There’s a lot of discussion in the independent film world right now about how filmmakers can earn a living in today’s economic climate, as well as how distributors and art house theaters can continue being profitable in the increasingly-digital landscape.
But, there’s a rarely discussed part of the film world that seems to already be the first casualty of the modern film-watching era: the video store.
For some towns, the video store can be more crucial than the movie theater. I know it was when I lived in Gainesville, FL. I worked at a local video store, which is still in business, called Video Rodeo. It’s owned by filmmaker and professor Roger Beebe. Roger runs the store like a collective: the employees are paid through profit-sharing, and decisions are made as a group, instead of by the sole voice of the owner. The store has a huge selection of foreign and art house films, and it exposed me to a ton of great films I didn’t know existed until then. Not only that, but he let me use it as a major location in my first film.
I interviewed Roger to talk about the state of the local video store, and it’s relationship with the independent film community. This blog post, if you can’t already tell, isn’t “totally sillypants” like my others have been. If you’re disappointed by that, just pretend the following interview is between these two people.
Here’s the interview:
ADAM: Why don’t you talk a little about yourself first? I know you’re a filmmaker and a professor, as well…
ROGER: Sure, yeah. I am those things. I teach film and media studies at the University of Florida in the English department. I’ve been (in Gainesville) since 2000. I’ve been making films since 1994 or ’95.
And they’re more experimental.
Yeah, exactly. And, for the last six years or so, I’ve been making mostly muli-projector films that I perform live. 16mm, some loop-based stuff, but some other stuff that’s just, you know, made for three, or six, or eight projectors.
That’s so cool. And, you also run FLEX Fest.
I do, yeah. And so, that I started eight years ago, and we’re having the ninth festival in February. That’s dedicated to experimental short films, but we do year-round programming that’s more expansive than that. So, like, on Thursday night, we’re showing five 35mm reels from five different Disney films, and combining them into one kind of crazy, Frankenstein’s monster of a film.
Wow, that’s awesome. Where did you live before Gainesville?
I went to grad school at Duke, so I was in Durham, North Carolina for six years before that.
Okay, cool. Because, I remember seeing one of your films that you must have made when you first moved there, I assumed, because it didn’t seem like… You were kind of talking how you just moved to Gainesville, and you’re like, “There’s no tall buildings, it’s really weird.”
Oh yeah, that’s THE STRIP MALL TRILOGY. So, that was 2001, right after I moved here. But, it’s not like I moved here from some amazing city. It was more of, like, a conceit than a reality.
What do you think of Gainesville? Do you enjoy the city?
Yeah. I think, you know, it’s a good college town. It’s not Berlin, it’s not Chicago. There are places I would rather be. But, I don’t know. I’ve got my doors and windows open right now, and it’s seventy-five degrees outside. Life is pretty easy. I like it well enough here. And, you know, as long as you confine yourself to a certain part of town, you don’t have to face the disgusting reality of sprawl and strip malls and all that stuff.
Let’s talk a little bit about the store. The background of it, how long it’s been around, why you started it, that sort of thing.
So, the transition from North Carolina to here is actually kind of appropriate in this discussion, because when I lived there, there was a video store called Visart.
It was just this model of a video store. It was this place where you’d go in, and they had everything, and stuff was arranged by the director. You know, it was just really thoughtful, and smart, and big. And, they actually had some of the dumb recent releases, too. I think that’s kind of how they sanctioned the rest of what they did. But, they were really a model for what I was thinking a video store should be like.
And, when I came here, there was just, you know, Blockbuster and Hollywood (Video). For the first few years, I was content just to use the facilities on campus. We had a media library for teaching, and then there’s the regular library. But, you know, they were no fun for browsing, and I found I was watching lots of stuff I didn’t really feel passionate about, but it was just the first thing you came upon. It was, “Okay, I’ll see that, sure.”
So, finally, I decided to quit complaining about there not being a good video store and just start one up. So, my friend Tim Massett in Jacksonville, who now runs Sun-Ray Cinema, he and I were going to start together. He had already done some market research, and was way smarter about it than I could have been at that point. I was going to bankroll it and he was going to put in this work to make it happen.
But, he ended up getting cold feet, I think, because he knew– he was right, that opening a video store in this day and age is not a way to line your retirement account. And, so he stayed on managing a theater in Jacksonville.
So, I ended up just doing it, not really entirely alone. I had a group of three really cool people at the start, who, you know, we went in there and did all the construction ourselves, we did the painting. You know, built the store from nothing. For about three or four months before then, I’d been collecting stuff, buying a bunch of used VHS to flesh out the collection. But, also, I had a targeted list where I was, like, “These are the– I can’t even remember– thousand movies I wouldn’t want to open the store without.” So, all those I just ordered myself, and fleshed out by getting used DVDs or super cheap VHS.
