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Film

Rental Hygiene

Will the Internet Kill the Local Video Store?

Michael Northrup
TAPEHEADS: Video Americain's Michael Bradley (left) and Barry Solan have brought movies from the rep house to your house for 18 years.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 3/7/2007

Talk to whoever's working behind the counter at either of the two local Video Americain locations long enough and eventually you will find yourself hearing about a DVD or tape that you've never heard of and feel that you now must rent. Talking to assistant manager Kevin Coelho between customers one sunny weekday morning in VA's Cold Spring Lane store, it's Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory.

"It's this Christmas special that he did, and it's the freakiest thing ever," Coelho, 27 and sporting an Orioles T-shirt, says with a laugh. "It aired on ABC TV, and it's him talking about Christmases he had as a child. You know that nasal whimper he had? It's horrifying, but it's so good."

Coelho has already sorted the rentals slipped through the drop slot overnight into a pile for restocking: There are several copies of The Departed and Stranger Than Fiction--hot new releases on DVD sure to be found at any rental place--but there are also copies of Terrence Malick's cinematic poem Days of Heaven and Pedro Almodóvar's The Flower of My Secret, a disc from a DVD set of the BBC's The Inspector Lynley Mysteries 4 television series, and a VHS tape of Arbuckle and Keaton Vol. 2, a compendium of footage featuring the silent screen stars. The fact that Video Americain's exhaustive rental selection includes these more obscure titles--not to mention the rare Capote Christmas special--is one of the reasons it has won a near-religious following among Baltimore film nuts during its 18-year run here.

"Video Americain is such a rare resource," says Jed Dietz, head of the Maryland Film Festival. "There are many communities bigger than us that don't have this kind of [video store]. It's full-frontal eclecticism."

But VA faces increasingly stiff competition. Coelho, who splits his time between the Cold Spring Lane and St. Paul Street locations, says that during his nearly four years with the area chain, business "has been on the decline--not so much at this store, but at Charles Village." Specifically, Coelho says, the Charles Village store used to be "a revolving door" of student customers, but "movies coming straight to their door--that's definitely taken its toll."

In a word, he's talking about Netflix. And despite the fact that the two Video Americain stores in Baltimore comprise "one of the best video libraries on the East Coast," as Coelho matter of factly notes, the online DVD rental service--along with broadband-enabled downloading of movies, legal or otherwise, and pay-per-view movies ordered via cable TV--is starting to have an effect. Coelho says that VA even tried out a Netflix-style any-three-movies-for-one-price-no-late-fees program to boost sluggish summer rentals in 2006.

Asked about pressures on his business from Netflix, Video Americain co-owner Barry Solan responds, appropriately, with a film analogy: "We're like [in] a spy movie where the spy's marooned in a room and all the walls are closing in on him. When people say, `Well, is Netflix gonna kill ya?' I say, `Well, that's one wall. Downloading's another wall--'"

Solan laughs, but it's clear that he takes the subject seriously, and equally clear that he and fellow co-owner Michael Bradley are not too discouraged. "There's always the macro, national issues, and then there's the micro, local issues," Solan continues. "Macro, it looks terrible. But you have to have a situation where, if you're hurting on the macro issues, then the micro issues can help make it work."

Micro issues in Video Americain's favor include what Solan calls "extremely reasonable rents" at the Roland Park and Charles Village locations and VA's status as the go-to rental place for serious movie lovers in a movie lover's town (see also the chain's numerous City Paper Best of Baltimore awards over the years). But if they had to rely solely on rentals of, say, Night and Fog or Abbas Kiarostami titles, Solan and Bradley acknowledge, the micro might start looking bleak pretty quickly.

"Most cities have one of our type of video stores," Bradley says, much less "two stores of this level within, what, two miles of each other." But, he adds, "our stores also have to be very good neighborhood stores"--meaning they have to do a good business in the more run-of-the-mill Hollywood releases that most ordinary movie watchers want. And more and more movie watchers (654,000 last year) are joining Netflix.

 

Solan and Bradley meet for a chat in a café near the Roland Park store, just a few hours before they share a Friday night shift behind the counter. With his mop of graying hair, glasses, and purple-shirt-and-skinny-tie ensemble, Solan, 56, could pass for the schoolteacher he had once planned to be. Bradley, 43, on the other hand, has the air of a friendly bartender, right down to the Banlon-style shirt and stubby Van Dyke beard. They have known each other for more than 25 years, since the days when Solan was owner of the State Theatre, a repertory house in Newark, Del., and Bradley was a teenage usher who helped sweep up rice and slices of toast after midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Their shared background in repertory cinema--the forerunner of contemporary art-house theaters like the Charles--has determined much of the course of their business. Indeed, the history of Video Americain illustrates much of how the business and consumption of movies has changed over the last two decades.

