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My Great American Video Store Documentary

Posted: 09/21/2012 11:10 am

James Westby [Film Geek (2006), The Auteur (2008), Rid of Me (2011)] is an independent filmmaker in Portland, Oregon. He waxes nostalgic about his video store experiences—as both customer and employee—which set the stage for his latest project.

By James Westby

The Great American Video Store

Photo credit: James Westby

As a filmmaker, I am increasingly excited for the vast audience the web and on demand services can bring to an independent movie—mine or anyone else’s—with a reach far larger than was ever thought possible. But at the same time, I lament the dying of the independent video store, a place where I spent my youth—and much of my adulthood.

When I was a boy in Grays Harbor County, Washington, the video store was my version of a repertory movie house. Aside from a lot of (mostly) amazing horror (Romero’s Martin and Raimi’s Evil Dead were my sister’s and my favorites), this is the institution that gave me This is Spinal Tap (my family’s first-ever rental title), the masterful Repo Man, and my initial taste (at 12 years old) of the great Scorsese and Schoonmaker with After Hours. Not to mention tons of other great movies, all on VHS, to which I never would have been exposed were it not for the concept of home video.

8 years after Hours, patronization dovetailed into profession.

Marc Mohan of the soon-to-be-defunct Video Verite

Photo credit: James Westby

Beyond the obvious film-school awesomeness (look at movies all day, discuss them, take them home, watch them three times), a whole slew of cool new skill sets were learned and mastered while employed at the video rental shop: shrink-wrapping, preparing the New Release Wall on Monday night for Tuesday morning, precision vacuuming in a space with a LOT of 90-degree corners. And customer interaction—mostly all movie-related—was a prime way to curb one’s own social anxiety. In addition, the video rental job was a hotbed for hooliganism (shrink-wrapping various body parts, playing dodgeball with VHS tapes, etc.).

All 10 of the video stores I have worked at in my lifetime were Mom-and-Pop outfits. EXCEPT for that one time when First Stop Video (my third video store job) sold all of their stores to the gigantron Blockbuster in 1998, and suddenly—for a very short time—I was wearing a navy-blue-and-yellow polo shirt to work every day.

On Day One of the Takeover, Blockbuster’s famous censorship practices were instituted immediately, and—shades of Roman soldiers gathering newborn males—we employees were tasked with getting rid of all NC-17 and Unrated movies from the store’s shelves. In doing so, we allowed several titles to remain, including a copy of Sweet Movie. (We changed its rating to R in the computer, which leads me to almost personally guarantee Sweet Movie is the darkest, most potentially offensive movie that a Blockbuster ever had on its shelves without knowing it.)

Photo credit: James Westby

But all this fun was not to last. Sadly for the corporate giant, they had opened the store on Hawthorne Boulevard. For context, most of the sketches I find funniest on the IFC show Portlandia I feel likely emanated from the Hawthorne area. The customers in this beloved progressive-wealthy-hippie neighborhood began to look at us funny when we would suddenly ask them (required for every customer), “And do you have your Rewards Card today?” Memberships were cancelled, rentals plummeted, and the store closed down in a matter of months. (You should have seen what happened when McDonald’s tried to move into that neighborhood a bit later. Let us enter it into the American Cojones Archives that keeping-it-local Portlanders can unite and then take down corporations with the best of them.)

By this time, the late 90s, Blockbuster and other chain stores were continuing to crush a lot of the independents (regardless of exceptions like First Stop Video). Luckily, I was able to secure employment (deployment?) at fantastic spots like LA’s (now-defunct) Rocket Video and Portland’s Videorama stores.

The concept of sell-through pricing had already started the rental industry on a new path almost a decade before—suddenly film lovers could OWN their own movies!—but things really started to change in 2003 with the arrival of Netflix, followed by the emerging convenience of online delivery systems (not to mention those damn red vending machines). It was these developments that ultimately wiped Blockbuster (mostly) off the planet, and to a certain extent the same fate befell the late Hollywood Video.

[Oddly enough, years after being a video store employee, I was hired to direct what turned out to be Hollywood Video’s FINAL training video. Did I help kill their business? I don't suppose I'll ever know. You can watch a trailer for it (yes, training videos have trailers too. Well, this one does).]

So the chains crushed the small stores, and then ironically got crushed themselves, and now the cream has risen to the top, to which the continued success of select stores around the country can attest. BUT, damnit, Netflix and the like are still making it impossible for a lot of independent stores to stay in business. Here in Portland, our beloved Video Verite is closing due to severe online competition. Folks in that neighborhood will now have literally no options for a quality well-stocked rental store without driving a half hour to the dreamy (and world’s greatest?) Movie Madness.

I don’t stream—maybe I’m in the minority, but I’m not sure I am. Because of all this, I am making a documentary feature film on the lamented loss of the independent video store. Filmmakers Michel Gondry, Alex Karpovsky, and Alex Ross Perry, along with Karina Longworth (LA Weekly, Village Voice), Dana Harris (Indiewire), John Sloss (Cinetic), Aaron Hillis (Video Free Brooklyn), Joe Martin (of the late Reel Life Video), and several others are already on board to be interviewed. In addition to being an entertaining and informative look at the industry, I am hoping this film will become a jumping-off point for helping maintain a large community of independently-owned, well-curated video stores in this country that can harmoniously co-exist with all this business of streaming.

Photo credit: James Westby

Mostly, though, this documentary will detail a love of movies and a wholehearted nostalgia for the brick-and-mortar video store experience. It will attempt to show the poetry in, say, the image of sun-bleached VHS boxes (the ones that were too close to certain windows), or in the clunk made by the sound of movies dropped into the return box… or in the shrink-wrapping of my head.

Check out the IndieGogo campaign for The Great American Video Store Documentary.

Want more Westby? Watch The Auteur for free!

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