hat do you expect to read when you come across a story about video stores?
You might see a narrative that’s too painfully familiar. The story typically begins with these mom and pop stores where cinephiles came to nurture their indie sensibilities and rent DVDs for three-to-seven days and ends with whimpering diminishment as streaming platforms makes it more convenient to watch movies at the touch of a button from the comfort of your home. Statistics in any such feature will show these premises dwindling in numbers, obituaries of franchises waving the white flags to our algorithmic overlords.
But once in a blue moon, you’ll find stories of stores that do survive. America has read and shared and liked the tale of the last standing Blockbuster store in Oregon. In Australia, we have Film Club, which calls itself “the last video store in Sydney” and is located 10 minutes away from the largest Coca-Cola billboard in the Southern Hemisphere. Technically, Film Club isn’t exactly alone in the business, as a handful of stores still exist across the city. But it’s perhaps the last of its kind in upholding film through proper and wide curation.
“At first, it was a tongue-in-cheek,” proprietor Ben Kenny tells me of their self-proclaimed status as Sydney’s last video store. “Essentially over time it becomes reality.”
The store rebranded from Darlo DVD, once an average mom-and-pop shop with new and weekly releases of recent years, into a boutique library, one with more variety to choose from. Kenny is knowledgeable, despite having little practical experience in the industry. As I interview him, customers come and go for different DVDs every two minutes; some queried about late fees. Kenny pauses our interview to assist them, going to sections where the films are held, intimately understanding how they are divided by genre, country, and director — from Jean Luc Godard to John Ford. Squint closely and you can find The Incredible Melting Man or JD’s Revenge under the Cult section. A middle-aged woman queried about the latest season of Game of Thrones. Another asked for a drama starring Kristin Scott Thomas. Then came a Middle Eastern man with his kid asking for an Iranian film called The Message, followed by a teenage girl asking for an indie film.
“Our audience varies widely,” he says. “I believe there’s a certain segment of the population who likes old things.”
Why is there still an audience for physical over digital? There are many advantages to physical media, the most obvious of which is the feel of having a movie in your hand. There is also some care with the options. Streaming in theory can bring limitless options to the table but is barely curated and could erase a part of cinematic history. On Netflix, for example, the oldest films begin from the 1940s and beyond, and some eventually disappear. Amazon Prime has a huge offering of titles, many older, but the quality is often sketchy and the archive is not as easy to search as it could be.
“Scrolling through a digital list is kind of daunting,” Kenny said. And who among us doesn’t love the thrill of discovery that comes with finding a cool new movie via fantastic box art.
Along with weekly fees, Film Club maintains itself through sponsoring film festivals and running several programs with the theater franchise Palace Cinemas, the first of which lined up movies scored by Tangerine Dream. The challenges that come with running a video store mainly lie in pushing against prevailing market conditions, but Kenny feels pretty comfortable. Film Club’s profile spiked after it was given publicity by news outlets and then directors. When the Sydney Morning Herald profiled the store in November, the article was tweeted out by Gremlins director Joe Dante, telling his followers to hold on with their discs.
You’ll need a region-free player to watch some of these movies, particularly those that are imported. There’s a likely chance such a disc will come from a boutique label such as the Criterion Collection (if you’re invested in Serious Cinema) or Arrow Films (if you are into genre fare), which the store gets directly overseas or from a second-hand store right next door called Radio Free Alice. The most controversial film on their shelves is the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which Kenny and Film Club employees debated putting out at all. Yet as Kenny remarked, “It is important historically and should be seen in the proper context.”
An understated component in the battle of the formats is the social dimension. One of the replies to Joe Dante’s tweet showcase a vintage store of DVDs with projectors stacked up on their shelves. “Film is a communal experience to be shared and discussed and I think technology can be isolating,” Kenny said. What keeps customers coming back is a philosophy that’s forward-thinking tinged with nostalgia. It involves the friendly customer service and the wide availability of films that wouldn’t be seen in franchises like Blockbuster.
The future is the past, but better.
Adrian Nguyen is a writer in Australia. You can follow him on Twitter at @lackoftaste.