Three customers file into Toronto video store Eyesore Cinema when I am talking to proprietor Daniel Hanna on a slower than average Saturday night, but each of them speaks to the larger experience of what it still means to go to a video store. There’s a mutual friend of ours hanging out and chatting for a while about movies, music, what’s going on in the city, and just about life in general. A man walks into pick up a specially ordered stack of cult movies he’s buying to fill out a collection. And perhaps most endearingly, a woman and her young child of probably no more than five years of age who precociously puts a DVD case of Return to Oz down on the counter and inquires what it is.
All three interactions on a night that has almost distressingly little business are the moments that Hanna as a business owner lives for, and one of the reasons why he spearheaded a campaign to bring people back to rental establishments. This Saturday finds International Independent Video Store Day – a play on the already widely known Record Store Day that happens yearly to have the same effect on the smaller record shops around the world – happening at various venues throughout Canada, US, and the rest of the world, not just Eyesore Cinema.
Located above record shop Rotate This, Hanna saw first hand what a day like Record or Video Store Day could be mean to a hard media based industry with lagging business.
“I just listened from up here on Record Store Day to what they were doing downstairs and said ‘Shit, this sounds like it would be a lot of fun.’”
It’s a labour of love created by people who often tear their hair out over even making their rent every month, and while no one is making films that can only be exclusively rented or purchased on Video Store Day (yet), it does serves as an occasion to remind people why video stores once were and continue to be a viable community meeting place and educator in this day of instant access to everything. And of course, like every great consumer driven occasion, retailers can create deals, specials, parties, giveaways, and all sorts of things to connect to their clientele in any way they see fit, free of some sort of corporatized structure.
“One of the things I really want to get across is the community aspect of the day and of the stores involved,” Hanna said. “This isn’t about nostalgia or really simply about people reliving the past or some kind of glory days, but how these stores help to bring communities and people in them together. For me this job is and always has been about the personal interactions with people coming into the store.”
We chatted with Hanna in-between customers about the genesis of Video Store Day, what it means to people, how it’s evolved, have a discussion about Netflix and the effect it has had, and the ups and downs of the business.
Dork Shelf: Now from talking to you and knowing you personally and coming into the store it seems like your business these days seems to generally range from quite busy to deathly slow without a whole lot of in-between. Would you say that’s kind of correct to assume most of the time?
Daniel Hanna: (laughs) Yeah, but, I mean there’s a little more contextual subtleties than that. But yes, for the most part.
DS: Well there are obviously there will be days that are just kind of steady throughout, but it doesn’t seem to happen as much.
DH: The really, really great days are few and far between. The rest of the time seems to be split between encouragingly average days and disturbingly shitty days.
DS: What would you classify as an encouragingly average day?
DH: Well, again, it’s funny because I will have days where I serve very few customers, but there’s still cash in the till because one of those customers came in and picked up a $200 special order, or they browsed through the sales’ stock and grabbed five titles as opposed to one. One of the big sort of conundrums with the video renting and retailing business at this point is the complete and utter unpredictability of it. Because I will have weekends that stink, and I will have weekends that are fine, and I will have weekends that are great, and not once can anything really ever be predicted or counted upon. There’s no consistency. You never know what you are going to get. I can open up on a holiday like Thanksgiving and take a bath, or I can open that day and it would be better than a regular day. Video stores used to do solid business on days like that, but it’s just far too erratic now.
For a long time after I opened the store I kind of stressed over it and though, “Come on, guys! Just DECIDE!” (laughs) “Could you all just pick a day when I know for a fact you aren’t going to show up and close that day so we could do regular business all the time?” It’s really up and down. If I had a graph it would be the most surreal graph to look at.
DS: It doesn’t even seem cyclical at all and there almost aren’t even ways of telling when events going on would siphon business away anymore.
DH: No, no. Even when people used to say “Oh, look, it’s raining! It’s going to be a great day at the video store!” No. I’ll have a rainy day that’s awesome or I’ll have a rainy day where absolutely no one will show up until 10 o’clock and that will be the only customer.
And all the owners that I’m in contact with on this are often saying the similar thing is happening with their stores, too. And you’re right about the good business versus no business thing. I hear that from a lot of shops.
DS: Was that one of the driving factors behind trying to get Video Store Day off the ground? To try and restore some of that consistency beyond just the day of the event?
DH: Yeah, that’s definitely a part of it. There are actually lots of reasons that were the impetus for Video Store Day. One of the big ones at that particular time was that when we started, all of the Blockbuster Videos around here were shutting down. And it kind of felt like everyone just said “Oh! If all the Blockbusters are closing that must mean there are no more video stores!” And THAT to me was what I took the most exception to. Indie video stores STARTED this business and we’re going to finish it. (laughs) For better or worse, we’ll be here to the bitter end.