Again, we had so much space at first, we really needed titles to flesh out. It ended up being a curse because we were stuck with all these VHS tapes.
A COLLECTIVELY-RUN STORE
You were talking about the selection, which is kind of amazing. Is there, like, a specific standard or requirement you have for movies you carry? Because I know you also carry those, I’ll call them “not amazing movies.” Is it a personal thing? Or, is it really just, like, “Oh, people seem to want this one, so we’ll get it, because we have this back catalog.”
So, I guess the first thing to say is that the decisions about acquisitions are still made largely collectively. It’s still run co-op style.
Yeah, it’s profit-sharing.
But, also, each month… You remember this, right?
Each month, I send out the list of possible titles. You know, all of the new releases or whatever. And we just weigh in. We used to do it face-to-face, now we mostly do it over email. So, anything that gets more than half of the staff voting for it, I’ll buy.
But, I’ll still look at thrift stores and pawn shops, and if I can get something that I know I’ll make a couple bucks and I only have to pay two or three, I’ll add it even if I having aesthetic objections to it. And, I think everyone is kind of guided by that, too, though. We’ve had this discussion really recently, actually, about like, “Oh, should we get this blockbuster because we think that’s what people want?” And, you know, when we look at the numbers, actually, our best-renting things are not blockbusters. As much as we try to sell-out and cater to what people want, it turns out that what people want is more, like, Wes Anderson, which is, again, a little less ambitious than some of the stuff we’d really love them to watch. But, I mean, it’s really cool that they want to watch Wes Anderson instead of, you know, Michael Bay.
Well, do you think that it’s partly because people who want to see a Michael Bay movie probably wouldn’t go to Video Rodeo? You what I mean? They wouldn’t go to a local art house video store.
Sure. I mean, I think the landscape has changed a little bit since Blockbuster has gone away. You know, as bad as Blockbuster was, at least they had ten thousand movies. I do think for recent releases, a lot of people are just content to go the Redbox and just take whatever, to go rent WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON, or whatever.
Right. But, you guys outlasted Blockbuster. You’re the only video store in Gainesville now.
I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, so I don’t necessarily believe it, but there’s technically another place called Go Video that exists inside of a gas station somewhere in northwest Gainesville. It’s not a thing of it’s own, it’s, like, shelves within a gas station. I actually called there once to see if they were real, and somebody answered the phone and said they were there, so…
But, still, you have that–
We outlasted the chains.
Yeah, you outlasted the chains. I remember when I was working there, I don’t know if you still have it, you had that bowl of Blockbuster cards. People would cut up their membership cards.
Yeah, we still have it. It’s actually overflowing. We stopped granting free rentals for people cutting up their Blockbuster cards, but we still like that testament to the damage we did to them.
Totally. You got ‘em.
Now, we already mentioned that the employees work through profit-sharing, and you seem to have a very collective mindset. Why is that an important thing to you about running the business?
Well, I never imagine it being “me being the boss-man,” and you know, writing checks… I just feel like a place like that doesn’t work if it’s just, like, minimum-wage slaves, just working there. And, I also felt like, to ensure the long-term viability of the store, it would have to have that flexibility to say, “Hey, this month was great. You guys made ten bucks an hour.” And, “Hey, this month really sucked. You guys made four bucks an hour.”
Yeah, I know that I personally cared so much more about the store, not just because of the profit-sharing thing, but because it made me feel like I wasn’t just working for this dude who would come in sometimes and didn’t care. So, it definitely helped me.
Well, that’s great. I mean, that’s always been my thinking about it. And, it seems to be the case. We all went in last month, and we had a really bad month. And, I broke the news to everybody, and they were like, “Alright. That’s fine.” You know, nobody works there as their primary job. We got, I think, seven people on staff right now, and I’m picking up shifts for free, so that boosts the overall wages, because my plan is that if I get any money out of the store, it’ll only be when the store finally shuts down. I put the money in to start it, but I just don’t take any out.
Has this sort of collective approach to it made operating the store harder, from a business standpoint?
I mean, if we had just, say, two people working there, instead of seven or eight, it’d be a lot easier to keep track of where things get fucked up. So, things like that, I think would be a little bit easier. But, I actually think having people only work there four and a half or nine hours a week, they come with a lot more energy to the store. So, maybe they’re a lot more inclined to do something cool while they’re there, like make a weird sign. And, I think having all these different people’s ideas represented is great, and I think the collection really benefits from… A couple months ago, we had a little extra money, and so I let everyone in the store take something from backfill to order. And, someone ordered 9 TO 5, which is a title I would have, you know, rolled my eyes at or whatever.
