”
As the store took notice of its inevitably dwindling rental receipts, part of owner Yongman Kim’s strategy was to push Kim’s as a public resource, opting to relocate its archive (estimated at 55,000 titles) to whoever had the means to accommodate it, wherever. As chronicled in an extensive 2012 report by Karina Longworth for The Village Voice, that ended up being a dusty basement warehouse in Sicily - a turn of events noted by Matt Lynch, marketing director for Seattle’s legendary 120,000-title Scarecrow Video, facing a semi-uncertain future of its own these days.
Scarecrow’s first major existential obstacle was a series of crippling debts in the late 90s, racked up by its cofounder George Latsios - who regularly conceded he was a movie lover first, and a businessman second. The store was purchased (some would say bailed out) in 1998 by Carl Tostevin and John Dauphiny, a pair of Microsoft employees , and Scarecrow continued to thrive before rental sales declined, and the owners declared bankruptcy in 2010. “When I first started here,” Lynch said, “It was sort of still the golden age, DVD was not terribly old. Netflix was still exclusively by-disc. So the decline certainly caught some people off-guard, including me. I incorrectly assumed that our collection would continue to speak for itself; that people would come for that diversity. The drop-off was very gradual.” If Tostevin and Dauphiny never stopped loving movies, Lynch describes them as “pumping money to support a business that wasn’t thriving, and they wanted to stop - understandably.”
Streaming is more like channel-surfing; the quality’s not that great, the selection isn’t that great. But it is convenient. But your chances of watching better movies are higher here.
Without profits, become a non-profit
Following a series of discussions with colleagues from overlapping Seattle film staples (including long-established 501c3s Northwest Film Forum and the Grand Illusion Cinema), Lynch and a number of other employees began the formal process of converting Scarecrow into a nonprofit - to which the owners would eventually donate the store’s entire catalog. Scarecrow duly reopened last fall. Yet even despite its new legal classification (and a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for $100,000, fully funded within its first week), the transition has put the staff in the unusual position of needing more than ever to remind customers why Scarecrow matters. “There are all kinds of other directions we can go in now that we sort of couldn’t take advantage of before, and the owners were very supportive, but we did this on our own. We’re competing for people’s attention, and I have a very limited amount of money to work with.” Citing a 40% drop off in business, Lynch describes the insatiable appetite for streaming as a “convenience trap”: “There’s a general misconception among people that media is easy to come by, all of it is at your fingertips, and it’s easy to get a handle on what’s available - and it isn’t. What’s available is what a bunch of giant corporations have made available.”
And when asked about the early onset of streaming into his day-to-day livelihood, Lynch is stalwart: “‘How has streaming impacted running a video store?’ I hate that question. It’s like the worst question on Earth to me. You already know the answer to that question. I think what's detrimental to film culture as a whole isn't streaming, but the misconception that it's all-encompassing.” “You would think,” Hillis told me, “With all the technology that’s out there, let’s say I wanna watch Citizen Kane right now - well, the studios have gotten wise to the fact that their product has been given away to all these places, bought up in bulk, and they’re not able to make any money off of each individual viewing anymore. Streaming, DVD services, even those Redbox kiosks; it’s now becoming more and more important to have a store like this, because it’s one of the only places you can find that stuff. Our movies never expire.”
There’s a general misconception among people that media is easy to come by, all of it is at your fingertips, and it’s easy to get a handle on what’s available - and it isn’t. What’s available is what a bunch of giant corporations have made available.
Video is wild and wooly
Todd Brashear, the founder and owner of Wild & Woolly Video in Louisville, Kentucky, shut his doors this past March after nearly two decades as the town’s premier indie shop, starting out with a couple hundred VHS tapes. “I was never really a big home video buyer,” Brashear told me. “This was one of the reasons I thought opening a store might be a good idea, thinking there were people out there like me who didn’t necessarily wanna drop 25-30 bucks just to get a Dario Argento movie or something like that. And the people who are into these genres were really into them, they weren’t just wanting to see one weird horror movie - they wanted to rent tons of them.”
Wild & Woolly opened in 1997 as Louisville’s un-Blockbuster, seeded with money from Brashear’s success as bassist for math-rock legends Slint. In addition to giallo, the store’s selection included classics, foreign films (in many cases, classics pre-Criterion release), psychotronic bootlegs and some of Louisville’s first-available copies of Hong Kong action films, bootlegged from Japanese laserdiscs. (It’s curious to imagine a time when small businesses were bolstering their fanbases with what would, today, be considered copyright infringement.) “I saw that Blockbuster and Hollywood were just dumping all of their old movies and everything,” Brashear said, “and I just thought, ‘well, if the chain stores don’t even care about Hitchcock...’”
