||The Video Store, Reinvented by Necessity
On Sunday evening, a group of men and women will gather in a screening room here to watch -- and sing along to -- the movie musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." Many will be festively attired in bell-bottoms, love beads and big-hair wigs.
A hippie revival session? A flash-mob theatrical performance?
No. Just another night at Vidiots, one of the Los Angeles area's last independent video stores.
Over the years, the spread of video-purveying giants like Netflix and Redbox has sounded a death knell for smaller brick-and-mortar video stores, even as some of the Goliaths, including Blockbuster, have faltered themselves.
But through it all, a few scrappy Davids have held on. And now, in the face the latest assault on their base -- in the form of Netflix's online streaming service -- they are struggling to stay afloat by rethinking their business models. They are tapping into new revenue streams in ways that may seem quaint and old-fashioned, but that are proving to be culturally astute and financially viable.
"We just got so into survival mode," Patty Polinger, co-owner of Vidiots, said of the decision she and her business partner, Cathy Tauber, made to throw the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass and start changing their store's modus operandi after 26 years.
A campy sing-along night is just one component of their plan. Since Vidiots, a beloved institution among the area's movie cognoscenti and stars, opened a sleek space called the Annex a year ago, it has offered a "Film Studies" program. It has had classes on anime mythology; lectures by filmmakers like Larry Clark ("Kids"); and spoken-word events, known as Tail Spin, where participants deliver improvised monologues on a theme (for example, "the stranger") for five minutes before the thread is picked up by someone else.
Physically, too, the Annex symbolizes a new era. Its clean, modern design bears no resemblance to the graffiti-covered walls of the video store, which feels more like a basement clubhouse.
The special events have been integral to Vidiots' transformation from a strictly retail business to a cultural hub and community center. They are intended as a riposte to what the store's fans regard as the nameless, faceless quality of services like Netflix.
"We felt that with Netflix and the Internet, what we should be focusing on was community and people talking to each other," Ms. Polinger said. "We just wanted to go the other extreme and be more interpersonal."
The changes have helped strengthen the store financially, she says. Whereas at one time "I felt like we were in freefall mode, I now feel we've stabilized," she says.
Other retailers are thinking along the same lines as Ms. Polinger. This fall, Videology, a rare video store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is opening a cafe and bar, where a dozen kinds of beer will be on tap, and movie screenings and trivia nights will take place.
And at CineFile Video in Los Angeles, long a mecca for Fassbinder and Godard enthusiasts, Josh Fadem, a comedian who works as a clerk at the store, occasionally performs a free stand-up act.
The movement toward community-building goes beyond marketing. It is also tapping into a cultural impulse to connect with something, or someone, in a digital age. In this way, it is not all that different from the local food movement, or a decision to buy asparagus at a farmer's market instead of at a superstore.
Consumers need "to have a choice, and the choice is in support of independent whatever -- independent bookstore, independent grocery store, independent video store," said Milos Stehlik, executive director of Facets Multi-Media, an art house film company in Chicago that exhibits, rents and sells films. Ms. Polinger said Facets, which also runs a series of film classes for children and adults, was an inspiration for Vidiots' new direction.
"People make an effort to reach out to something real, so the one thing they appreciate here, is we are very knowledgeable," Mr. Stehlik said. "People who work in the video store are very knowledgeable about film. There's always a conversation, not just a click. Those kinds of real experiences, you can't really duplicate when you're getting a movie out of a vending machine."
Still, clicking is a tempting convenience, even for purist movie geeks who believe that viewing pictures on anything other than 35mm film is blasphemous.
Maybe there is a third way, incorporating both approaches. Peter Fader, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said video stores should position themselves not as an adversary of Netflix, but rather as an alternative.
"What I see happening is that people will use this kind of service as a complement to Netflix," Professor Fader said. "A lot of movie watching will be on Netflix or video on demand or other sources, but when there is a particular title that's impossible to find, or a particular event happening -- be it a speaker or an activity -- it will be something that's a part of their movie consumption portfolio.
"I think that's more likely the path to success than being the small, anti-Netflix kind of club," Professor Fader added, pointing to bookstores' initially dismissive attitude toward Amazon.com as a lesson in how not to compete with new technologies.
Video stores may get their biggest reprieve as a result of their bête noir. Netflix's controversial recent 60 percent price increase -- for its monthly package of online movie streams along with one DVD by mail at a time -- has spawned customer outrage and some cancellations. Furthermore, the notion that Netflix's future appears to be in online streaming, not DVDs, may return some business to video stores, given that fewer movie titles are now available via streaming.
"I see a ray of hope with the Netflix thing, and people's frustration with that," Ms. Polinger said. "I've seen a couple people come in after giving up on Netflix. There's definitely a backlash."
(Source: The New York Times, 07/30/11)
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