Renting the last picture shows
For Jesse Kreitzer, the click-access, browse-from-your-couch-or-computer, instant-gratification movie rental trend that dominates our time is a “soulless” experience.
He’d much rather peruse aisles neatly lined with DVDs — you can pick them up, turn them over, marvel at the cover art, maybe even find something you never expected.
“It’s an immersive, first-hand experience,” said the 27-year-old Brighton filmmaker, noting that a visit to the good old-fashioned video store has become part of his weekly routine.
For not much longer, however: His favorite rental shop, MovieWorks on Beacon Street in Brookline, is in liquidation mode, and is set to close by the end of June. The well-known and long-respected establishment, which had more than 30,000 titles before owner Greg Revill began selling off its inventory late last month, was one of the last remaining brick-and-mortar video outlet not only west of Boston but in the state.
“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” lamented Kreitzer, acknowledging that he’s a bit of an “old soul.”
“It’s like the end of an era for me.”
But not just for him: MovieWorks was a longtime holdout in what has been a protracted extinction of physical video stores.
Among area communities, Video Signals in Acton and Stow appears to be the lone survivor. Elsewhere, just a smattering of Blockbusters remain, including in Malden, Lawrence, Haverhill, and Worcester. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Hollywood Express in Cambridge, the Video Underground in Jamaica Plain (around since 2002), and 20-year-old Chet’s Video in Marblehead are the handful of independents still in operation.
This is in startling contrast to the scores of stores — both chains and independents — that were so evident throughout suburbs and cities not a decade ago.
In late 2010, the lights went dark on Video Vault in Westborough; Video Exchange Inc. in Marlborough, in operation for 30 years, appears to be another casualty (its website is down and its phone number disconnected).
Lexington Video — formerly Videosmith — was also shuttered last month, a little more than a year after it was taken over by a new owner, Sue McDonald.
McDonald did not return requests for comment, but her website notes a lack of investors and an inability to keep up with rental costs, despite a concerted community investment effort.
“I am very sad that I have to do this,” she writes on her store’s website, www.lexingtonvideostore.com, “since the business was just starting to see real improvement.”
All told, the number of video stores across the country has declined to a quarter of its peak. In 2003, there were 25,000; by the end of last year, there were just about 5,800, according to Michael Arrington, a senior analyst with an industry research and consulting company, IHS Screen Digest.
Meanwhile, Blockbuster, one of the only national chains remaining, topped out at roughly 5,700 stores. But with Blockbuster’s recent acquisition by Dish Network, Arrington said, its number will fall below 1,000 by the end of the year.
On the other hand, video rental kiosks — most notably Redbox — are approaching 50,000 locations nationwide, Arrington said, while the mail-order Netflix operation has 26.1 million US subscribers, and 23 million subscribers to its online streaming video service in North and South America, England, and Ireland, according to financial reports.
MovieWorks, for its part, was doing several thousand rentals a week at its peak. Most recently, it continued to do close to 1,000 a week, and had even taken on some new customers, but the numbers just didn’t work, according to Revill. The Salem resident also ran a MovieWorks store in Danvers, which he closed in late 2010.
“Business has been slip-sliding for a long time,” he said.
A number of factors contributed to a slow decline of what was once a voracious “rental habit,” he explained.
Most notable are Netflix and on-demand services, along with the recent proliferation of Redbox kiosks offering 1.20 a night rentals, as well as multiplying cable television channels.
The impending closure of MovieWorks has spurred quite a few queries of “what happened?”, Revill said, with one woman saying she was feeling abandoned. The Brookline location has been a video store since 1989 and became MovieWorks in 2000.
“Everyone’s disappointed,” said Revill, standing at the store’s central counter on a recent weekday afternoon. “Some are not surprised. Some are utterly shocked.”
On the walls around him, yellow fliers advertised DVDs for 20 percent off, and Blu-rays for $12 and $15. Out front a yellow “Going out of Business” banner was on display.
Customers dribbled in to pick through the substantial amount of stock that remained. On a flat-screen TV at the back, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” played on a continuous loop.
At the end, “the regulars were a smaller group than they ever were,” Revill explained. “The occasionals were very occasional. People tend to forget it’s an option.”
Then just how did his store hold on for so long?
Momentum from past success, according to Revill, as well as a “kind and gentle landlord,” and the store’s vast inventory. (Also, its pricing was less than that of Redbox: $4.75 for a DVD for six days, and specials like two-for-one rentals every Monday.)
“This place functioned like a pay film library for a lot of folks,” particularly film students from Boston’s many colleges, said Revill.
The highest percentage of the store’s business was from its catalog of older films, rather than the new releases, which Revill said helped it to outlast the “hall of hits” stores.
And Arrington, for his part, doesn’t think the model is totally obsolete.
He pointed to the Illinois-based Family Video chain, which has 765 stores in 19 states, according to its website, and which, “by all accounts, is doing quite well, and is actually expanding,” Arrington noted.
A successful 21st-century video store will come down to an ability to compete, be conservative with spending, and contain costs. “Just running your business effectively is the key,” Arrington said.
Still, he does expect to see a continued decline in the brick-and-mortar industry: Traditional video stores slid from $8.5 billion in revenues in 2001 to less than $1.4 billion last year, and he expects the total to fall below a billion dollars over the next five years.
But there could ultimately be a “stabilization point,” he noted. “I think there’s a future for video rental stores, but it’s a very small future.”
Revill agreed, saying that the now-nostalgic video store will always be a lure for some.
“What people love about these places is the tactile, visual, finding-stuff-by-accident appeal,” he said.
That’s certainly what kept Kreitzer going back.
“I’m a bit of a purist,” he said. “I like the physicality of renting discs.”
(And that affinity for the good old-fashioned way permeates his life, from his collection of vinyl records to his preference for shooting his numerous projects — including a feature-length film, “The Wake” — on film.)
Renting from MovieWorks three times a week on average, he would always find “obscure and very hard-to-find independent and foreign films,” Kreitzer said. In the process, he’d banter with the staff and came to learn and trust their tastes.
“It is to me much more than a video store. It’s a subculture,” he said. “It’s just all part of something that will go missing.”
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.