But, you know, it’s been rented four or five times in the two months we’ve had it. I don’t know, I think it’s great to have that voice represented, and not have it be just, like, two people who are determining the vision of the– Because, again, if I did it, it would be all Criterion Collection or something. Like, the super nerd taste. And, you know, it’s like, this will serve certain people, but we want to serve more than just the hardcore film nerd. We kind of have to, to stay open.
Do you guys ever have events? Like, you have birthday parties…
Oh, yeah. We started it as just kind of a one-off thing, and it was such a popular event that we realized we should do them regularly to kind of remind the community that we are here to sort of be part– you know, we’re friends with so many of them.
What are they like? I don’t think you were doing them when I was there.
Basically, it’s like, a keg party in the video store. We buy a keg and put it in the back of the store. People parade around, spill beers on everything, and hopefully, like, rent a movie or buy a t-shirt or something. We’ll always have some kind of sale, or, last time we did a drawing. We raffled off the soundtracks to HOLY MOUNTAIN and EL TOPO. So, we always have something special. This next one that’s coming up in 10 days is our eighth birthday. We’re also opening a book store inside of the video store.
Now, is that place in North Carolina still open?
No, they went out of business, I think, a year and a half ago, or something. I think they overextended themselves a little bit. They also had a newsstand, and they expanded. They opened a bunch of stores. I don’t know. I don’t know enough about their internal workings. They were actually great. Like, I put out a VHS tape of films from the film festival I was running in Chapel Hill (called Flicker), and I approached them about it, and they ended up buying, like, five copies of it. So, I mean, they were really supportive, and a really great local resource, and it’s really sad to see them go, still.
Yeah, that’s too bad…
VIDEO STORES AND THE INDIE FILM COMMUNITY
Now, okay, let’s get into some heavy stuff.
Yeah, get ready. So, like, video stores… Actually, this isn’t really that heavy. But, something I wanted to talk about was that video stores aren’t something you really hear about in the independent film world. You know, there’s always talk about art house cinemas, and the struggles for them to stay open. And, there’s occasionally something about local video stores and stuff, but I feel like it’s kind of the unsung part of the indie film world. But, to me, the “Gainesville independent film community,” when I was living there, my vessel for all that, was Video Rodeo. I mean, you also had the Hippodrome (the art house theater in Gainesville), but the selection at Video Rodeo was so huge, and the price… you could get exposed to a lot of movies you otherwise wouldn’t see. Do you feel like a video store could play that role in towns that maybe don’t have a lot of options for art house films?
Yeah, you know, I think that’s one of the things, again, that I lament about the move from Blockbuster to Redbox. Like, Blockbuster sucks, but in towns where you don’t have anything else… Blockbuster has ten thousand movies, there’s got to be some hidden Werner Herzog film in their collection, right? Like, you’ll never fucking find it. It’ll be buried in “drama,” that generic catch-all for anything you couldn’t fit anywhere else. But, at least there’s stuff there. I mean, I grew up in a town with just a Blockbuster, and I remember finding weird foreign stuff there. It wasn’t all curated, you know. They didn’t do anything systematic. It wasn’t like they were getting every good art film or whatever. But, with Redbox, you’re guaranteed not to find anything older than a couple years old. You’re guaranteed not to find anything too adventurous or too indie. And, even Netflix streaming is not much better, and I know that’s now what a lot of people are going to. And, all they watch is TV shows, and you know, that’s great for binge-watching. But, I just worry, that if you go in looking for a specific title… I’ve gone in to look for Godard, Truffaut, Herzog, whatever. It’s really depressing. They’ll have maybe one film of the fifty, sixty, whatever films these people have made.
And, it’s always, like, the minor work.
It won’t be BREATHLESS, or PIERROT LE FOU. It’ll be, like, NOTRE MUSIQUE. You know?
It’s sort of like staying at your friend’s house, and you’re stuck there during the day, and you look through the DVD collection, and it’s like, “Oh, there’s something I can watch.” But yeah, the less longwinded version of the answer is, you know, I definitely feel like a well-curated video store can really be the nucleus for a film scene, or a way for people to self-educate. It’s a great pedagogical resource. And, I think you can do that if you use Netflix disc delivery, which hopefully people in rural Kansas are still doing, and haven’t switched over exclusively. Because Redbox and Netflix streaming is a real impoverishment. It’s like, the future looks worse than the past.