In its late-'70s/early-'80s heyday, the State showed a typically atypical selection of movies people weren't going to see anywhere other than a theater at that time--vintage classics, foreign titles, and cult faves, anything from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz to the occasional porn flick. "The repertory cinema format, at its best, was going in every direction at once," Solan says. But with the rise of cable television and, especially, home video in the early '80s, theaters like the State started losing ground. "Rep houses depended on being able to bring films back four or five times--you could bring back Fame, Harold and Maude, The Song Remains the Same, blah, blah, blah," Solan says. "That's what video destroyed, the ability to keep on bringing things back."

Through his involvement with the Philadelphia-area TLA chain of rep theaters, Solan dipped his toe into video rentals as part of TLA Video in 1985. As a theater loyalist, he "was not in favor of [going into video] and neither was the president of [TLA]. But one of the guys said, `You gotta do this video thing.'" The State closed in 1986 and Solan's association with TLA Video ended a year later, but Bradley and fellow State employee/film nerd David Ostheimer soon approached their old boss with the idea of doing their own rep-inspired video store in Newark. The first Video Americain opened in February 1988; about a year later, Solan, Bradley, and Ostheimer (now a silent partner in the business) opened their second location in a former vet's office/movie location (for The Accidental Tourist) on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore.

When stores that rented videos first hit the scene in the '80s, Solan and Bradley say, they amounted to get-rich-quick schemes as new VCR owners scrambled to take home almost anything, paying video-store owners fat membership fees for the privilege. The boom soon settled down and business-minded speculators started taking the money and running or selling out to big chains, just as the die-hard movie buffs behind Video Americain were getting going.

Indeed, Video Americain has been a somewhat precarious operation from the very beginning. "We didn't have--what do you call it--capital?" Bradley jokes. Starting with some 900 VHS tapes, they built their collection one title at a time, scouring distributors' selections for noteworthy movies that stores simply interested in the hits and new releases overlooked. "If the large chains had been serious about attracting the wider breadth of the audience, it would have been very difficult for stores like ours to survive," Solan says. "But they clued in to that mainstream center and left so much at the edges not attended to."

The nascent VA chain expanded (Wilmington, Del., two stores in and around Washington, the second Baltimore location on St. Paul Street) and occasionally contracted (VA has opened and closed stores in Towson and Lauraville over the years), but it built and maintained a reputation as the store that would have whatever your local Blockbuster or mom-and-pop store had, and also what it lacked--stocking, for example, all available movies by key auteurs whether they rented regularly or not.

"Most chains do a three-month or six-month computer check, and if a film hasn't rented, it's gone," Solan points out. "There's a certain body of work that we get, it doesn't matter if [the titles] make their money back, because for us to be who we are, we need to have those releases. Not that many businesses go into a purchase knowing that they'll never get their money back."

The mid-'90s brought the advent of DVD, a blessing and a bit of a curse for Video Americain. "The nice thing about the DVD thing was it happened very gradually," Solan says. "Monetarily, we couldn't re-create our inventory [right away]. Luckily for us, the technology shift was very slow." The new technology also "put some air under the business for a while," Bradley adds, as converts to DVD snapped up new releases and rented old favorites over again.

But VA was faced with a finite amount of room and a growing number of both VHS tapes and DVDs. (VA bought both tapes and discs of new releases up through 2005's A History of Violence, the last major Hollywood title released on VHS.) Owing to Video Americain's ad hoc archive philosophy, "we've never really scaled down the VHS at all," Bradley says. The Roland Park store stocks around 10,000 DVDs and 18,000 VHS tapes packed onto the shelves that Bradley builds and jams into every available square inch of space, despite the fact that VHS rentals made up only 20 percent of the store's rentals in mid-2006.

And as cinema's second century got going, so did Netflix and burgeoning access to broadband downloading capabilities.

 

As Solan notes, Netflix is only one of the walls pushing in on Video Americain. But that doesn't mean Solan and Bradley aren't starting to feel a little claustrophobic. They decline to provide specifics about any changes in their business over the past few years, but, as Solan says, "We have a rather rapacious competitor."

Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey denies that the Los Gatos, Calif.-based company wants to see stores like Video Americain suffer, though he is unapologetic that "Netflix is in the business to increase its business." He sounds confident that it will: Netflix ended 2006 with 6.3 million subscribers, up from 1.1. million in '03, and Swasey projects that it will have 20 million subscribers by the turn of the next decade. "The average video store has 2,000 or 3,000 titles while Netflix has 75,000 titles," Swasey says. "And they're equally available to you in West Plains, Missouri, or Manhattan or anyplace else in the United States." Factor in the inexpensive rental plans and no late fees, he adds, and his company "beats any bricks-and-mortar options."

Though he declines to actually name "our biggest competitor" until pressed, Swasey points to Blockbuster as proof. With more than 8,000 stores worldwide, Blockbuster is the unchallenged titan of the bricks-and-mortar rental market, yet in the past two years it has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into an online-rental initiative that, Swasey contends, "copies our business from top to bottom." (Blockbuster signed up 700,000 online subscribers in 2006, almost 50,000 more than Netflix.)

Swasey calls Blockbuster's aggressive competition on the Netflix model an admission that the entire world is moving online. "It's not just with DVD rentals, but with everything else," he says. "You do your travel planning online with Orbitz and Travelocity and Expedia. Who goes to a travel agent anymore?"

Of course, in a few years, who will rent DVDs anymore? Downloading movies, legally or otherwise, also has had an effect on Video Americain. "I think we're losing some of our college audience to that," Solan says. "Between the destruction of part of the Charles Village neighborhood and the downloading by students, that store has taken a bit of a hit, because students download all the time." He quickly adds, "My son does it." (For Netflix's part, Swasey notes that "people will still be renting DVDs in five to 10 years, but ultimately everything will be electronic delivery, and Netflix intends to be the company doing that on the internet with movies.")

But beyond the looming threats to their bottom line, Solan and Bradley seem genuinely worried that the rising download generation won't have access to the kind of rich cinema heritage that the rep-cinema and video-store generations have had. "You may never be able to download Diary of a Country Priest," Bradley says. "So where is that going to exist once we're unable to keep it going financially? I get a deep sadness when I think about it in those terms." As for YouTube, Solan says, "It's good for the errant thrill, but it's not something you can depend on."

Solan says that he's already excited about the 20th anniversary of the Roland Park store, coming up next year. Beyond that, the future is less clear.

Having successfully adapted to DVD rentals, VA now faces having to ponder retooling its collection again with the advent of high-definition DVD. Of course, that won't be a serious worry until the just-heating-up format war between RCA-backed HD DVD and Sony-backed Blu-Ray is decided. "As long as there are two fighting each other, we're fine," Solan says.

Video Americain does have a number of things going for it in this increasingly precarious business climate. It has its peerless, ever-growing collection of discs and tapes, which includes a number of titles unlikely ever to see a domestic DVD release. Its two Baltimore stores are situated in stable residential areas that, transient college students notwithstanding, have provided a steady stream of regular customers, whether they're renting Pasolini movies or Must Love Dogs. VA also attracts and hires staffers who love and know movies and don't mind making recommendations, which often means that people who stop in for one title leave juggling an armful.

"You can't train that stuff," Jed Dietz says. "You either have a store that's populated by people who care deeply about the wide range of movies or you don't."

To an extent, Solan and Bradley are hoping that the human aspect of Video Americain will help sustain it. And, as with so many things surrounding Video Americain, it all goes back to a movie theater.

"The film experience as a group experience--seeing films in a room with other people--to some extent was replaced by the video-store experience, which was picking films in a human context," Solan says.

"Tactile," Bradley interjects.

Solan nods: "[You get] advice, you see your friends, you talk. Sometimes I think that subconsciously people don't even know why they like video stores, but I think part of it is that human contact that they get."

Solan makes it clear that they didn't start Video Americain with illusions of what he calls "vast accumulation of wealth" to begin with. Indeed, they're proud they've been able to make a living at it this long.

"The other day I was making my rounds of the stores and pulled into the parking lot [at Roland Park] and thought, Jeez, we're still here," Bradley says. "I'm always amazed."

"We keep it going because we love it," Solan says with a small smile. "We've always been willing to ignore the more logical view of what it all is. Someday we may have to face reality."

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