Culture

In Baltimore, the future of film culture is an old-school video store

Beyond Video, a new nonprofit video store, seeks to replicate and revive a model devastated by streaming.
Culture

In Baltimore, the future of film culture is an old-school video store

Beyond Video, a new nonprofit video store, seeks to replicate and revive a model devastated by streaming.

Last May, Eric Hatch sat alone in a musty Baltimore rowhouse, staring at a spreadsheet listing hundreds of recently acquired Blu-Rays and DVDs. Beyond Video, the nonprofit video store Hatch and a handful of other volunteers had imagined six years earlier, was on its way to becoming a reality.

“We just made a large purchase from this student-union video store in Towson that closed so we got like, 300 titles,” Hatch told me. “I entered 250 of them yesterday. I was here until 1:30 in the morning.” The titles filled a few holes in Beyond’s recent releases inventory (Alien: Covenant, Fences, season one of The Handmaid’s Tale), along with some smaller gems: Citizen King, a refined, assumption-flipping look at Martin Luther King’s final years of organizing; Ip Man, a modest biopic about Bruce Lee’s martial arts teacher with some stunning fight scenes; and the classic ball-culture documentary Paris Is Burning.

Hatch had a lot of time last spring. He’d recently left what was once a dream job — the director of programming for the Maryland Film Festival and the Parkway Theatre, a gorgeous, rehabbed 100-plus-year-old movie house — after more than a decade. Leaving that job helped Hatch “come to terms with the fact that video stores are the closest thing I’ve ever had to a temple,” he said. “And rebuilding one for Baltimore has been one of the most important projects in my entire life.”

In an era in which streaming services have forced nearly all video stores out of business, Beyond Video has a savvy philosophy: use the internet, don’t let the internet use you. After years spent gathering titles, with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the volunteer-run store further crowdsourced its collection through a widely shared Google Doc. Subsequently, donated DVDs and Blu-Rays from all over the country poured in. Hatch, a well-known “Film Twitter” personality, runs a prolific account where he does everything from recommending a movie to commenting on film culture through memes, even winning recognition at the Rotterdam Film Festival for his proficiency at the latter.

An effusive, tough-minded movie proselytizer — imagine an unpretentious Niles from Frasier, with a chip on his shoulder — Hatch moved to Baltimore from Columbia, MD in 1996 to work for the nonprofit magazine Vegetarian Journal. Shortly after, he began frequenting the Baltimore movie-rental institution Video Americain, which was the sort of place providing both the most recent Hollywood action flick as well as something especially obscure. Eventually, Hatch quit the nonprofit job and began working at at the video store. There, he connected with members of Baltimore’s film scene and began curating screenings around town; in 2007 he started working for the Maryland Film Festival.

“There’s something fortuitous, for me at least, about being able to volunteer more time to Beyond Video as our opening nears than I would’ve if I’d stayed at Maryland Film Festival,” Hatch, now a film writer and film festival consultant, said. “I’m definitely learning a lot about myself as a workaholic. I don’t like having work hanging over me; I like completing things.”

You cannot trust the internet to keep media available, and you cannot trust corporations to commit to supporting film culture. However, you might be able to trust eight maniacs trying to build a sustainable place to hang out.

The big idea for a new video store in Baltimore came in 2012, when Video Americain closed one of its final two locations after citing a 40 percent drop in rentals since 2007.

At its peak, Video Americain had six stores in Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. competing with and eventually outliving most larger video chains over its 30-year existence. The shop meant a lot to many people, especially those in Baltimore’s scrappy film scene, as one of the few public places outside of a theater to gather and talk about movies. It fostered a cult following; when one of those Baltimore stores closed in 2012, its customers held a candlelight vigil outside.

“The not so obvious importance of Video Americain was the social aspect. It was holy ground for film lovers and a great place to meet other like-minded people,” said Kevin Coelho, a Beyond Video collective member who works as a dog-walker. “Most of my current friendships began there. [It was] a social hub where recommendations came from not only employees but pretty much any customer within earshot with an opinion to share.”

When Video Americain’s stores began closing, Liz Donadio, a former employee, realized that its collection would likely find its way onto eBay or, tragically, into the garbage. With the immediate goal of preserving the store’s extensive library and the long-term goal of starting a new store, she helped start a group known as the Baltimore Video Collective. However, the collective ultimately couldn’t reach an agreement with Video Americain’s owners to purchase the library, and the collection was sold off piece by piece to customers and employees, setting the project back. Still, Donadio, Hatch, and the others soon built up a collection of about 1,000 titles on their own, thanks to donations and a lucky instance in which Donadio happened upon hundreds of Criterion DVDs at an estate sale in upstate New York — the start of a new video store’s stock.

In 2014, Video Americain closed its final store. Its death wasn’t just another sign of physical media’s end, or the shuttering of an establishment packed with memories — it left its followers with one less place to go, splintering a scene. The then-11-strong collective’s plans became more urgent, and more ambitious: now, they wanted to put all this energy into building out an extensive collection on their own and founding Beyond Video, a nonprofit video store, run by volunteers with a collection available to the public that also doubled as physical media archive.

