Thanks to streaming services like Netflix, video rental stores have become all but extinct. Just 15 years ago, there were over thirty thousand video rental stores in the United States. Reporter Elizabeth Brockway went to see if there are any survivors left in New York City.
I’m standing in a store on Third Avenue in Manhattan between 79th and 80th Street. I’m in a video store. Really. It’s one of the last remaining in the city. And business, it’s doing fine. (0:13)
We’re at the Video Room in Manhattan. My name is Howard Salen and I’m the manager and buyer here and have been for quite some time. (0:07)
Video Room opened in 1978 on the Upper East Side — when there were still checker cabs populating the streets and smoking still was allowed in hospitals.
We’re in a very specific position here. You know, one key thing is the age of the clientele, which I’m sure is the highest of any video store anywhere.
So, Salen says many of his clients are uncomfortable with newfangled services like Netflix, Amazon or iTunes. They prefer the personal attention Video Room offers. Plus, his demographic is looking for productions like the BBC’s Inspector Lynley Mysteries [PAUSE] and…(0:13)
Your chance of finding it on Netflix is not fantastic, whereas here, you have a 95% chance of finding it. (0:07)
And Video Room still has good business. Salen says about 75 customers walk in on both Saturday and Sunday and about 100 more use the store’s delivery service. He does admit Netflix caused the store to lose some business. But luckily, a service Video Room already offered took off unexpectedly. (0:20)
The area that’s really rising is in the transfer business where many people really want to transfer their old formats – VHS, 8mm tape, mini DV – into digital format that they can show their children and their grandchildren. (0:18)
Today, transfers make up nearly half of the store’s income. But Salen did allude to a possible issue, somewhat morbid truth the store will have to face down the road…(0:15)
The older audience is getting older, so we shall see how things develop. (0:07)
That isn’t an issue for Wendy Chamberlain. She opened Videology on Bedford Avenue in younger and hipper Williamsburg in 2003. (0:06)
When we opened, a lot of people were like, ‘What are you doing?! You know, that’s, like, a terrible idea! (0:05)
Business was booming for Blockbuster at that time. It had almost 9,000 stores nationwide. And Netflix was on the rise. But still Chamberlin says Videology was comfortably profitable for five years. (0:05)
On a busy night we used to rent over 1000 DVDs, you know, on a busy Friday or Saturday night pretty easily. (0:07)
But the smooth success didn’t last. (0:02)
And, you know, we probably don’t even do that in a month at this point. (0:03)
So Videology was forced to reinvent itself. In 2012, it was converted into a bar and micro-cinema. But it does still offer a selection of 17,000 DVDs. And now the rental business is just… (0:11)
Super minor. Low cost. (0:03)
And because Videology has a cinema space in back, it now holds screenings. Events like midnight cult movies, weekly runs of new films and Sunday TV night. That’s how 24-year-old Amanda Ljung found it. She came with a friend to watch Fear the Walking Dead. (0:12)
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Ljung is a self-proclaimed movie buff. And though she said she’d never rented from Videology, she has been to another Brooklyn video rental shop. (0:08)
It was around when David Bowie died. I’m a big fan and I really just wanted to buy all the movies he’s been in. (0:08)
So she took her roommate’s bike to Film Noir where she found them all on VHS. (0:04)
There’s this old Russian guy who just collects movies, old movies…(0:04)
Will Malitek is actually Polish. But Ljung was right about him having a huge collection of old films. And special films. (0:06)
If you are into Hollywood, this is the wrong place to come. (0:03)
His collection is made up of all types of horror, art house and foreign cinema. The type of stuff you definitely can’t find on Netflix. Like the 1967 Japanese monster movie, Son of Godzilla, [PAUSE] It’s one of Malitek’s favorites. I checked. It’s not on Netflix. Or iTunes. Or any other popular streaming site. (0:18)
Probably people that deal with Netflix don’t come here. What I have, they don’t have. What they have, I don’t have. (0:05)
Malitek’s Film Noir is a tiny shop in Greenpoint. It’s two arms-lengths wide and maybe 30 feet long. But he’s packed in over 9,000 titles to rent and about the same amount to purchase. And a few years ago, he added vinyl to boost sales. (0:13)
Do a lot of people buy records?
Mhm, oh yeah, big time. It’s really a big chunk of the business nowadays. Definitely. (0:06)
Malitek says he’s in the business because it’s a passion, not necessarily to make money. When I asked him if the rentals and sales were enough to cover his rent, he gave me a confident…(0:09)
Oh, for sure.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mhm. (0:03)
An even smaller rental shop is also one of the most popular: Video Free Brooklyn. Owner Aaron Hillis is also a film critic for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and Vanity Fair. He’s not necessarily against streaming services, he just doesn’t think it’s as good as what his store offers. (0:05)
They’re kind of like these placeholders that I just don’t think you can get that experience without coming in, talking to knowledgeable film nerds who are playing amateur detective trying to figure out what it is you want to see. (0:12)
That’s part of the attraction for Claudia Bedrick. She’s a customer at Video Free Brooklyn. (0:04)
The appeal is that I’m not a film nerd and I actually don’t know a lot about what is available to me in terms of streaming online…(0:09)
She loves coming in and learning from the experts. Hillis says you can’t get that online because with Netflix and Amazon, it’s an algorithm giving you the recommendations. And it favors the site’s original content. Hillis knows this because he believes in keeping your enemies close. He subscribes to a lot of the streaming services. But he’s rarely left satisfied with the selection of films available.
You know, it’s kind of like Facebook friends. They’re not a replacement for real friends. (0:04)
Hillis is confident that his selection is better than what any digital site can offer. And because of that, he says not going anywhere. Elizabeth Brockway, Columbia Radio News. (0:09)