By virtue of where I live, I am afforded a luxury which has long since ceased being possible for most film fanatics. I can literally walk down the block to an actual brick & mortar video store. Of course, if I turn right instead of left off of my block I’ll quickly run into not one but two different Redbox kiosks, positioned across the street from one another. Not too long ago, those Redbox kiosks would have been Blockbuster Video stores. However, 18 years ago today Netflix launched its first website offering DVD rentals through the mail, and when Blockbuster declined a Netflix offer to partner in 2007 the video store giant signed its own death warrant. In the years after that offer, Netflix surpassed 10 million subscribers in 2009, and Blockbuster lost $1.1 billion forcing it to close stores and declare bankruptcy in 2010, the same year that Movie Gallery/Hollywood Video also went under.
And thus the video store died, although some ma and pops as well as Family Videos, which actually opened the first video store in 1977, are still around. What we’ve lost is plenty of needless drama involving late fees and poor clerks searching the shelves for movies which are technically in stock but have been horribly misplaced or stolen (as a former clerk, I’m speaking from considerable personal experience on that last point). We’ve also lost the success stories of famous filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino who actually got their starts as film nerds manning the checkout lines at video stores, often acting like human versions of the now ubiquitous Amazon.com “If you liked this, you might also like this…” recommendations. Luckily, Tom Roston interviewed a bunch of those directors for a new book called I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era (due out Sept. 24th).
Yesterday, EW ran an exclusive excerpt from the book, and the thing that immediately jumped out at a lot of people is how both Smith and Tarantino talked about the unique experiencing of being on the opposite end of renting adult films [spoiler: it was only awkward at first]. Yes, the dirty secret is that while the Blockbusters of the world were too dignified for the darkly lit back rooms labeled “For Adults Only” the lifeblood for their competition was the lucrative world of VHS porn movies. However, there’s another interesting angle to this which is that working in a video store was such a dream job for so many that it could actually serve to squash ambition. As Tarantino revealed:
I found Video Archives in Manhattan Beach and I thought it was the coolest place I had ever seen in my life. [In 1985] the owner asked if I wanted to have a job there. He didn’t realize he was saving my life. And for three years, it was really great. The case could be made that it was really too terrific. I lost all my ambition for the first three years. I stopped trying to act and trying to direct. At one point, I brought all of the employees together to talk with them about an employee takeover. Now, none of us had any money, but this was a legitimate business thing. “Go to your parents and borrow the six thousand dollars, you and you and you and you. This is all legit.” Nobody was interested. I loved the place. I was really, really invested in it. The truth of the matter is, if we had done that, I may not have made Reservoir Dogs. I would have been working at, and owning, Video Archives.
Kevin Smith felt the same way:
So I am combing the want ads. And I see the dream job. “Help wanted. Video store.” And I go to RST [in New Jersey]. I was like, “This is the Cocoon of jobs.” I didn’t want to be a filmmaker. I just wanted to work at a video store. I thought I was going to be sitting behind the counter on a little footstool for the rest of my life. And brother, that suited me just fine. My father hated his job at the post office. He worked nights as a letter carrier. I saw how having a job he hated affected my old man. Here was a job I loved, and I got it.
Obviously, Tarantino went on to Reservoir Dogs and Smith to Clerks, yet they still both love talking about movies, Tarantino recently offering his critique of It Follows and Smith routinely interviewing fellow directors and writers for his podcast.
I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era should make for an interesting read. Here’s the official synopsis:
For a generation, video stores were to filmmakers what bookstores were to writers. They were the salons where many of today’s best directors first learned their craft. The art of discovery that video stores encouraged through the careful curation of clerks was the fertile, if sometimes fetid, soil from which today’s film world sprung. Video stores were also the financial engine without which the indie film movement wouldn’t have existed.
In I Lost it at the Video Store, Tom Roston interviews the filmmakers–including John Sayles, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell and Allison Anders–who came of age during the reign of video rentals, and constructs a living, personal narrative of an era of cinema history which, though now gone, continues to shape film culture today.
Here’s the Amazon link.