Infinite Fest is a monthly column by festival programmer and film critic Eric Allen Hatch, author of the “Why I Am Hopeful” article for Filmmaker Magazine, tackling the state of cinema as expressed by North American film festivals.
I’m one of the few humans alive who can say this: in the year 2019, a video store took over my life.
My debut Infinite Fest column one year ago waxed nostalgic about my first-ever film festival trip to Toronto in 1998, and how it opened me up to the possibilities of traveling the world through film festivals. But in one sense I’d already marked myself as a global explorer years prior, thanks to physical media. From horror films during middle-school sleepovers to working through the canon of world cinema (as framed by Janus) via my small liberal-arts college library, I’d long been excited by how videotapes could open me up to a larger world across space and time.
That fascination became my obsession after college, because here in Baltimore we had Video Americain. I’d stopped into this long-standing DC/MD/DE art-house mom-and-pop video-store mini-chain a few times in high school and while home for breaks from college, but after moving to Baltimore after my graduation in 1996, as I embarked on what has passed for an adult life, Video Americain became a daily stop. With a directors wall, massive foreign and cult sections, and customer and clerk populations that included everyone I wanted to talk to, make out with, or become, it became my center of gravity. You can see how the store looked around that era here, as forever enshrined by John Waters’ criminally underrated Serial Mom. By 1998, I’d stopped pretending I wanted to spend my waking hours anywhere else, quit my day job, and began working at Video Americain full time. I continued working there for six years. For the first three, I assiduously maintained an average of three videos watched per night (compulsively watching four, five, or six to keep my average up when I’d committed the sin of underwatching the night before).
This was where I first worked my way through Fassbinder’s oeuvre, where I first freaked myself out to Possession via a big-box cassette copy, where I devoured gritty film-noir deep cuts and sparkling art-deco screwball comedies. Video Americain quite literally introduced me to film festivals, too, when their generous owners took myself and other workers (including future Good Time cinematographer Sean Price Williams) to the festival as a bonus in 1998 and ‘99, those halcyon days when the emerging DVD format reignited America’s passion for dropping dollars at video stores. And in Toronto, film festivals and home video always went hand in hand for me: on each trip, I’d pay a visit to world-class rental outfits like Queen Video and Suspect, and have fond memories of browsing stalls in Chinatown and Koreatown for region-free, English-subtitled discs of art-house and genre films before filmmakers like Hong Sang-soo and Park Chan-wook had penetrated the U.S. market.
Video Americain was my ersatz film school—and, not too long ago, they tore it down. Where the flagship Roland Park location of Video Americain once stood, there’s now a Smoothie King. The Charles Village location, at which I worked most often (depressing drop-ceiling tiles be damned!) still sits vacant in the basement of Wyman Towers, its after-hours return slot and faded inventory close-out flyers clinging to its windows as maudlin on-site reminders of how much joy that dingy space used to bring Baltimoreans.
Some friends and I didn’t want to let this happen. As Video Americain began closing its locations in 2012, a group of former employees and devoted members coalesced, first trying to save the Charles Village collection, and finally the grander last-man-standing, the Roland Park store, which closed its doors in 2014. Working with compressed timetables and limited resources, our efforts to purchase those collections failed, tens of thousands of tapes and discs slipping into individual hands through sidewalk sales and the Electronic Bay.
We couldn’t save Video Americain—but, several years later, we’ve managed to rebuild something much like it. After years of meetings, emails, and crises of extreme self-doubt, in late 2018 we opened Beyond Video, a non-profit, collectively owned, all-volunteer, crowdsourced video store. And over this year, as I’ve devoted more and more of my time to covering shifts at the store and building its inventory, I’ve learned so much about topics dear to my heart: the importance of physical media in film access, and the frequently deep disconnect between fulfilling work and financial compensation in film culture.
Beyond Video has specialty sections for labels like Criterion and Oscilloscope, free A24 zines at the counter, and a Directors Wall spanning 350+ auteurs from all over the world, from Chantal Akerman to Andrzej Żuławski. Members, of which we have 420 (!) and counting, set up a recurring donation of $12-20 per month; from then on our inventory becomes a lending library for them, with no cash exchanged. We open our doors Thursday–Sunday, 3–9pm, and the collective and some additional kind volunteers do all the work around our other various day jobs and gigs. We opened our doors to the public in December 2018 with about 8,800 titles, and as of this writing have 13,700—which, if it doesn’t quite match Video Americain’s 30k or so (let alone Scarecrow in Seattle’s 120,000+), is getting there, and far exceeds the number of films most chain video stores ever carried.
This isn’t an article about how we did it—the short answer is a Kickstarter, years of used-disc shopping and calls for donations, appeals to kind contacts at various home-video labels, and lots of inventive social-media amplifying. This also isn’t an article about how this project could be repeated elsewhere—although I believe it can—I’ve already written that one.
This is article is a tally of what I’ve learned from Beyond Video so far, and a gut-check looking back on a year working without financial compensation. In keeping with this column’s theme of fostering a year-round cinephile culture, I’d argue that we still need video stores in our lives—and for those of us that have them, they serve just as much value as any festival, microcinema, or streaming service.
