The independent video store where I've worked for 15 years is finally dead. After 28 years in business, we succumbed to the "disruption" of Netflix and Hulu, bled to death by the long, slow defection of our customer base. Once we announced our closing, the few who remained mourned — then we locked the doors. Our permanent collection is gone: boxed up and shipped off to the local library.
Videoport, of Portland, Maine, lasted longer than most. It was better than most. It owed its longevity to a single, engaged owner, to strong ties to the local film scene and a collection that put others to shame. I was proud to work there, alongside a staff that paired film knowledge and exceptional customer service skills like few other places I've known. We were a fixture in town, until we weren't.
It hasn't been so long since independent rental joints had the opposite problem. Before Videoport, I spent 10 years working at Matt & Dave's Video Venture. In retrospect, it's hard to believe that our downfall came at the hands of a buyout by a major rental chain. Suspiciously well-dressed guys with clipboards started dropping in; soon enough, we were gone, one of the estimated 30,000 video stores in America gobbled up by Blockbuster or Movie Gallery or Hollywood Video, each eager to dominate the booming VHS rental racket. If only those chains knew that within a decade, they'd be goners too.
I spent 25 years of my life in an industry that no longer exists. Maybe I'm not the most ambitious guy. But that time has provided me with an up-close look at not just how the industry is changing but how people's tastes, and the culture those tastes create, have changed with it.
Here's what I've learned.
1) Video stores are about investment
The enemy of video stores was convenience. The victim of convenience is conscious choice.
We watch Netflix like we used to watch television on a slow Sunday night, everything blending together as we flip aimlessly through the channels. At first the choice is overwhelming: all of these options and nothing but the questionable "You Might Like" cue to guide us — we stare at the screen like idiots, paralyzed. But then when we make a choice, if we make a choice, it feels unimportant. Another option is only a click away.
If you're actually in a video store, the stakes are different. You're engaged. You're on a mission to find a movie — the right movie. You had to get out of bed, get dressed, and go to a store. You had to think about what you want, why this movie looks good and not that one, perhaps even seeking guidance or advice. Whether it's from nostalgia, advertising, packaging, reputation, recommendation, or sheer whim, a movie chosen from the shelves attaches you to your choice. Before the film even starts playing, you've begun a relationship with it. You're curious. Whether you've chosen well or poorly, you've made a choice, and you're in it for the duration.
With online streaming, we don't decide — we settle. And when we aren't grabbed immediately, we move on. That means folks are less likely to engage with a film on a deep level; worse, it means people stop taking chances on challenging films. Unlike that DVD they paid for and brought home, a movie on Netflix will be watched only so long as it falls within the viewer's comfort zone. As that comfort zone expands, the desire to look outside of it contracts.
2) An algorithm is no substitute for human interaction
In the last days of the store, daily life at the store got pretty intense. Longtime customers were bereft. We tried to comfort them, explaining how our owner had ensured that our whole collection would soon be available at the public library — for free, even! It didn't help much. Almost to a one, they had the same reply: "But you won't be there to help us."
That was flattering and sad, and ultimately all we could do was agree: Yeah, we wouldn't be there. There were tears and gifts and genuine concern (not unfounded) about what my coworkers and I would do to survive, a phenomenon both touching and illustrative of how identified we were with the role we played in their lives. A great video store is built on relationships, in some cases relationships that had gone on for years. Our customers were losing the people who'd helped shape their movie taste, who'd steered them toward things we knew they'd like and away from things they didn't know they'd hate. We were losing the people that we, in our small way, had been able to help. We were all grieving the loss.
Over the years, we'd come to know our customers' tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn't even always know they had. I've had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and The Iron Giant. Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on The Wire. People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — "This guy has an eye patch, and I think there's a mariachi band" — and we'd figure out they were looking for Cutter's Way. Other times, they'd take a recommendation for Walking and Talking and come back saying, "Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener's ever done." If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, "What's one comedy you've seen that you think is hilarious?" I've spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It's a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion.
