Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Alex Ross Perry
March 31, 2012 12:48 PM
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From Hammer to Nail: What We Lose When We Lose Video Stores



ARP: It was kind of charming when the public fought back against Netflix’s plans last year to not offer them videos. They said, ‘We actually just want movies, please don’t take this away. We have taken it away from someone else to give it to you.’

JM: I think they really showed where their head is at with that.
"Whenever I talk about the video store, I talk about people’s investment."

ARP: It was ugly, and definitely harmful. And this goes into the next thing, which is streaming. Which Netflix has said is the future of our business, and since we are the future of video, it is the future of video. It is teaching people not to have a television in their house. Streaming or buying the movies on iTunes, as somebody who loves film and makes films, I think is incredibly destructive.

JM: It’s not conducive to good viewing.

ARP: They just said, "Now you can do this, and it is easier than anything you have ever done." People flocked to it. Why do you think that is? Were people really looking to make their lives that much easier? Now they don’t even need to go pick up the mail to get a movie.

JM: I think so. Whenever I talk about the video store, I talk about people’s investment. Their own personal investment in what their entertainment is. It’s the thing of going to the video store, and going through stacks and stacks of movies to find something. It’s an investment. And I’m not talking about the money investment. It’s an investment in your time, an investment in your senses and finding something that appeals to you, even if it is just the box art. And I’ve certainly rented movies strictly on box art. Or something on the back. Just something about it interests you, and there’s an investment of actually walking to someplace, going through it, interacting with the person at the counter and bringing it home. And knowing you only have a finite time to watch it. There’s an investment there and it is going to be a more reverential viewing experience than just pulling something up online. I made a short film and I put it on Funny or Die and I can’t stand that as the only viewing platform for it. It seems like a really disposable viewing platform. And especially with low budget independent film. How can you compete when you have something done on a low budget as opposed to something with a hundred million dollars? When people are only looking for something to instantaneously grab them. If it doesn’t have a huge scope or a visual to pull them in, what can you offer when someone’s only going to give you a few minutes of their time? They have no personal investment in it. Like iTunes gives you 10 seconds to choose if you like a song or not, and then you go to the next one. Because there are five hundred million choices. When you take a movie home you have one choice, and you are going to watch it.

ARP: When the extent of your selection is just clicking play, it reduces your film viewing to channel surfing, because if you don’t like it after 30 seconds, you just click next. If I come to the store and hand you three dollars, I’m not going to watch something for five minutes and turn it off. If it was something I felt that I wouldn’t like, I probably wouldn’t spend money on it. If people think of something as having a dollar value instead of an endless supply of free content, it teaches them to actually value it. This clicking for a minute is killing spontaneity. I wanted to mention the day of the Superbowl, my girlfriend and I wanted to watch a sports movie that was not about football. And we came here, and we got "Bull Durham." And if "Bull Durham" wasn’t here, we could have looked for ten minutes and found something else. That’s impossible with any sort of online thing. If we wanted to watch it on Netflix, it might not be streaming. If we wanted to get the DVD, we would have had to made the plan a week in advance. That experience is so human, and so important. It’s the way people should function: to have that option, to be free and pick up something that it occurs to you that you want.

JM: We used to have a really odd tape of this movie called "Ghost Watch," which is a BBC-produced mockumentary. It was made for TV, got to be one of the top five scariest things ever made for television. There’s no great special effects, but just from the second you picked up that box, with the fucked up cover, it already planted a seed of "this is going to be creepy." I took it home, turned the lights off and watched it, and it really did scare the shit out of me. That movie is impossible to find. So many people in the UK got freaked out by it, it had a "War of the Worlds"-type reaction and it was banned from being shown for 20 years. It’s on YouTube, and I have since tried to watch it. To say that the effect of watching something on YouTube kills any sort of atmosphere or ambience that has been created is absolutely true. It was not nearly as effective as when I picked up that bootleg videotape with the f**ked up cover, and brought it home. I felt immediately like I was involved with something unique. When I watched it on YouTube, I was bored.

ARP: A movie like that, the way to watch it is on tape. Why do you think that is not important to people? Do they just not notice or have we been conditioned through advances in technology to think it is better?