“The non-profit video-lending library model seemed to have a much better chance of survival than a rental store that a handful of people might own and hope to profit from,” said collective member and filmmaker Joe Tropea.

Beyond Video continued to accrue titles, gained and lost members — it grew as large as 11, as small as five, and currently stands at eight — while troubleshooting its vision. “We spent a few years in a somewhat atavistic state as we built the collection, researched what we did and didn’t have and, above all, looked for a good-sized central location at an affordable rate from a landlord interested in our project,” Hatch said. They knew of no video stores that began as nonprofits; there was Los Angeles’ Vidiots, established in 1985, which went nonprofit in 2012 to keep its 50,000-plus title collection available to the public, before closing in 2017.

On social media, Hatch shared a Google spreadsheet that had a list of important and rare titles that they wanted to acquire. Donations started coming in from all over the world. In 2015, Post Typography, a local design firm, created Beyond Video’s logo — a hypnotic black-and-white whirl — and accompanying graphics based around the stop, play, and pause buttons of a VCR. In 2017, collective member and Director of Programming for the Maryland Film Festival Scott Braid found a space and a landlord willing to cut them a deal on rent: a building once occupied by Reptilian Records, a cherished, shuttered punk-rock record store in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood.

Then it was time for the Kickstarter, all-or-nothing campaign that asked for $30,000 ($20,000 for stock, $10,000 for improvements to the space and rent). Over 31 days, it generated $32,250.

As the elements of Beyond Video’s physical creation coalesced, it seemed that the video store’s primary foe — the internet’s promise of unfettered artistic access via streaming video — was finally hitting a wall. Last year, cineaste-friendly streaming service Filmstruck was suddenly killed, with its corporate parent WarnerMedia citing a small audience (about 100,000 subscribers) as a justification for walling off decades of film history. The response from users was a series of petitions and appeals to millionaire filmmakers to resurrect it, but such efforts missed the point: You cannot trust the internet to keep media available, and you cannot trust corporations to commit to supporting film culture.

However, you might be able to trust eight maniacs trying to build a sustainable place to hang out.

When I visited last May, Beyond Video was getting ready to open. Most of its movie collection was spread across three rooms on two floors, with a director’s room dividing movies by auteur, and a genre room with small subsections for Baltimore-centric cinema and cult favorites. Near the register were new releases, a carefully curated “staff picks” wall, and shelves subdivided by distributors such as Criterion Collection and Oscilloscope.

Hatch reached out to distributors and filmmakers he had gotten to know after his decade-plus running a film festival. Criterion sent Beyond Video a few dozen titles for free and gave a discount on the store’s near-200 title order. Production A24 requested a wish list of its titles, and sent over everything on it. Directors like Sean Baker, Andrew Bujalski, Ramona Diaz, Penny Lane, Alex Ross Perry, Joe Swanberg, and John Waters donated copies of their own work.

Donations continued to come in. They were sorted, catalogued, put in cases, and displayed on the wooden shelves built by the collective. “When people give DVDs they don’t want anymore there’s a lot of Lord of the Rings, a lot of Austin Powers, Borat whatever — not a lot of Fassbinder,” Hatch said (indeed, a cardboard box containing dozens of copies of the Lord of the Rings DVDs sat his Hatch’s foot as we talked). “Though you’d also be surprised — there would be these unique items... like ‘Holy shit, someone gave us the whole Twin Peaks Blu-Ray set.’ But [the donations were] far from authoritative or comprehensive.”

There was an uncanny-valley quality to Beyond Video. It was a familiar type of space — the video store and all its nostalgic baggage — only everything was crisp and contemporary, a departure from the dank, cobbled-together vibes of video stores past. Donadio said Beyond’s ethos and even the space’s aesthetic, with its matte black walls and white trim, was “our own idea of what a video store could be in the age of streaming” — cleaner, and more inviting in subtle ways.

The store surely struck some of my sentimental pleasure centers, but browsing there was a seamless and pleasant experience. In comparison to lying on the couch and scrolling through an endless wall of titles, wandering around a physical space full of rentable movies is simply a more sane way to choose a movie. “The experience of looking for something online to watch — you know, idle time online feels terrible,” Hatch said. “But browsing time in a video store always, for me, felt energizing.”

“I think a lot of people weaned off of video stores in the 2000s by the rise of Netflix are now disenchanted with the lack of quality, variety and consistency offered online.”
Dave Barresi, Beyond Video collective member

When Netflix streaming first came into common consciousness in 2007, its options were impressive — not limitless, but not limiting either. Most of Netflix’s customers were still using DVDs then; a decade or so later, as Variety reported last August, three million of the service’s customers still mail red envelope-swathed DVDs to and fro, compared to its astounding 130 million streaming subscribers. And on the wider web, myriad film titles are now strewn across a number of competitor streaming services, including Fandor, Hulu, MUBI, Kanopy, Amazon Prime, Shudder, Crunchyroll, Brown Sugar and, until recently, Filmstruck, the so-called great hope of film culture.