If you think I'm overrating the power of these connections, consider this: Years ago, I helped a lovely, seemingly upstanding woman choose from several Shakespeare adaptations. The next week she returned, asking about the relative merits of zombie movies. Interesting, I thought.
She started coming in regularly. After months of recommendations and some earnest cinematic dismantling ("Like a handful of romantic comedies thrown into a blender," she said of Love, Actually), I became her go-to movie guy. A year later, I became her go-to everything guy when we got married.
This phenomenon isn't uncommon. We at the store ended up dating and/or wedding customers so consistently that it became a running joke from the boss that we were taking money out of his pocket. (Significant others got free rentals.)
3) A great video store is pop culture in microcosm
A good video store curates culture. Subjective? Certainly. But who do you want shepherding the legacy of TV and movies — a corporation or a store filled with passionate, knowledgeable movie geeks?
Standing at the center of a video store is to watch the world change, a time lapse of people's taste. As the years pile up, some things, even popular things, simply fall out of the cultural consciousness. Videoport fastidiously stocked new releases, but the heart of our store was its permanent collection. Not just a "foreign films" header but subsections of Japanese and Hong Kong exploitation. A dedicated Criterion Collection section next to British comedy. Anime and Bollywood, documentaries, the dark, glittering jewel that was the renowned cult movies section. It took years to build that inventory: A great video store spends its entire life span building up a representation of film history shaped and curated and always there. Things left, of course, but always in response to viewers' needs and our design.
In a store with limited space, the decision to keep a movie or TV series on the shelf was a constant battleground, a microcosm of the battle between economics and artistic integrity. It was tough to get cut from Videoport: A DVD case is just half an inch wide, and if one person a year rents a copy of the weird little 1980 cop comedy The Black Marble, then we'd ride that out because enough employees went to bat for it. Even the decision to cut loose an insignificant, frankly abysmal little comedy like Jury Duty was agonized over — before it would end up in the sale bin, that movie had to pass through any number of filters.
The final filter was the pull list. Every so often the list would appear, a printout of movies and shows that hadn't been rented in a long time, typically a year or more. Any titles crossed off the list were saved. Any still there at the end of the week were out.
The list appeared with some titles crossed out already by the boss — he was more business-minded than we were, but no philistine. Then the rest of us gathered around, gaping and sniping and complaining about things we were aghast could even be considered for the sale bin. And then we'd set to work.
There were different strategies for staying the execution of an underperforming title. On the earnest end were pleas for mercy: "I promise I can make it rent" was our version of, "I swear I'll feed it and clean up after it." At their most devious, staffers would simply cross titles off the list without approval, or wait until the movie had been pulled and then just put it back on the shelf.
(I was sometimes guilty of that last tactic. During one pull list session, I was complaining about the imminent execution of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, ready to launch into my reasoned argument about leaving a hole in our Robert Altman collection, when the boss smiled and said, "Well, I assume you'll just do when you usually do.")
A great video store's library of films is like a little bubble outside the march of technology or economics, preserving the fringes, the forgotten, the noncommercial, or the straight-up weird. Championed by a store's small army of film geeks, such movies get more traffic than they did in their first life in the theater, or any time since. Not everything that was on VHS made the transition to DVD, and not every movie on DVD is available to stream. The decision to leave a movie behind on the next technological leap is market-driven, which makes video stores the last safety net for things our corporate overlords discard. (That's why the chain stores died first — like Netflix, they peddled convenience and "all new, all the time" — Netflix came along and just did what they did more efficiently.) A real video store buys a movie and saves it, regardless of such considerations.
It was a point of pride that we had everything and could turn people on to some obscurity we knew would appeal. A video store had sneaky cultural punching power — movies championed by our staff got watched. They stayed alive. You know, as long as we did.
