Culture //

Going down with the ship

Dom Ellis on working in a video store in 2014.

You know that scene in Titanic when the ship’s going down but the violinists keep playing, choosing to sink together doing what they love over venturing heedlessly into the cold North Atlantic ocean? Well that’s sort of how working at a video store in 2014 feels. You’re surrounded by all sorts of death and destruction, but you’re determined to go down with the ship.

According to last year’s IBIS Industry Research report, the revenue of video and DVD hire outlets has declined at an annual rate of 14.8 per cent over the last five years. That’s a lot of per cent. For all the hype about the death of print media, newspaper publishing has comparatively dropped just 6.3 per cent. Put simply: we’re doomed, wedged somewhere between the penultimate and ultimate acts of Titanic, whereby the boat hasn’t quite split in half yet, but the water is rising and you’d be crazy to turn down a lifeboat.

I boarded the proverbial ship a few days after my sixteenth birthday, hired on a whim by a carefree boss. I thought I was going to be the next Tarantino, a video store clerk by day, and writer-director by night. It seemed – at that moment – a dream job, but 2010 was a different time. The world was a slightly more optimistic, interactive place, but our idealism was very much rooted in naivety, as we clung to a faith that our service, in all its tangibility, was valuable.

To be fair, hiring movies at that point made some sort of sense. Video stores were a relatively cheap and easy alternative to going out, and my store – Civic Video South Hurstville – was, and still is, smack bang in the center of middle-class suburbia (and families were our primary market). It was also pretty methodical: kids rented kid’s stuff, teens and tweens rented raunchy comedies or scary movies, and adults would, somewhat alarmingly, get whatever franchise film we had most of.

Alas, with time, those demographics started to drop off. Teenagers quickly got their hands on torrents and massive data caps, while adults became privy to cheaper, lazier ways of drowning out the working week’s angst. In that sense, the reality is bleak; because if a customer’s late fee ever gets too bad or they get even slightly tired of the travel, they’d simply jump ship and sell their soul to iTunes, kiosks, or some other instant provider. So, as time has passed, we’ve pretty much just been left with a customer base dominated by kids and moralistic young families, which has rendered my Tarantino daydream all the more trite.

Unfortunately, that’s the reality of all things media and entertainment – humankind will always want cheaper and faster. So what do video stores offer that Netflix and iTunes can’t? In his defense of video stores, Matt Singer from The Dissolve aptly determined that: “We live in a world where immediacy and instantaneous access is the fundamental driver of commerce. Convenience certainly has its place, but expertise should still have one too.”

Honestly though, I can say with some confidence that what customers we do have left don’t hang around for the expertise. While I consider myself relatively well-versed in film, I only occasionally call upon the IMDB backlog. Broadly speaking, customers seem to like deciding for themselves. Sure, they rarely make the ‘right choice’ – there’s an extraordinary high demand for Nicholas Cage action flicks – but I think what keeps drawing certain people back is that they make a physical and cognizant choice.

In the scheme of things, that hasn’t counted for much. By 2013, ‘Civic Video’ was no longer, and in its ashes ‘CIVIC’ rose. With it, came a new doctrine, “Not Just Movies!”, and a whole new brand to entirely disassociate CIVIC from the contaminated ‘video’ motif. Blockbuster took a similar approach, pushing the motto “Entertainment Your Way”. Rather than trying to win back a long-lost audience, these companies are now trying to re-frame the conversation: they don’t sell videos, they sell the ‘entertainment experience’. For the most part though, this promised experience has largely been rhetorical, and, in the case of CIVIC, only exists to the extent that stores also sell popcorn and a few miscellaneous toys.

Videology, a now iconic video joint in Brooklyn, took the experience enterprise to the next level, converting its ground floor into a bar and screening area, while storing the video rentals in a downstairs basement. In a lot of ways, Videology is representative of what physical media has become: a niche. And perhaps that’s the inexorable direction for video culture, bound to be a province of hipsters and collectors. Just like the many technologies before it, the disk will surely be conquered by convenience.

As Civic Video South Hurstville counts down the days and looks upon the freezing, deathly waters that await it, we move ever closer to the drowning demise of a meaningful culture, and I can’t help but pre-emptively mourn. Not simply out of nostalgia for a company that is undoubtedly flawed, but for the end of an era of film that encouraged interaction and that valued the physical experience.