Filmmakers And Fans Mourn The Loss Of Los Angeles' Greatest Video Store
Update (1/31/15): Hollywood Wunderkind Producer Saves Santa Monica Video Store
On Monday the cinephile community of Los Angeles was hit with devastating news: the Santa Monica video store Vidiots announced that they would close their doors in April after nearly 30 years of business at the corner of Pico and 3rd. Within months, Vidiots members, whose ranks range from locals to cult film fanatics to filmmakers and actors including Oliver Stone, Viggo Mortensen, and Julia Roberts, could soon be without a seemingly endless library of movies that served the community for decades.
The loss of another mom-and-pop is always met with the requisite sadness, but usually shrugged off as a sign of progress. In the era of digitization and cyber marketplaces, brick and mortar stores have largely become redundant. Without even leaving the house the consumer can access more titles than could have ever been imagined at the dawn of the VHS era, with Netflix (among several streaming options), Amazon and specialty DVD labels like Criterion. But even against the forward march of progress, Vidiots' enormous selection was their last stand. A selection of titles 50,000-strong helped them survive the 90s wave of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and kept a steady flow of members who weren't satisfied with the narrower, more commercial selection of the chains.
Even today, countless numbers of movies in the Vidiots collection remain unavailable to the public due to various rights issues or general disinterest from the public. Anyone looking for Taiwanese New Wave films, out of print Criterion discs, and rare concert videos knew they could count on Vidiots. "To this day, several of these titles are not available even in all of the many online venues, and for this reason, I would like to see it endure as cultural destination and resource," Academy Award-nominated director David O. Russell, a longtime supporter of Vidiots, told LAist in a statement.
Indeed, Vidiots served as not just the place to rent the latest Hollywood film released to DVD, but as a learning ground for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of film. Their selection of over 50,000 different titles meant they could cater to literally any tastes. "To have that selection of movies that you could rent for free, as an employee, was amazing. It was like you're a kid in a candy store," remembers Christine Schoenwald, a writer and former employee of Vidiots for 22 years (she left this past June). "You could see everything from Nicolas Roeg films to Rocky And Bullwinkle. It wasn't just highbrow." Just browsing the cult section of Vidiots, which is usually the best section to gauge the depth of a store's collection, one can find separate sections for Aussie exploitation, biker films, and even Mexican wrestling. "I came to believe that everything was available at Vidiots, and damned if it wasn't true, every time," wrote the Wall Street Journal's film critic Joe Morgenstern. "Where are we gonna find the selection? We're stuck in a conundrum right now," lamented Adam Lipman and Malin Kan, who were renting Powell & Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and last year's Rudderless on Wednesday. Both films are easily available elsewhere, but so many titles are spread apart disparate streaming services that having a Vidiots membership would be a more cost-effective and convenient option over having separate subscriptions for services such as Netflix, Fandor, MUBI, Amazon Prime or Hulu. Cinefile, a store with a slightly smaller selection of around 40,000 titles, would be their next best option, but it's a much further drive for Lipman and he dreads the traffic in the area.
If one were to find the enormous selection daunting, any staff member was ready to provide a recommendation. "I work the counter and make people watch movies I insist they have to see. That's just always something that's been part of my personality," says Clay Keller, a clerk who has worked at Vidiots for four years. Each staff member has their own shelf at Vidiots for their personal recommendations, and Keller has always made sure to have Broadcast News, his favorite film of all time, on his shelf. "I'm gonna miss having a job where I can talk about movies. That used to be a job lots of people had! There's probably more people that start in the NBA then there are video clerks in the country."
"I was there every weekend renting stuff. I have eclectic taste in films so that was my go-to place," Steve Mason, half of the sports talk radio duo "Mason and Ireland," tells LAist. Bucking the general perception of sports pundits, Mason always had an appetite for culture and film, but growing up in Toledo, Ohio meant he never had access to the foreign and arthouse titles that were more in his wheelhouse. Literally living up the street from Vidiots fostered his discovery of most films he adores now. The local, personal feel of Vidiots was also key to his, and many other customers', appreciation of the store as an indispensable resource. "I love that homegrown vibe, and that I was renting from people who loved film."
"I still think there's something about in-person, human interaction, especially at a small independent business where they hire clerks who... can really have a conversation about movies," says Elina Shatkin, senior editor of Los Angeles Magazine, who can include herself among the ranks of former Vidiots clerks. A former UCLA film student, Shatkin wrote in LA Weekly earlier this week that her time at Vidiots was her "real film school." On Wednesday afternoon I caught Shatkin on the sidewalk in front of Vidiots taking pictures of the store's signature neon signage and colorful brick walls.
Vidiots transcended its functions as a video store by also serving as one of the few hubs for L.A. cinephiles that wasn't a repertory theater. "In a way it's like a cultural center," Mason added. "It's an experience we don't have anymore because of Netflix and streaming options. There's never that time you say to the clerk, who's a total movie junkie, 'Hey I'm looking for something kinda like this.' There's no browsing process, flipping through things in a tactile way, and talking to other people there [and asking], 'Hey what'd you think of this?'" Aside from being a place for fans to hang out and talk film, the store hosted events including screenings and public discussions with filmmakers. Vidiots' last public event for the foreseeable future was a discussion with Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy and actress Rene Russo, held in Venice last week.
More people opted for the conveniences of technology in the last decade, and Vidiots began a decline that had reached a breaking point. Rental revenues had dropped 24% in the last five months. "It felt bittersweet," said filmmaker Morgan Higby Night, when asked how he reacted to the news. "You just don't think about the fact that your personally staying at home watching Netflix every night is affecting a business that shaped your life." Night was "addicted" to renting from Vidiots for 23 years, ending his membership last year because he moved away. Night's Vidiots rentals served as his own personal film school through his 20s, and when he became a father he would rent the then-unavailable Shirley Temple movies and create VHS compilations of the "singing and dancing parts that [his] daughter liked... and not put in all the racist parts."
"It's a sign of the times. As much as these video stores are a huge part of my childhood and early adulthood, it's just a different time," he added.
Patty Polinger, who co-founded Vidiots with her childhood friend Cathy Tauber in 1985, told LAist on Monday that the possibility of closing the store had been looming since 2010. Three years ago Russell helped the store to reorganize into the non-profit Vidiots Foundation in the hopes to turn things around for the store. It may be that a more drastic change may be necessary. "It's clear video stores can't continue to exist in the old paradigm," Keller tells LAist, citing the proliferation of streaming services and piracy. "Video stores might have to turn into a museum or library-type structure." He hopes that the recent outpouring of shock and sadness will rally up enough support in the eleventh hour to somehow keep Vidiots around. Steve Mason, who co-owns an arthouse movie theater with Bryan Cranston in Palm Desert, has said he'd be willing to support whatever efforts that arise.
For Angela Matano, who has worked at Vidiots for two decades and was a customer going back to her days as a student across the street at Santa Monica High School, the future remains uncertain for herself as well. "It's been my home for 20 years, so it's gonna be hard to give that up. I don't know where I'll land. It's been a place to gather, and just a place to be."