JM: As if clarity in picture is the foremost thing we should look for in filmmaking, this extreme reality. People don’t want reality. When people go to see movies with special effects, they certainly aren’t seeing reality. There’s something about the look of VHS that adds something. Like vinyl people love to hear the crackle of the needle. There’s something about hearing the hum of the VCR and the somewhat blurred look of a horror movie or a film noir that really adds a depth. We have a really not good version of "Detour," the Edgar Ulmer noir, and that movie looks like the movie makes you feel. The warped quality with blurred edges.

ARP: DVD was sort of the start of that. Throw away your tapes. Here is a widescreen, crisp image. And that just keeps going. I reject so thoroughly the idea that anything needs to look better than DVD. I understand how Blu-ray or what theaters are projecting now is different, but I don’t understand why that matters to people. So 1080p feels smart to people in a way that they don’t even understand.

JM: The studio jargon just clings to people, and they go out and want that.

ARP: Did that make people abandon the stuff that was just normal?

JM: Definitely. Even today, somebody said, ‘Your DVDs are picked over but you have so many VHS. No VHS is gone, huh?’ And I explained that a ton of people bought VHS. We just had a lot of it. People are always amazed when I tell them that people still love VHS, and there has been a groundswell of support for it. A movie like "Friday the 13th Part II," I don’t want to watch a DVD of that. I want to watch the tape. "Halloween," I want to watch the tape of "Halloween." I don’t need to see Jamie Lee Curtis crystal clear.

ARP: You don’t want those blacks to be black. You want it to be muddy and unpleasant. That’s just not part of it.

JM: It’s not "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
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10 Comments

  • lexlilexi | April 2, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    This article moved me in ways I can't articulate at the moment but I just wanted to thank Indiewire, Alex Ross Perry, and Joe Martin for having this conversation and publishing it a few times. I've savored every word and am going to keep thinking long and hard about a lot of what you've both said here. Long live film love! It will have to find another way to materialize in the flesh. That's really what its all about.

  • Corey | April 1, 2012 2:35 AMReply

    A good interview about the profound shift. But there are a few questions that should be asked as a follow up. How about the shelf-life of DVDs vs. VHS. DVDs get scratched up so easily since they're not in a protected case like VHS. Seems like most videostores could keep a VHS tape in circulation for over a decade. I'll get a title from Netflix that's been out for 2 months and it's scratched to the point where it's unplayable. Did the stores in Brooklyn have X-rated sections? That was a big revenue source down here for stores. And unlike the new titles that lost their luster after a few weeks, an adult title could steadily rent for years. Seems like when adult videos could be watched via the internet, that revenue vanished when people went from 56K modems to cable. Where is the nearest Redbox to that store?

    The human interaction of the videostore is lacking as people don't really bump into each other at the Redbox. You don't work the aisles looking for that strange Vestron cover that tempts you for months to see if the cover matches the action. Seems most people in line act like they're at a bank ATM. Asking them "what are you thinking of renting" is as evil as saying, "What's your PIN?"

    Pals keep asking my why I don't stash my DVD collection onto a mega-harddrive to watch them "easier." But I adore the packaging. I've created a mini-videostore in my former storage room. Eight shelving units rescued from Border's old video section. I can stare at the spines and covers. I correct pals that it's not a man-cave - it's a Cinema Chapel where I can go to genuflect.

    Far as the Bond DVDs go, call me a sucker for special editions since I've bought the VHS, the original DVDs, the Special Edition DVDs, The Ultimate DVDs and the Blu-rays. There's just something cool about getting the complete context of the movies especially the trailers that included "The Bond Sale Double Features."

  • MDL | March 31, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    Independent video stores [in Los Angeles] are a big part of how I learned cinema history. I watched many older classic films [on film] at retrospectives in places like UCLA, the American Cinematheque and LACMA. But video stores filled in the gaps. And when I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 there were many stores to pick from. It was a fountain of film on VHS and then DVD. So it is very sad to see video stores going away. However, I do not think the death knell of appreciating older, vital cinema is over; it is just changing. I still frequent a couple video stores and also stream Netflix and Hulu, which have a lot of good old titles that I may have missed in the past. Hulu, specifically, has the Criterion collection. And the image quality is better than old VHS or DVD. So I would say these new services are tools that the cinephile can use to expand their horizons. But it is true that young folks who have a love for old classic films or foreign indie titles from decades past will not get as good an experience with streaming titles as they would have with a good strong indie video store that took the time to build a great collection. And especially if you liked hunting for older titles rather than the new mainstream ones. But there is still hope out there for we who love cinema. I wish video stores could still be as vital. Maybe in some cities they still can? Especially when Netflix loses rights to older titles or rare titles completely disappear. There has to be a way to preserve the right to see the thousands of films that are yet to be made available on streaming services - or are only available at $20.00 a pop at place like the WB archive. Cheers to video stores.

