MediaAugust 6, 2017

The last video stores


Decimated first by piracy and then by streaming, video stores are meant to have vanished. But some have survived, and their success signposts how they might thrive into the future, writes Aaron Yap.

Nestled in the heart of Mt. Albert in Auckland is one of the last remaining Video Ezy stores in New Zealand. A “For Lease” sign hangs ominously in the window, the large brand logo emblazoned above a reminder of a bygone era. An even more miserable picture comes into focus when one peeks in, as I habitually do when I frequent the strip’s Asian eateries. It’s deserted, save for some empty shelves and sale bins stuffed with ex-rentals gathering dust.

By the time you read this, it’s likely that this store will have ceased to exist.

Mt Albert Video Ezy. Photo: Aaron Yap.

In the past decade or so I, like many self-professed movie buffs of our generation, have moved on from the physical store model of renting movies. This has, in effect, contributed to common sights like the one above, and potentially the complete obsolescence of the video store altogether.

We often like to sweetly reminisce about those formative years when renting five weeklies for $10 felt like hitting the jackpot. And about how the video store was an invaluable source of education, opening doors to a world of embarrassing cinematic riches. But the brutal underlying truth is most of us haven’t given any money to a video store in a long, long time.

We’ve been collectively carried along by the wave of innovation in one way or another. For instance, I’ve been working, for a good part of my adult life, for Fatso, whose disc-by-mail online rental service added a layer of convenience, particularly for those living in remote rural areas, that brick-and-mortar stores didn’t have. That was, and is still, my access.

Today, it’s the streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime, or local players Lightbox and Neon, who are rewriting the rules on consumer flexibility, affordability and gratification in the mainstream. The story goes that it took one bad video store experience getting fined $40 by Blockbuster for returning Apollo 13 late for one Reed Hastings, now Netflix’s CEO, to ultimately change the game forever.

With this visibly gloomy forecast in mind, it would be easy to write off the few stores who haven’t been put out of business as participants in a game of the last-man-standing. However a closer look reveals it might not be the case. You’ll find rental stalwarts fortifying their place in the market as viable alternatives. These operators satisfy customers whose needs aren’t being met by the lacking catalogue breadth of streaming services.

Natasha Loh, who has managed Grey Lynn’s Video Ezy since 2010, is someone who can attest to the steep decline across the country. “When I first started here there were 171 Video Ezies,” she recalls. “Now there are 17 stores. That’s a huge drop.” Even if her decision to purchase the store when many were starting to close was received with some puzzlement, Loh brings a lifelong dedication to the industry that has helped her business thrive.

Natasha Loh at Video Ezy Grey Lynn. Photo: Aaron Yap.

“I’m passionate about movies and that’s what I’ve decided what I want to do with my life so I just went for it,” says Loh. As a child, she spent weekends at her father’s Chinese video store in Auckland’s CBD. After university, she sent off 75 CVs and landed a part-time position at the franchise The Source, before going on to manage a Civic Video in Browns Bay and a Video Ezy in Birkenhead. Now she runs a solidly performing store that offers one of the largest rental selections in Auckland and attracts a broad range of customers some commuting from as far as Kumeu to find what they want. And she just renewed the lease in February, so it’s not going anywhere soon.

“I’ve got about 40,000 DVDs in store and I’m constantly buying new stock,” she says. “A year and a half ago, I purchased 3500 TV series to expand my TV section. We specialise in classic, festival and foreign films, documentaries. We’re not a blockbuster store.” She’s fastidious in her curation: “What I’m trying to do here is preserve film history. I’ve actually compiled a list of movies that I’m missing. I’m trying to track them down. Everything I can find pre-1970s, I purchase. I think these movies should be accessible to the community.”

Natasha Loh at Video Ezy Grey Lynn. Photo: Aaron Yap.

Walking into the store, one is not only struck by the stacks of DVDs that line the walls, but also all manner of colourful pop culture items adorning shelves and hanging from the ceiling. They’re not merely for show, but a secondary revenue stream for Loh. “We sell movie and gaming merchandise. T-shirts, action figures, key chains, wallets, jewelry. I think it’s a good fit for people who are into movies and TV.”

She feels that a sense of community has been lost with the closure of video stores. “Nowadays everyone’s just on their individual devices,” she says. “I go around to my friend’s place and their kids are on tablets and mobiles. It’s very anti-social.” But she still sees evidence of the communal in her day-to-day operations. “I have people come in here and talk about movies, and they don’t know each other. It’s really awesome. We have a common interest in movies. I’ve made friends with customers. I actually met my partner here.”

Over at Dominion Road, there’s Videon, an iconic independent video store that has been open for nearly 40 years. Their specialist library houses a plethora of eclectic arthouse and cult titles you’d be hard-pressed to discover at your local Civic or United Video.

Tim Beatson at Videon. Photo: Aaron Yap.