Those who’ve followed my writing since my Why I Am Hopeful piece for Filmmaker last year know that, in early 2018, I quit Maryland Film Festival after eleven years on their programming team and eight as the senior programmer. That job was located at the core of my identity and purpose. After quitting due to a seemingly unresolvable disconnect between the festival’s board of directors and the baseline resources and respect for the practice of film curation needed to operate both a first-rate film festival and a year-round alt-film venue, I spent a (therapist-approved) month or two sinking deeper into my couch, devouring mediocre television series as I processed what I’d done. Then, as life and my passion for film came slowly back into focus, I switched gears and started channeling my energies into Beyond.
This, then, might serve as Why I Am Hopeful, Redux. This video store is an all-volunteer labor of love; some weeks I put in 40 hours or more for no compensation other than the personal edification and community value produced by that work—which, for an underemployed middle-aged man under the chaos of late capitalism, strikes many as quixotic, to say the least. But it’s been arguably the most fulfilling work of my life.
Here’s why: we built it, and they came. During my last several years at MdFF, in addition to our annual festival, we worked to restore and expand Baltimore’s historic year-round Parkway Theatre into a 3-screen year-round home venue. Since Baltimore already has a solid 5-screen art-house, the neighboring Charles Theatre, the Parkway’s programming mission necessarily on deeper cuts that wouldn’t otherwise come to town: films from distributors like Cinema Guild, Kino, Janus, Strand, Milestone, Well Go, Arbelos, the American Genre Film Archive, and Grasshopper. Without rehashing that project’s disappointments, the around-the-clock work required a “they will come” leap of faith that, due in part to a rough PR launch, didn’t come to fruition. I know a lot of film lovers in Baltimore, but I’d imagined the Parkway bringing out many more, by the hundreds. When it didn’t, I figured, maybe they just aren’t here.
But the are here. A new movie theater didn’t bring them out, but a video store did, and that fascinates me.
Beyond Video’s members are cinephiles. We have a complete Lucrecia Martel collection and well-stocked sections for Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul; sometimes their sections are nonetheless empty of display cases, as all of their films are rented. Our top-renting titles over our nine months of operation aren’t just (fantastic!) recent releases like First Reformed, Mandy, Lemon, and Sorry to Bother You, but also catalog titles like The Love Witch, Beau travail, and House. Our Criterion section rents extremely well, but customers (especially the Blu-ray inclined) also recognize and seek out spines from specialty labels like Twilight Time and Vinegar Syndrome. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say ⅔ of our rentals (perhaps more) come from our Directors Room, which is up a flight of stairs and which, prior to opening, I often worried would be out of sight, out of mind.
That’s one thing we got wrong—and I couldn’t be happier. Since our business model has no rental fees or late fees (just the monthly membership donation), no film costs more than any other, which we worried would result in new releases wildly out-renting everything else. We had reason to worry: in the tail end of Video Americain, the bulk of the business was coming from new-release and prestige television rentals (as well as, at one location, porn—believe me, even in this dark age of overflowing free internet erotica there are people out there who miss paying for it!), while thousands of fantastic films from all over the world collected dust. Therefore, in formulating Beyond Video’s loan policies, we made back-catalog rentals a library-like 2-week rental period, as some small incentivize for people to explore the collection. We needn’t have worried. Instead of buying deep on Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, which more or less just sit there, I’ve found myself adding to our database additional copies of visionary films like Martel’s The Headless Woman, Carlos Reygadas’ Japón, and Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Sometimes both of our copies of The Human Surge are checked out!
So what’s happening here? Video stores, as always, offer more variety in a day than any repertory theater could in a year. But, crucially, they also offer everything under one roof, regardless of each film’s current corporate rights-holder. As streaming services dominate our home-viewing experience, we find an ever-fragmenting marketplace in which one would have to subscribe to more and more services to approach the “having everything” illusion that any well-stocked video store pulls off with ease. (For the record, I do think the small, highly curated selection of MUBI is the best—and most honest—streaming path on offer.)
Seeing people come out of the woodworks for Beyond Video (and not, at least initially when I most needed them, for The Parkway), gave me some insight into how reconciled cinephiles have become to theaters not serving their niche interests, and how well niche home-video labels and services have served these tastes. While we’ve recently weathered some lean years in which film on physical media was sustained in large part by Criterion, we also have to credit the cult-film horror fans and labels that serve them like Vinegar Syndrome and Scream Factory. As the art-house got thoroughly Little Miss Sunshine’d and midnight movies disappeared, these labels are where those fervent fan dollars went. And now that they have the option to borrow some titles rather than purchase them all, they’re buying back in to video-store culture.
As I mentioned in my last column, inspiring multi-purpose film centers are popping up all over, from DC’s microcinema/bar Suns Cinema to London’s cinema/film-text library/coffee-shop/video-store Close-Up. As the Alamo Drafthouse takes over the multiplex experience across the country, they’ve started bringing video stores into the mix under their Video Vortex label—sometimes, as with Vidiots in L.A. partnering with veteran shops to maintain access to beloved collections. I have some unease about us relying on any one corporate chain to revitalize video-rental as part of our culture, though: this should be an in-the-trenches, city-by-city fight, projects made all the more interesting by regional tastes and the idiosyncrasies and ideas of the individual cinephiles that back them.