Wild & Woolly is instructive in the way its catalogue informed Louisville’s film culture, and Dan Herbert- associate professor of in Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan, and author of an exhaustive 2013 book about the stores called Videoland - concedes this is probably what stores will need (plus lots of money) if they want to stay open in the future. “Scarecrow is making a claim to being a cultural institution in the form of a video store,” Herbert told me.” That’s a pretty big switch of identity, and we’ll see what the long-term viability of that is. Vidiots did the same thing, really tried to rebrand themselves as a cultural institution with a video store as part of that, nearly went away again, and a really big donor (Annapurna Films president Megan Ellison, who also bankrolls filmmakers like Ana Lily Amirpour and Wong Kar-Wai) just stepped in to save them.
I saw that Blockbuster and Hollywood were just dumping all of their old movies and everything, and I just thought, ‘well, if the chain stores don’t even care about Hitchcock...’”
Time is probably running out
In our talk, even Hillis conceded he probably won’t be running Video Free Brooklyn in ten or fifteen years; it’s not that the people renting from him are merely doing VFB a favor, but the fact that we’re talking about customers who still own television sets and DVD players. “I don’t know that you can forecast even the next five years,” Herbert agreed. “Even Blockbuster couldn’t predict five years ahead and there were times in the 1990s when Blockbuster was seen as the future. Well, they had an opportunity to buy Netflix, they passed on it, and now they’re gone. 98% of movie culture was an accident. Nobody started their video store to be a community center - in some of these cases, it just ended up that way.”
Talking about his decision to close, Brashear minces no words: “As people, we care about stuff to a point. We also like to get what we want, when we want it. Even though a lot of us say we care about the environment, we don’t really do that much about it; we care about the workers in the factories making the iPhones, but do we really do anything? We still buy the thing. I know a lot of people were really dismayed when Wild & Woolly closed, but I also hadn’t seen a lot of those people in the store forever. Some people will care about the canon, or whatever you wanna call it. A lot of the hardcore fans, a long time ago, switched to torrenting - if you support that and you know how to do it, you can get anything for free.”
A lot of the hardcore fans, a long time ago, switched to torrenting - if you support that and you know how to do it, you can get anything for free.
Herbert arrived at Wild & Woolly late in the process of writing Videoland, but before Brashear had completely decided he would be closing. “I think he knew the writing was on the wall, and it was just a matter of time - he just didn’t know what that timeline looked like, exactly.” For his part, Brashear said: “I wouldn’t have felt right taking people’s money, crowdfunding - particularly towards something I knew was just living on borrowed time anyway. I was not into that. If you live out in the boonies, and the internet enables you to talk with people who are interested in what you’re interested in, who am I to say that’s bad, you know? If you can find your community and not feel like you’re an isolated outsider, that’s a good part of all of it. I’m not gonna say, ‘oh, film is forever dead in the city of Louisville because my store closed.’ That said, Brashear did describe Wild & Woolly’s last three months as “something of a visitation.”
“There was a range of responses in the people I surveyed for my book, from melancholy to resigned, or just stoic. I wasn’t just looking at specialty stores, I also looked at shops across the country; a lot of the people I talked to were older people, among the first generation of video stores, dating back to the 1980s. For these people, it had been their adult careers! They’d spent the last 30 years in these shops, serving these communities, and while they were melancholy about it, they also seemed almost impressed with themselves. When the stores opened originally, it was just a way to make money; over time, they watched as, y’know, customers grew up and had their own kids and the kids grew into customers. And they were already very eloquent because they’d already been reflecting, internally, on what it all meant, that it was coming to an end. So when I show up, like, ‘Hey, what’s it feel like closing your video store?’, they’d already kind of had a script in their minds prepared.”
Blockbuster Video in 2006:
Number of stores in the United States
Percentage of the U.S. population that lived less than a 10 minute drive from a store: 70%
Price of a rental for a set amount of time
Percentage of revenue that came from late fees
Blockbuster Video in 2015:
About 50 stores
Blockbuster declared bankruptcy and announced the final closing of the majority of its stores in 2013. Its owner, Dish Network, continues to license the name to a handful of franchisees.
“There’s a bookstore here,” Herbert said, “and they’re certainly not a nonprofit, but I could tell immediately they were selling the idea of the bookstore as much as the books - and it’s really caught on, here, in Ann Arbor. I don’t know why we can’t support a video store if we can support a little bookstore with a coffee shop. Part of nostalgia is, frankly, people of a certain age - let’s say Gen-X - having strong childhood associations with the video store. As a generation, growing up with movie culture oriented around shopping, you know - unlike the movie theater, the store is a place of shopping, so that’s part of it too. If I had great theaters in my life, it’d be another story, but you figured out who you were by shopping those aisles and trying those movies out. How are we gonna figure out what we like and who we are without those spaces?”
In a way, my conversations with these people pointed to the inevitability of change - and the limited arsenal of ways a person can creatively talk about such an economic dead end. Just to try out a counterfactual: what if Blockbuster had purchased Netflix? Would customers have rallied harder to support their brick-and-mortar stores sooner? “That’s an interesting idea, because Netflix was always the bad guy to the video store employee,” Herbert replied. “Customers just didn’t see it that way, even at the specialty stores. They thought they could have both.”
Photos by Rhett Jones