Tim Beatson remembers being a long-time Videon customer before becoming the manager there. “At the time I wasn’t particularly watching a lot. I had memberships at Video Ezy Ponsonby and stuff, but it was only when I started come here that I was getting out more things because it was organised in a way that meant things popped out at me. Like Werner Herzog or something like that had its own little section in the directors, and you were like ‘Oh wow!’. That meant I would start drawing connections between filmmakers. Videon seemed to have an agenda about what they were buying.”

As with any small business trying to survive in rapidly changing industries, Videon has transformed over the years. They changed ownership in 2012, shifted to a smaller, cheaper premises, and began adding more commercially friendly stock to their library. But their primary ethos hasn’t wavered.

“What saved us from the initial round of stores going under, as they did when Netflix made itself felt over here, was focusing on the niche as we always have,” says Beatson. “It’s the idea of bringing people in contact with things they might not ordinarily see. An algorithm can make a recommendation based on what someone’s watched previously, but a person can go out on a limb, and say ‘If you found that interesting, I’m gonna take a bit of a jump here and try this’. When that works, it’s really satisfying. You realise that a person’s paradigm of what movies are has altered slightly and they are going to look for something different the next time round.”

Photo: Aaron Yap.

Beatson doesn’t see Videon as needing to go up against the Netflixes of this world. “You can’t be a small business and compete with a mass provider. The reality is we’re more of an archive than anything else now. This is an opportunity for us to look at how we pivot the business around that idea. We do this thing where we deal with production houses who are shooting ads. They are often looking for visual aids, and they’ll be checking out films for production design. So they’ll ask, ‘We need films that fit into this basket, what can you recommend? Can you recommend the films which have the best montage sequence?’ All sorts of weird requests. Being small works in that respect. You’ve got a more intimate knowledge of your database and stock.”

Other independent stores around in New Zealand are similarly leveraging their niche qualities to stay afloat. The fate of Aro Video, a landmark in Wellington’s Aro Valley, appeared grim a couple years ago. “It’s scary during the many times where you feel you’ve run out of ideas on how to combat the tide of change,” says owner Andrew Armitage, who established Aro in 1989, aiming to provide a range that wasn’t covered by the likes of the 24-hour United Video on Courtenay Place.

Andrew Armitage of Aro Valley. Photo: supplied.

But Armitage currently feels positive that they can use their 23,000-strong library collection and website/database as a base from which to continue connecting with customers in innovative ways. “The ‘Unlimited Subscriptions’ and ‘Adopt-a-Movie’ schemes have been the latest ones, and we are thinking about the possibility of doing up a van and providing a quality DVD rental mobile service specialising in classic films.”

Armitage believes their niche has become stronger. “We used to be the ‘alternative’ video store. Now we are the alternative because we are a video store,” he says. “I’d like to think that we can offer a service that complements legal streaming services, and that customers who do use streaming will also be able to access our substantial library when required.”

Christchurch’s Alice in Videoland. Photo: supplied.

In Christchurch, Alice in Videoland, whose inception dates further back to 1985, also boasts a sizeable movie library “a sort of Rainbow’s End for discerning movie lovers…”, promises their site. Following the 2011 earthquake, which forced the store to close, Jeremy Stewart purchased the business off his father Paul to keep the legacy alive. In response to the advent of online alternatives to physical DVD rentals, Jeremy added a cinema and rebranded the business to Alice Cinematheque.

Adding a cinema to the store turned out to be the best strategic move we ever made,” says Julian Stewart, who manages the business with brother Jeremy. Together they sought to position Alice as a destination location, and give customers an experience they would not get at home with streaming services. “It quickly became an essential part of the business formula. Alice’s would not exist as it is today if we had not added the cinema.”

At present, the Stewarts are in the process of completely revamping their business to be geared specifically for the “consumers of the future”. This includes redesigning their entire library to improve the browsing experience, and like Aro, introducing monthly unlimited DVD subscriptions. Furthermore, in a scheme that could potentially take personalised service to another level, Julian says they will be “composing customised movie recommendations lists” to choose films on their customer’s behalf, essentially removing the effort of having to searching through a library of 22,000 DVDs.

With all this talk of the personal, it’s hard not to think of a brief but oddly touching exchange I had with Phyllis, a middle-aged lady who entered Videon while I was chatting to Beatson. “I’ve been coming here since Benjamin was…oh…”, she tells me, pausing to recall her son’s age. “He used to come in and get the children’s movies so he would have been about 11? 10? He’s 29 now and doesn’t come anymore. He’s living independently and has a hard drive,” she laughs.

As Phyllis continues browsing the shelves, Beatson says, “We have a lot of regulars who have been coming for a long time. Phyllis and her partner joined in 1993.” She overhears us and returns to the counter, “That would be about right. 1993,” she smiles. “They know me well”.

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