It used to be… You know, for me, I lived in an era… Whatever, this is dinosaur talk.
But, before everything was available on home video. We didn’t have a VCR until I was maybe ten, and then when we got it, how many titles were available? So, it seemed like we were moving in the direction of more and more is suddenly available. It was amazing. The whole history of cinema, and now you don’t have to wait for decades, or just read about these things. They’re no longer fabled. Suddenly, you can go down to the video store and rent a lot of these things. So, it seemed like it was moving in that direction. And, Netflix initially looked like that to, where it was like, “Holy shit. They’ve got 40,000 titles you can get.”
But now, again, because of the way they changed the pricing structure, and because they want to go to only online, and because the way the rights issues are working with that, and the dividing up of the digital marketplace with Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime… Now it’s looking like less and less is available. That’s a real depressing trend.
VIDEO STORES AS PART OF THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
You talked about the video store being a nucleus for a film community, which I think is a cool idea, especially for smaller towns, like I mentioned. But, also, when I was living there, I always kind of felt like the store was one of the important parts of living in that neighborhood, and being connected to that neighborhood of Gainesville. Not even, like, film, but also just the people in the neighborhood. Do you get that feeling at all from people who frequent it? Do you feel like there’s support from those local people and stuff?
Yeah, I guess I feel that. You know, like, we’ve made ads talking about, you know, like, one of the reasons we hope we’re a vital institution, is that, you know, if you have a band, and you’re playing a show, and you want to put up a flier, you can put it up in our window. Or, if you have a tattoo parlor and you have business cards you want to put out, you can put that on our counter. You know, like, all that stuff, we really want to help cross-promote, and we want to be a place where they know that a certain kind of person will come in there and see their stuff. And, it’ll all feed each other. Yeah, I guess I feel like the neighborhood function– and again, as opposed to Netflix, where it’s like, you know… I don’t know where their headquarters is.
Right. It’s like in the North Pole or something.
Is the store involved with other parts of the community? Like, do you do stuff at the Palomino (a pool hall in Gainesville) or anything?
Well, because of all my programming with FLEX, we technically brand any screening we do as FLEX as opposed to Video Rodeo. It’s always seemed like, in some ways, it would be better business for us if we branded it as “Video Rodeo presents”… You know, we use the Video Rodeo Facebook page, which is a lot more active than the FLEX Facebook page, for promoting those events.
Yeah, the Facebook page of Video Rodeo is pretty solid, I think. I think you guys are doing a really good job with that sort of stuff.
Well, we also frequently use the Facebook page to sort of sabotage our own business. To say, like, “Hey, here’s something awesome going on in town tonight that we have nothing to do with. Go do that instead of renting a movie.” So, like, right now HOLY MOTORS is showing at the Hippodrome, and we were really excited they took a risk on that.
Definitely. That’s cool.
We pushed it once. I’m getting ready for Thursday. I’m going to push it again, because that’s going to be the last night.
Do they return the favor?
They do. They actually run a slide for us in their slideshow before the screenings. You know, just a slide that says we exist, which, surprisingly… In a town this small, you’d think everyone would know, but it’s always shocking to find out how many who would be interested still don’t know.
Do you feel like that sort of sharing, local businesses supporting each other… Do you think that’s helped you guys?
I do. I think it could always be more. Whitney Mutch does a thing called Indie Gainesville, and she always promotes “buy local” and stuff like that. And, I think that’s as close as we get to a kind of central forum for local businesses where they’re supportive. But, I don’t quite know how to make it work where there’s even more synergy than there is now. I think there’s some, but I think there could always be more.
Well, do you think that–
I hate saying “synergy,” by the way.
It’s business-speak or whatever.
Yeah, totally. You sound very professional.
VIDEO STORES ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Do you feel like it’s a better place for the store to be, in this smaller town, than it would be to be in a big city? Not in terms of where you’d prefer to live, but do you think the store serves a better purpose, or does better than it would if it was in a bigger city, or some other type of town?
I don’t know. I’d be interested to compare notes with stores… I don’t even know which ones are still open, but like, Le Video in San Francisco, or…
There’s no communication between other video stores, is there?
Not really. I’ve talked sort of informally, there’s a video store in Chicago that I used to go to. And, I talked a lot to the guy who owned that place about how the store worked, and how he made it work. I went out to Santa Monica to see my parents, and there’s a video store there, I’m forgetting their name now.
No, it’s the place where the guy created those Cinemetal t-shirts. The ones where it looks like Metallica but it says “Fassbinder” instead. Black Flag but it says “Bela Tarr.”