  • Dr. Rottwang | March 31, 2012 8:33 PMReply

    There is appreciation and sadness when any film oriented business closes, but for someone who has worked in movie theaters for over three decades, the closing of video stores is a bittersweet irony. It was video stores that hastened the demise of many great, grand theaters. Now we are faced with another bout of theater closings. The digital projection age is once again culling theaters from our cultural landscape. Predictions of 10,000 screens going dark is more chilling than the loss of storefronts.

  • RevGreg | March 31, 2012 8:19 PMReply

    I ran a mom and pop shop in Edinboro, Pa. called Poppa Ropp's Video for 23 years, an amazing run for an indie video store to say the least.

    We were known for our large selection of foreign, horror/sci-fi and cult movies, although we also had the latest box office hits and popular stuff in stock.

    We survived cable, satellite, Blockbusters, Movie Galleries, internet, etc... but the day I saw Netflix I knew it was over.

    While this article brings back those sad final days, I gotta tell ya, I am amazed that ANY video store is still in business (not only due to Netflix but the explosion of internet downloads and streaming sites). Never before has so much been available at your fingertips.

    And guess what? As our doors closed in 2005 for the last time, I was actually sorta happy for the fans of cinema. Seriously. The fact that you can now rent over 80,000 movies (about 75,000 MORE than any video store you have ever walked into in your life) via Netflix alone, the fact that nearly every film imaginable is now available somewhere in some format (sometimes remastered) and Blu-Rays are still affordable (trust me, they wouldn't be if video stores were still out there - VHS ended up at something like $110.00 per tape when we went out of business), have made this a very, very good world for film and video fans!

    Change is good. It happens whether we like it or not. And yes, there is a sadness of seeing these old places closed up and gone. There was definitely a magic inside those video stores of yore...

    So, I'm not sure this is much of a story at this point. I feel bad for the owner and may be the only one commenting that knows EXACTLY how he feels, but he should be happy it made it this far, in a world that is now raising the first generation of kids that will never, ever know what it was like to rent a video from an actual store.

  • bguest | March 31, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    Netflix is awesome...Bergman, Fellini, Kubrick, Godard...American indie classics like Slacker,
    Clerks, El Mariachi, new art cinema like Le Havre, Uncle Boonme...sorry about your store but Netflix rules!

  • Chris | March 31, 2012 5:38 PMReply

    I agree it is sad when any small business that provides a unique service to devoted customers has to close down. It negatively affects both the owner as well as the loyal customers. However, it is profoundly wrong to say that this trend of closing video stores will diminish the choices or sense of discovery of movies of all types. We are at the beginning of huge transition that will place every movie (of any kind) at the beck and call of vast numbers of people around the planet--at a scale that could not have been imagined a mere decade ago. There are also curators of this content emerging (and more will emerge) with better tools of discovery that will widen the field of choice for all of us through digital distribution. These curators are and will be passionate viewers of the obscure as well as the mass media choices who will assist us just as the video store owners did--and some of them will be former video store owners. So mourn the passing but also look eagerly at the present and to the future ways of viewing great movies of all types.

  • Simone | March 31, 2012 4:06 PMReply

    "I am afraid that the next generation of filmmakers, cinephiles and just plain movie nerds will have a pitifully limited understanding of what they might not already want to see."

    Too true. My entire life would be different if I didn't have that little rental store in my hometown to grow up with that introduced me to the amazing spectrum of movies that exist. In hindsight, I wouldn't have chosen my college major, met most of my friends, lived in my city or worked the job I work if it weren't for the people who worked at that store who exposed me to the movies that made me love movies. This was one of the most heartfelt pieces on the subject I've ever read, thanks a lot for posting it.

