The story of the melancholy video store clerk made redundant is an all-too-familiar tale. I’ll tell mine anyway. I began my dream job at the age of 14. While my friends studied for the HSC, I spent 16 hours every weekend in pure bliss, sauntering through the aisles of Video Ezy Hornsby. In those days, the DVD rental industry was already on its deathbed. 2014 saw another one bite the dust as my beloved local video store quietly shut its doors. I feared I may never love a job as much as I loved my first.
By now, the industry has well and truly settled into obscurity, and though there are a few clingers-on left in Sydney, their existence has been reduced to lonely kiosks, barely spared a glance. While there are still some who prefer to buy physical DVDs for their collection, the popular family outing to the rental store has all but disappeared from mainstream consciousness. Luckily for me, I live a life of denial and nostalgia. I believe there is a future for video rental stores, perhaps not in franchise format, but in boutique revivals or nostalgic homages to the once great stalwart of Sydney’s middle class suburbia.
It may be too soon to call this shop a revival, but Ben Kenny’s Darlinghurst Film Club is one such boutique-style video rental store. A stone’s throw from the University of Sydney, Kenny’s emporium features esoteric indie flicks and art house foreigns alongside the latest superhero films.
“I wanted to make a new kind of video store… a carefully curated selection and to personalise the consumer experience rather than have a chain store mentality,” he says.
Taking influence from his time working in book stores, Kenny aims to have a comprehensive collection. “I like the idea of having something for everybody and filing up specific little niches that are underserved in other parts of the market; cult films, classic films, Australian or foreign stuff, queer cinema, little genres that don’t get the exposure they should.”
The store in its current form opened in 2011, just as Blockbusters and Video Ezys were dropping like flies at the peak of the torrent era, and chatter of the impending death of video rental was reaching fever pitch. Kenny’s shop is littered with little known gems, and boasts the entire filmographies of certain directors, from Hitchcock to Kubrick to Lars von Trier. It may be geared towards movie buffs but Film Club is quaint and welcoming — it’s certainly a possible prototype for future video rental stores.
Student Adele Khor has a tighter grip on reality than I do. She speaks for most young Australians when she says pining for video stores is not one of her routine activities. “Netflix is convenient, we have to move with the time,” she says simply.
Perhaps sensing my pleas for pity, Khor offers some sympathy. “I can totally understand how some people are nostalgic. Things do move full circle … we see it with fashion and photography. People like new things, but the old can become new all the time,” says Khor.
The element of nostalgia is a powerful one for the future of video stores. The current crop of university-age students were probably the last to grow up with fond memories of visiting their local video store, and picking out a film for the family movie night. “The nostalgic value is there, people come in and reminisce about their childhood spent in video stores and bring their kids in, so I see that tradition carrying on,” says Kenny.
The recycling of vintage fashion, the renewed rise of film photography, the retro return of the old Nokia, are all testaments to our society’s innate desire to hold on to the old while being swallowed whole by the new. Perhaps it’s a yearning for the simplicities of childhood, when we were still on the precipice of the digital technology, that has now made our lives both so easy and so complicated. Though new technology has decimated much of the old, they’ve also facilitated a rebirth of niche subcultures and specialised products. I see the once social icon of video stores as a perfect intersection of technology, entertainment and vintage romanticism.
Khor predicts that a mixing of old and new is the DVD rental’s best hope, drawing comparisons to the ‘shoppable runways’, a see-now, buy-now phenomenon ushering in a bold era for the fashion industry. “If video stores were to make a comeback, it would be a combination of offline and online that would attract consumers,” she says.
I’m hoping rental stores will follow a similar trajectory to record shops that died out in the 80s and 90s and had a modern resurgence. Old mediums replaced by digital innovations are a fact of life in the age of technology. Cassettes, records, compact discs, VHS, discmans etcetera, have all given way to the new. But the vinyl comeback of the late noughties is proof of the power of nostalgia.
Khor disagrees with my pipe dream, and points out the difference between the two formats. “People have an idea that records sound better and it is quite romantic. But with movies and physical DVDs there’s no romantic antiquated quality to it, it was more convenience that motivated people to buy or rent DVDs,” she says.
Analogising the video store with record shops, Kenny maintains that just as a certain part of the populous still wants vinyl, a similar demand exists for film.
“Many people are happy to watch the Sunday night movie on tv and that’ll be enough for the year. But there’s always 10 or so percent of any generation who are really into movies and what’s being served up to them on Netflix or free-to-air just isn’t enough. They want to watch something specific, or perhaps everything from a certain director, or films from the late 60s,” he explains.
Kenny and I are both faithful preachers of the value of video stores as community establishments, and the irreplaceable human engagement they provide. “I think the community nature is instinctive in a video store – it’s a local institution. Every video store and its collection is reflective of the community and customers around them,” he says.
“I love to talk to people about movies all day, it allows me to talk to people about everything all day. It jumps from politics to history to pop culture to food to art. Film is connected to just about everything so it almost always allows you to find a connection with somebody,” Kenny says.
He also adds that physical mediums are powerful to consumers who are able to hold an idea of something in their hands. “To have a physical incarnation, there is a totemic power to that you’ll have more of a connection to. People pick up a DVD and say ‘I remember this film’. That’s not replicated when browsing something digitally, when it’s just a file on the screen you don’t have the same connection to it,” he says.
Of course, many level-headed people (unlike me) would say that a physical dvd has no functionality benefits to watching online – the end result is the same. Resisting the unavoidable drift towards pretension, Kenny admits that though this is a candle he keeps carrying on, he
doesn’t see a bounce back into mainstream popularity in his future. “We’re not for everybody, there’s plenty of people who walk past and scoff vaguely outside … I do think we have become and will remain a niche industry unless something catastrophic happens with the internet,” Kenny says.
He promotes his shop as the “last, best video store” with an element of romantic doom. “I love running a video store. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best job in the world,” says Kenny. My sixteen-year old self would agree.