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Can Alamo Drafthouse and Annapurna’s Megan Ellison Save the Video Store?

Can Alamo Drafthouse and Annapurna's Megan Ellison Save the Video Store?

Earlier this month, with the closing of San Francisco’s Le Video, it seemed that streaming had hammered another nail in the video store’s coffin. The Bay Area institution, founded in 1980, had amassed some 90,000 titles, with a particular focus on early cinema, foreign films, and independents, and—to quote the subtitle of Tom Roston’s oral history “I Lost It at the Video Store” (Critical Press, $25.00)—the demise of Le Video severed one more connection to “a vanished era.” 

Not so fast. Beginning in January Alamo Drafthouse’s New Mission, which opened in San Francisco Dec. 17, will partner with neighborhood video store Lost Weekend to rent curated selections from the Le Video and Lost Weekend archives in the theater’s upstairs lobby. (The racks are already in place.) 

“Despite the fact that great video stores like Le Video are closing all over the country, I am confident that a new iteration of the video store experience can exist, and even thrive today,” Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League, who’s joining forces with Annapurna PicturesMegan Ellison to preserve the Le Video collection, said at the time of the announcement. “A passionate video store clerk can do what no algorithm can. They can recommend your new favorite movie, one that can’t be predicted from your past viewing habits.”

The move is a canny one for cinephile-friendly concerns like Drafthouse and Annapurna—which is handling David O. Russell’s Christmas release, “Joy”—as they continue to cultivate loyalty through devotion to film culture, while simultaneously protecting the bottom line. (You might call it the cinematic equivalent of “social entrepreneurship.”) As Roston’s interviews with Russell, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Alison Anders, and other filmmakers suggest, there’s a nostalgic craving for the video store as social and artistic organism that streaming services, with their homebound isolation and self-curated “queues,” cannot fulfill. The question is whether the likes of League and Ellison can save “the video store” and not just Le Video, though even that’s a more-than-worthy first step. 

In fact, the video store appears to be making the same stand as the independent bookstore in “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) or the old-school record store in “High Fidelity” (2000): with its back against the wall, it’s roared to life once more, though it will never again amass the cultural capital it possessed in its heyday. Now that it’s a part of the “niche”—enough so to merit an oral history, as if it were a cult classic—the video store need not appeal to the mass as it did in the days of Blockbuster. It need only find enough passionate supporters to survive in the lobbies of arthouse cinemas and in the nooks and crannies of one or another “hip” neighborhood. 

Come to think of it, the new era of the video store sounds like a perfect fit for Alamo Drafthouse and Annapurna Pictures. Are there any in the former’s 19 other locations that need saving?        

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