  • gotnotruck | March 31, 2012 4:03 PMReply

    Forgot to say I Love the Cohen Bros. Especially "A Serious Man", talk about profound, secularly spiritual, and funny. Not even close to an oscar, not that I care. Never have watched. But Up in the Airhead was. Liked Wendy and Lucy and many new directors, but have a hard time remembering their names. Brain cells popping off. If you're wondering all this talk about "spirituality" like a pox these days: I'm an atheist mystic. Raised atheist: always had visions from all religions, then some. But absolutely no belief in god, especially that mean tempered, irrational, two timing, white guy with a beard.

  • gotnotruck | March 31, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    Tell me about it. I still mourn Tower Records. And book stores. There's exactly one left near me. Barnes & Noble, which, when it moved in, closed down Endicott, Shakespeare and Co. Numerous second hand books followed. To read paper books is greener. Take it out of a library and return it. To recycle an e reader or cell phone, (and fashion dictates you need a new one every two years), requires them to be originally shipped here from China, use energy while you use it, shipped back to China, recycled, (theoretically), and shipped back here. Only to end up toxic in a waste dump. Using energy in the process. Last summer a call came forth from Con Ed to "unplug and do not use electronic devices". I LOVE good movies. Was glad to read in the Slimes today that other countries do "action films" better than we. Animated schlock with beefed up guys in stupid costumes make me puke. New York is great for movies. But I wanted to be able to go to Tower Records, and buy or rent music and DVDs. Now most kulchah goes through Amazon. bleeping. com. Progressives are anti Walmart. Ignoring the fact that, as The Economist says, approvingly, "Amazon is Walmart online." Look at what it's done with books and book stores, music, movies. And to movie makers, musicians, artists. Out of luck. The record companies of the old days were bad, but not as bad as being gobbled up by Amazon. An Amazon guy on late night NPR said "It's a great business model. Many fewer employees." To find out just how much fun it is to work there, check out the latest Mother Jones for "The Secret Hell of Online Shopping", by a journalist who did a "Nickled and Dimed" as did B. Ehrenreich. I've always suspected that the internet cost jobs. A woman economist on Charlie Rose a few nights ago said unemployment wouldn't get that much better here because of " globalization and the internet". I have this computer, a TV, and a DVD player, radio. Used to have a video/dvd player which seem to no longer exist. 5th Ave when I moved here permanently in '70 below Tiffany and Bergdorf's was publishing house book stores. I bought post cards, which I collect, on Prince St, before Soho became a glitzy mall. Manhattan is a series of strip malls called avenues, lined with the same boring chain stores you see in 'burbs anywhere. Except Madison Ave for the .001%. Fashion is an art. Coffee shops like Cafe Romana, where John and Yoko hung out undisturbed, opera playing and a garden in the back. Gone. Other independents: gone. If anyone tries to close Cafe Reggio, I'll chain myself to it. Perhaps it's better in other boroughs. What I want from films: anything by Tarkovsky. Love films with philosophical and/or spiritual content with profundity. Another example, "Ward Six", a new Russian woman director version of the Chekov play at Walter Reade a few years ago. About a psychiatrist who ended up a patient having a long conversations with another patient, not caring about his change in status. Shot in gorgeous color on the original ward. I'm 66. Young love in its four or five permutations and combinations bore me to tears. So predictable. A woman in her twenties agreed recently. When I was young, I learned a few things from them. Now blissfuly beyond that. Love documentaries. I was in the Civil Rights Movement in the South, along with many other white Southerners. No one even wants to write an article about us. One reason is Bob Moser of The Nation's observation that "Talking about race in the South is a way of not talking about race in the rest of the country". Although PBS suggested I pitch something to American Experience. We're dying off. Another idea is to do a documentary of the Village in the sixties, not folk music scene, acid scene. 1,000 mics of Sandoz LSD stamped as such. For some reason the New York Hyterical Society isn't interested, any more they are on racism in NYC. Yes, I miss DVD stores, record stores, and book stores. Thank god for all our fine movie theatres! On TV, most of the good stuff is on Sundance in the morning or early afternoon. The later, the stupider.