Friday, October 27, 2017

The Premature Death of the Video Store

Movie Madness has been a Portland institution since 1991. Known for its vast collection, knowledgeable staff, and display cases full of legendary film props, the iconic Belmont, Oregon, storefront has a deserved reputation as one of the best video stores in the country. One visit and you will notice how the store has practically every movie you can imagine. There is a section devoted to silent slapstick, containing hundreds of commercial DVDs; another selection devoted to the films of Preston Sturges.

With the video rental business going the way of the Dodo, and a drop in membership over the last few years, the iconic video store was recently threatened extinction. Thankfully, the Hollywood Theatre in Portland started a Kickstarter to raise $250,000 by November 10, necessary to purchase the entire collection/inventory, including movie props and memorabilia, to transform Movie Madness into a community-focused, member-supported non-profit.

A Kickstarter to raise money and save a video store rental facility might sound offbeat by today’s standards, with Redbox, Netflix DVD rentals and Amazon streaming available at our fingertips. But this story has a surprising ending.

Dresses worn by Faye Dunaway
and Julie Andrews on display.
In the fall of 1970, Michael Clark got his start in the movie business as an apprentice editor for 20th Century Fox’s television studio on their Movie of the Week. Irwin Allen’s City Beneath the Sea was the first film he worked on. From there he worked his way up from studio to studio, working on both film and television productions until he landed the “job of a lifetime” as a post-production coordinator for MGM and Warner Brothers Studios. While in this position, he worked on films such as Poltergeist, Rocky IV, War Games and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In 1990, MGM sold their studio lot to Sony Pictures, and moved to a corporate office. Clark was offered a position at Universal Studios, but instead he followed his ambitions and opened a video store. He went back to his hometown of Portland and created a film archive that had a little bit of something for everyone. A video store with a selection so large that it was almost impossible not to find the film you were looking for. At least, that was the goal.

Movie Madness and More opened doors on April 12, 1991, in a tiny 895 square-foot space, with 2,000 titles on VHS. From this began an empire that experienced multiple phases of growth. The first big change was the takeover of the adjoining storefront in 1993. Then in 1996 a hallway was constructed to incorporate what had previously been a garage in the back. Each expansion led to more shelves and more movies. In 2003, Clark purchased the building and four years later, installed permanent cases for his collections of costumes and props from iconic cinematic masterpieces such as Faye Dunaway’s dress from Bonnie and Clyde, the Fu Dog from Citizen Kane, the knife from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the iconic baby buggy from The Untouchables, and Ingrid Bergman’s chair from Rick’s CafĂ© in Casablanca.

Though most of the pieces in the collection were purchased from various auctions, there were props donated from people Clark knew from his studio days. Even actress Margaret O’Brien donated multiple items for a display case in the video store. Thus, the video store doubles as a museum.

Today, you can rent a new release DVD or Blu-Ray for $4 for three days, and a regular DVD or Blu-Ray for $3 for three days. But hard times fell on the video rental and no amount of patronage was going to save it… until the Hollywood Theatre jumped in to save the day.

Last year the 71-year-old decided it was time to retire, but he did not want to see his life’s work up on eBay. So he approached the Hollywood Theatre and made them an offer that was too good to pass up. Program director Dan Halsted, who relied on Movie Madness for researching films to program at the theater, knew something had to be done. “I think there is a misconception right now that movies are all available online,” said Halsted. Having restored a 1926 movie palace, and opened a new Microcinema at Portland International Airport, the nonprofit organization thrives with 3,200+ members.

Movie Madness had an estimated 80,000 titles in the collection to choose from. Impressive when you consider the fact that, according to Variety in 2016, Amazon has 18,405 movies available for streaming (and 1,981 TV shows), Netflix had 4,563 movies (and 2,445 TV shows), and Hulu had 6,656 movies (and 3,588 TV shows.) Movie Madness had twice as many titles available as all three platforms combined. And the video store was facing the possibility of closing doors.

“Streaming services offer only the illusion of choice,” said a rep for the Hollywood Theatre. “In reality, their constantly-shifting lineup is dictated by studio licenses and distributor contracts, with titles subject to vanishing without notice.” And sadly, whenever there is an industry transition to a new format, movies are left behind. Obscure and cult titles rarely make the cut.

So on October 11, a Kickstarter was created with a goal of $250,000 to be raised by November 10. This was an all-or-nothing venture and a campaign to raise awareness, from local news coverage to distribution of postcards, to spread the word. (This was not the first video store to go the nonprofit route. Santa Monica’s Vidiots went nonprofit in 2012. Scarecrow Video in Seattle took the plunge in 2014.)

The response was overwhelming and the Hollywood Theatre reached their goal in the first nine days. Proof that physical home media still reigns supreme in an era where digital video streaming is considered by many as the wave of the future.

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