So, when I go into a place like that, I’ll mention, “Hey, I own a video store. I’m kind of curious about” you know… And, it’s always, you know, “Times are tough, we make it work, blah blah blah.” But, I think L.A. is probably a hard place to do it, just because everyone’s so dispersed. But, I think if you were in the right neighborhood in New York or Chicago or San Francisco… If you’re in the Castro, you probably have enough people within foot traffic distance to sustain you in the same way that we do in Gainesville. You might have more density, and a more stable base of people. So, I think each place comes with it’s own challenges, but I wouldn’t say we’re especially privileged here, to have this kind of situation.
Yeah, I bet it would be tough to figure out where it would thrive more.
Cool. If you could see a future for the store, where you didn’t have to worry about anything, what would you hope the store would be able to do? If it could become the thing that you would be, like, “Wow, that’d be awesome.” If you were about to do that.
I guess first, I think, there’s not an unlimited time horizon for this. You know, I don’t know how long people will have optical media players.
There will be a day when it’s, like, “Oh, you still rent physical media? Because we just get everything streaming.” Whether it’s Netflix or whatever. But, I would love to buy a building, for the rent we pay to be flexible, like the staff salaries are, right now, flexible. And, where it would have more space, because we’ve got a bunch of sections that are… We try to put everything face-out, but stuff is starting to be spine-out a lot, in certain sections. So, it’d be nice to have more room for the store, but also, if the book store starts to work, I’d love to be able to expand what that is. And, have a screening space attached, too. I know Videology (in Brooklyn) just converted the back of their space into a small screening space. That would be wonderful, too, to have. I’ve fantasized about that for awhile.
That’s, you know, when the revolution comes, or when the rich benefactress comes to me to underwrite my future endeavors. That’s what we would do: buy a building and house all of those things, and make it a real destination, and have that kind of… again, I don’t want to say “synergy,” but…
(I laugh) You can say it.
Like, really positive energy that feeds off of each other, or whatever.
What do you think the half-life of the store is, or of video stores in general?
I mean, I’m surprised we made it this far. We could have gone out of business the first year we were open. I had no idea, really, how it worked. But, I don’t know. I could imagine still doing this three years from now, five years from now. Beyond that, it’s really hard to imagine for me. I think when new computers are built, and they don’t have built-in DVD players, that would really be a tipping point. Mac has already decided they don’t want Blu-Ray. They’re not interested in ever having a Blu-Ray player in their computers. So, we’re really at the mercy of those corporations.
Yeah. Well, it sounds like a lot of cool stuff in Gainesville is kind of going away. So, hopefully, it’s a little while before it happens.
Yeah, well, if it doesn’t last forever, it doesn’t mean it didn’t do something good while it lasted.
I had something, I thought, sort of smart to say, that you didn’t ask about.
Oh, okay. Please, go ahead.
You know, about indie film and the relationship between Video Rodeo and the indie film world… I think there is a way in which we’re still kind of a slave to the market. I would really love to stock a lot more films, like your film. Things that don’t have a giant theatrical release, that don’t have giant advertising budgets behind them, that cost almost nothing, that nobody’s really heard of. But, it’s proven sort of impossible. Like, when I said I have a certain disappointment about Wes Anderson being our bread and butter. It’s that disappointment, that, like… Oh, well these have TV commercials. You know, they’re indie films, but they’re underwritten by corporations.
So, there’s a way in which we’re filling a market niche that’s still very much a part of the market, and it would really be nice to be a store that was more committed to true independent filmmakers. And, I get emails from time-to-time from people who are like, “Hey, we just made this film. It played at these three festivals. We’d love for you to stock it. We’ll sell it to you for half what we normally charge for it.” It sort of breaks my heart, but I have to tell these people, “Look, ten bucks for this DVD that nobody’s ever heard of. It’s still probably more than we can afford.” If we were more flush with cash, I would do that in a second. If this were fifteen years ago, when video stores did really make money.
But, I don’t know. It’s a disappointment. I feel like this fantasy of true independence, of us being real outsiders and fighting the power and all that… I still feel like we’re beholden to those studio indies, and that kind of hipster marketing or whatever, in a way that I wish we could kind of transcend.
Yeah, that’s a hard thing to figure out how to break out of.
But, I guess that’s separate from the narrative of the video store’s continued survival, but it is about… again, our relationship to the indie film community.
Cool. Well, is there anything else you want to add?
No, I think that’s all I got the breath for now.
(I laugh) Well, thanks, Roger.