DS: It seems like when the mass closing of Blockbusters happened, there were really three types of people: the people who would just find a new video store, those who raided the place for the stock they were selling off and never wanted to step foot in another rental shop again, or the people who had long since forgotten about Blockbuster and were the reason the chain had to close up in the first place.
DH: Yeah, definitely.
DS: And I know how you think about Netflix and how you are personally kind of wary of this culture where people can get whatever they want at any time, but I always saw the rise of things like Netflix and iTunes necessarily as an alternative to hard media, but a response to something else. You remember how people got really pissed off when MTV stopped playing music videos? Well, you look at pay cable now or even free syndicated television, and channels like HBO have just stopped showing movies and the market for just catching older television shows has shrunk to almost nothing. The adventure of watching TV is kind of gone now that everyone has made the shift to almost entirely original programming, and since something like Netflix is cheaper than a month’s worth of HBO that will show the same 3 things around the clock everyday, it offers what the channel used to provide and fails to do now. But even at the height of HBO and pay TV, that still didn’t necessarily kill the video store. So what do you think happened?
DH: Well, I mean a lot of it really is downloading, both legal and mostly illegal. There’s all these on-demand cable services now. Redbox was big for a time there. And I mean, in the US Netflix still does deal in hard media, and probably the only reason they even maintain that is because some people were getting upset that it might not be there anymore.
But that is a great point that you bring up, and it’s becoming more and more obvious with their own move towards original programming that they are trying to move towards an HBO model. And I’m not sure yet, but in some ways it kind of does make me hopeful. So many people are enamoured with Netflix because it’s there, it’s cheap, they can walk home, and put the TV on, and again, that was what HBO was but at a savings of about $30 a month. But a lot of times people will come in after about a year and start coming back into the store. “Yeah, I had Netflix, but I’m done there. I’ve seen everything I wanted to see.” They’re not really putting that many new movies on there anymore, and that’s kind of where the original programming comes in and slightly less and less it seems to be about the movies.
I mean, in a lot of ways I’m kind of a luddite. I don’t think I’ve ever even been on something like the iTunes site, at least knowingly. I have no idea how much it costs for something on there, and that concept is still so bizarre to me. It depends on how people consider those kinds of things, but I don’t consider owning a download to be owning anything, really. It’s so intangible.
DS: Well, when people go to someone’s house to see a collection of movies they want to actually see shelves of them like what you have in the store. There’s nothing really all that cool or exciting about looking at a list of files on someone’s hard drive.
DH: No, there’s nothing cool about saying “Here’s a list of titles!” without context or anything tangible behind them. It’s just boring. I can’t understand how people could ever really get excited about something like that or share it with their friends. It’s so impersonal.
DS: So how has Video Store Day sort of evolved along the same timeframe with the continued rise of online media?
DH: Well, surprise, surprise, it’s been awesome! The first year went over like gangbusters. There was lots of excitement and we got lots of support. And locally that year we got lots of great exposure and a lot of press coverage out of that. And in the US, a lot of the stores there in particular were really gung-ho and pushed it really hard. And quote-unquote “at the end of the day,” mostly everyone came back and said they had a great day or a record breaking day and there were line-ups in the store and everyone was super supportive, and that was great.
So when year two came around, there wasn’t all that much excitement or hype. It wasn’t certain if it was going to be “a thing,” you know? I was kind of worried for a sophomore slump, and the Friday before I was literally looking at myself in the mirror and saying “Okay, buddy, this is year two, and if you do half as well as you did the first year, go on and consider that a win.” (laughs) We did just as well as the first year, and it was seemingly coming out of nowhere because there wasn’t nearly as much buzz. When we ended and counted the money, it wasn’t by very much at all, but we actually beat year one. Considering I was going to be happy with half of that, I was in a very good mood that day. (laughs)
And now, for year three, it’s interesting because that number kind of has a magic to it, so I’m excited to see how that pans out.
DS: And more and more the event is becoming a global event rather than just North American.
DH: Absolutely. The sad thing is that we’ve lost a lot of stores between years two and three that have closed, and that’s really sad to think about. But the encouraging thing is that between those years, we have actually gained a lot of stores participating for the first time. We were international from the start in Canada, the US, Switzerland, and the UK for year one. Now we have Poland, Italy, Greece, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, and a couple of others I’m forgetting right now. And the fact that we are that international now and that we have stores participating in non-English speaking countries and regions, is absolutely fascinating and very encouraging.