By contrast: Netflix routinely adds and removes films at a whim based almost exclusively on licensing agreements. These agreements just don't mean that movies any respectable video store would have remain "unavailable for streaming," but that a substantial portion of Netflix's (rather small) 10,000 film inventory is garbage: direct-to-DVD movies (or movies that bypass DVD for streaming entirely) accepted as part of package deals to get the rights to titles somebody might actually want to see. Although not everything you might want to see. As of this writing, you can't watch Annie Hall, Argo, The Exorcist, This Is Spinal Tap, Taxi Driver, Schindler's List, The Muppet Movie, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Fight Club, or Frozen on Netflix. You can, however, stream Transmorphers or Atlantic Rim, two suspiciously titled low-budget knockoffs of the movie you meant to watch.
4) Customer loyalty won't save you
Videoport had loyal customers, customers who didn't abandon us, even at the end. Sensing the air of growing unease at the thinning lines at the store made some regulars come in even more, sometimes dragging friends along and extolling our virtues. There was an elderly couple who loved my recommendations so much I'm genuinely worried they're just staring at a blank screen right now. But video stores — like bookstores, record stores, and arthouse theaters—have died as the lure of online convenience overcomes even the most stalwart patrons. In the final days of the store, we saw a lot of once-familiar faces as they showed friends the great video store where they used to rent. A few had the decency to look sheepish, but the depressing, infuriating, majority offered nothing more than platitudes about us lasting longer than they'd expected before taking a few photos.
The dwindling number of employees who stayed through the ever-leaner years did our best to stem the tide. Being overeducated, underemployed movie geeks, this meant counting on the power of passionate reason to counter the flood of fleeing customers. I started a weekly blog/newsletter for the store. I intended it to be a place for customers and staff to continue the ongoing movie conversation through movie reviews, debates, and think pieces about the store and movies in general. In theory it was, apart from being a chance for me to exercise my brain and writing skills, a way to bind customers to the store by giving them a sense of ownership in the place. In practice, as the customers drifted away, it became more like a running, increasingly desperate 10-year argument as to why our video store deserved to exist, written by me.
But even in our small, art-friendly city, we were abandoned, at first slowly and then very, very quickly. By our last year, each month was down some 30 percent from the already meager takings of the previous year, and it became increasingly clear that there was simply nothing we could do to stop the slide.
In such circumstances, you look for divine intervention — the well-known indie video stores that have survived have needed (and gotten) extraordinary help. Vidiots in Santa Barbara had announced its closing before Annapurna Pictures producer and fan Megan Ellison swooped in to fund it, seemingly in perpetuity. (Ellison refuses to discuss details, only saying that the store will remain "as is.")
The legendary Scarecrow Video in Seattle staved off the end by going nonprofit, allowing it to accept donations and pursue grants (and for some customers to write off their memberships in their taxes). On the more eccentric side, Jimmy Kimmel and Matthew McConaughey decided to make a national ad for Austin, Texas’s Vulcan Video for free as a bit for Kimmel’s late-night show. (We kept waiting for Portland, Maine-based celebrities to save our day, to no avail — Judd Nelson and Anna Kendrick, it’s too late now.)
All of these places were facing closure, suggesting that to make it in the age of Netflix, video stores’ only hope is to become a vanity project, a sentimental choice for those willing to forego the lure of "good enough" — as viable commercial entities, they’re finished.
Videoport never found a patron. Its movies are now dispersed to the branches of the Portland library system. We donated our disc buffer, too, which may extend their lives a bit longer, even without us to worry over them. As for me, I buy movies on DVD, mostly, although my job as a TV and movie critic means I’ll have to sign up for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and all the rest soon enough. There are no video stores within 30 miles of me now, and that radius will extend, if not to infinity, then perhaps to Santa Monica or Seattle soon enough. In the end, after all the sweat and anxiety and doomed effort, what I learned was that movies are more than distraction or even simply entertainment. The loss of the video store severs a personal connection among the movies, the viewers, and the people who liked nothing more than being part of the conversation.