The following excerpt serves as the forward to the paperback edition of Tom Roston’s book “I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmaker’s Oral History of a Vanished Era,” which is now available here. The new edition features more interviews with younger screen stars, including Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, as well as new era film visionaries such as Tim League and Burnie Burns.
If you’re a film freak much under the age of 40, you likely have no personal memory of the history of film being anywhere other than at your fingertips. Those of us older than that lived through the last era of “cinematic scarcity.” And it was no joke—I remember putting in for vacation time from work just to be sure I could finally see “Mean Streets”—I saw that it was scheduled to show in a month or so for one night on a double bill with “Fingers” and knew I had to pounce.
Hard as it is to imagine today, back then films just came around, and if you didn’t see them, you couldn’t be certain you were ever going to get that chance again. If you were lucky enough to be living in a city with a repertory house (I was; The River Oaks in Houston in the early ‘80s), you eagerly looked at the new schedule and all the wonderful double features coming up in the next couple months. You also trolled through various university film schedules (for me, the Rice Media Center), made note of whatever midnighters might be out there on weekends, and of course read through the weekly TV guide just to see what might be showing up late night on various channels. You took it all in and planned your life accordingly.
The life of a cinephile obviously took a huge evolutionary leap with the emergence of the video store, but the full picture and impact emerged gradually. To me, the sanctity of the theatrical cinematic experience was still alive and well, but suddenly here was a way to potentially fill in those aching gaps—so many of the films that would probably never make it on a calendar somewhere but you were dying to see. Movies you might have been staying up late to watch on Channel 39 were now available, without commercials (!) and you could watch them any time and pause if you needed to. It was simply amazing: what was once unavailable was now like a book from the library.
Still, you were watching on your old TV and the general selection at the stores was often frustrating. The inventories were all the obvious films from the past and present, so not “completest,” but there were just enough gems finding their way onto the shelves to make it all worthwhile. In 1985, out of frustration with the slow pace of the availability of what I really wanted to see, I started renting films from distributors and showing them publicly with the hope that the more adventurous film-going public would show up and help pay for it. Looking back, I realize this probably only would have worked in a few places, and I happened to be in Austin.
What soon became the Austin Film Society emerged right when the death spiral of repertory theaters and campus 16mm film societies was becoming apparent. With the emergence of the home video market, attendance dropped at the repertory cinemas and sent them scrambling. If they didn’t shut their doors entirely, they usually became either second-run “dollar” theaters, or, usually after a renovation that created more but smaller screens, a first-run specialty art house, which was taking off in the ‘80s (thankfully).
Schools were finding out it was a lot cheaper to show students a video of a film than renting it and paying for shipping, projection, etc. The distributors suddenly couldn’t afford to make new prints of titles, so the quality started to suffer. Eventually the choice became obvious: show the video or a really crappy, expensive print. By the late ‘80s, the first generation that had grown up at the video store was now in college, and not clamoring for the theatrical experience the way previous generations had. While this might all sound grim on paper, it was actually exciting to be in the middle of changing cinematic times. Even though we were showing tons of exciting films, the nightly ritual walk up to Vulcan Video was always fun, and a wonderful part of our “can never get enough” film community.
We all know how things continued to evolve… Laser Discs, DVDs, Blu-Ray, now streaming—it’s all pretty incredible. But, jumping to the present moment on the community front, I’d say we’re in the “Only Lovers Left Alive” stage. If someone is showing films somewhere, it’s out of pure passion, and to a community that cares (on my home turf, The Austin Film Society is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary). The few video stores still existing anywhere are the ones that were special to begin with, that clearly loved movies more than anything and created special environments and communities around them.
There are heroic examples around the country, and in my town, I’m happy to say Vulcan Video and I Love (Heart) Video are hanging in there. Sometimes passion wins, or at least survives, which in many important areas of life is the definition of winning.