This, I think, is where things are headed. If you’re a cinephile in a small town or rural area, you’re probably going to need to keep adding streaming subscriptions to get the culture you crave. But in an urban area, accessing “everything” is going to entail an increasingly varied experiential diet drawing upon streaming services, mainstream art-houses, microcinemas, festivals, and even video stores. And these entities will need to find ways to collaborate or even merge. It may seem counterintuitive for streaming services and video stores to break bread (and it takes some imagination to visualize what such collaborations could look like), but they’re all fighting the good fight within this subculture. They’re all avenues of access to a beautiful moving-image history that corporate giants as monoliths (even if, working within them, there are some good-hearted soldiers of cinema) would prefer we forget, as engaging with film as art takes precious time away from what they feel we should be doing: “binging” their “original” “content.”
I suspect many of you are asking yourselves: if Beyond is doing so well, why are we hearing about how few video stores are out there, and how much of a struggle it is for those that are still standing? I have two answers for you. First, Beyond’s success must always come with an asterisk: all of our labor is provided by us as volunteers, in a market with a lower cost of living than many other North American cities. Second, here in Baltimore we had a great video store for thirty years—and then we lost it. That’s very different in public perception than a market in which video stores are still hanging on, with dwindling support. People have had five full years to miss video stores and to palpably miss the experience. Beyond isn’t asking people to patronize a longstanding institution in its waning years, but rather to come experience a new twist on an old idea, reborn—with a lot of momentum, good will, fresh ideas, and excitement behind it.
I’m a fan of 60s and 70s soul music, and I often think about how, in Memphis, they tore down Stax Studios (where Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Carla Thomas, among dozens of other legends, recorded)—only to rebuild it to its original specs, a few years later, where it’s now a vital community hub and tourist attraction. It’s great to have the studio recreated in today’s Stax Museum—but wouldn’t it be even better to still have the original studio itself? In some cities, video stores don’t need to be rebuilt—and they should be preserved at all costs, as rebuilding them (trust me!) is a lot of work.
We’re in a transitional moment, I think, where disc-based home-video culture will have a modest rebirth. I’m certainly living my life that way, closing a loop begun twenty years ago at Video Americain. My mind has once again melded with a computer inventory of titles, spending hours each weekend at thrift stores and yard sales chasing after those elusive films we don’t yet own in pursuit of that ultimate illusory “everything.” There’s real pleasure in saying hello to each person who comes through the door, getting to know their tastes and their specific personal relationship with cinema, and helping connect them to films that are going to enrich their lives.
My money’s running out, freelancing and consulting isn’t adding up to a livable salary, and before long I’m going to need a new year-round day job. That’ll probably mean that, while Beyond continues to thrive, this unexpected second chapter in my personal video-store journey will soon come to a close. But I’m hopeful that, in many cities, video stores are going to bounce back.
I just returned to Baltimore and Beyond after five days at TIFF, somehow cobbling together frequent-flyer miles, MUBI credentials, and free snacks in the press lounge to keep my streak alive on a budget of nearly zilch. Unlike on past trips, I had no time or money to shop for movies that are hard to find in the U.S.
Until, that is, I stumbled upon a sidewalk sale of sealed DVDs along Queen Street. It can’t hurt to look, I thought. And then the mind-meld kicked in. How the hell is a sealed copy of Denis Côté’s moody and powerful 2010 character study Curling—which, a mememic scan of our inventory tells me, we don’t yet own—sitting here unbought at three for $10? I programmed that film within Maryland Film Festival, and our customers would definitely dig it. Hooked, a deeper dig produced several more Canadian goodies such as Ingrid Veninger’s Modra and Peter Mettler’s The End of Time, as well as a few other film-fest gems: Benjamin Dickinson’s thoughtful indie sci-fi piece Creative Control, and Chris James Thompson’s astounding, under-seen hybrid doc The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (which played festivals under the much-better title Jeff).
Credit cards are dangerous—and, as you’ve already guessed, those discs and many more are now living where they belong: on the shelves of Beyond Video in the Remington neighborhood of Charm City, USA.
I spent more hours in 2019 volunteering at a video store than I did anything else—and it’s restored my belief in cinema, and cinephiles, as much as any film fest I’ve ever attended.
Beyond Video is a crowd-sourced enterprise, and you can help by donating a DVD off of our regularly updated wish lists of all titles, Criterion titles only, and/or box sets.
Great video stores still going include the legendary Scarecrow in Seattle, I Luv Video in Austin, and Videodrome in Atlanta. One of many veteran video stores currently running support campaigns is the great 4 Star Video Co-operative in Madison, Wisconsin.
For further reading, I recommend two of the greatest articles written about video stores: Kate Hagen’s In Search of the Last Great Video Store, and Karina Longworth’s “Mondo Kim’s Video Was Shipped From New York to Sicily. Then Things Got Really Strange.”