“It isn’t that there aren’t awesome streaming services — there are — it’s that there are no one or two purchases you can make to recreate the video store in your home,” Hatch said.

The arrival of Netflix streaming in particular, Hatch said, mirrored corporate-chain takeovers such as Wal-Mart and other big box stores where ease of access and variety are teased just long enough to convince customers to switch their business from small competitors, before the corporate chain clamps its jaws. Small, independently-owned rental stores were destroyed by the few bigger national chains, like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Then came Netflix, which in 1997 began to send DVDs right to subscribers’ homes, and morphed into a juggernaut by the late ‘00s. Blockbuster went from 9,000 stores in 2004 to now, only one: a privately-owned franchise in Bend, Oregon.

“I think the streaming era was ushered in with this promise of universal availability,” Hatch said. “It’s similar to a Wal-Mart moving into town, where they’re like, ‘You don’t need all these individual stores anymore because Wal-Mart will have everything at the lowest price.’ And once they got everyone hooked, things changed quite a bit.”

Since 2010, Netflix has decreased its overall number of streaming films by 2,000 titles. Its online selection currently hovers around 6,000 feature and television titles. Beyond Video, in comparison, currently has a little more than 10,000 film and television titles.

The death of the video store was inevitable. At the industry’s height in 1986, there were around 19,000 video stores in the country. Five dollars for one three-day rental couldn’t compete with Netflix asking around $10 a month for unlimited streaming. Chains generated little goodwill to counter Netflix’s convenience — especially Blockbuster, which was hit with a class-action lawsuit tied to shady late fee practices.

What sustained Video Americain past other chain video-stores’ expiration dates was the sense that renting was not simply transactional but about being part of a conversation and a scene, and those things were worth going out of your way to support them. As Kate Hagen wrote in “In Search of the Last Great Video Store,” an essay about the video store as archive and its potential future as nonprofit, “fostering and nurturing a sense of community” is central to the video stores still around. The faux-populist argument that streaming gives easier access to folks far away from cultural hubs is at least partially contradicted by video rental chain Family Video, which currently maintains more than 700 stores in the U.S. and Canada, mostly sprawled out in the Midwest.

In the modern era, so much has been done in attempt to upend physical media and convince people they don’t need discs, video tapes, books, records. But even if the store goes away, the physical discs do not. The same cannot be said for iTunes which can delete purchased movies from your library without telling you. “Physical media is just more dependable,” said Greg Golinski, a collective member and the manager at Parkway Theatre. “And that resource can be shared and shared in an environment that is self directed and unhindered by market forces or predictability.”

Hatch referenced a viral tweet from screenwriter John August, in which he listed 300-plus notable contemporary movies that are not available on streaming platforms. “Clicking over to the list itself —looking at the “Missing Films” tab — I see dozens of films we have in our collection,” Hatch said. “I don’t know how frequently this list has been updated since being published a few months ago, some titles may well have gone online since, but the larger point being digital availability changes rapidly and any given moment would produce a comparable list of both prominent and deep-cut titles that are unavailable to stream.”

“I think a lot of people weaned off of video stores in the 2000s by the rise of Netflix are now disenchanted with the lack of quality, variety and consistency offered online,” said Dave Barresi, a collective member and local DJ. “Our store offers an opportunity for chance encounters while browsing the shelves, both with human beings and with the physical media itself. It’s an experience that streaming services can’t provide.”

Finally, on October 27, Beyond Video quietly went public with an invite-only opening to friends and supporters, offering a preview of the store and allowing the collective to practice operating before the doors opened to the general public. The building had been painted with the store’s logo across its exterior, a trippy spiral covering the entire facade that you can see from blocks away, almost bending reality when you look at it.

The day before Beyond’s soft opening, Filmstruck announced it would cease operations after just two years in existence. Its closure exemplified the argument Hatch and the rest of the Beyond Video collective had been preaching. “Filmstruck represented one of the finest efforts yet at making the canon of world cinema available via streaming,” Hatch said. “Its too-brief existence offers yet another confirmation of the enduring need for diverse, comprehensive, and accessible physical-media libraries of films from every era, region, and genre of cinema history.”

Beyond Video formally opened in December. To rent you must become a monthly subscriber: It costs $12 a month to rent up to three titles at a time, or $20 for an account that can be used by two people to rent six titles at a time. There are no late fees, though if you don’t return your movies within two weeks (one for new releases) and ignore the reminders, Beyond will charge you for a replacement.

The response has been encouraging so far. The store’s break-even point means maintaining around 100 paying members; they’ve surpassed that goal. Ideally, it will have around 200 members, so that the store can both stay open and expand its inventory. The immediate feedback was also promising: Collective member and filmmaker Albert Birney mentioned a woman who said visiting Beyond was already “her new Friday evening ritual.” Others have expressed interest in volunteering: “I would love to work a shift here and there for the store if I can,” said cinematographer and former Video Americain clerk Sean Price-Williams, who is best-known for his work with the Safdie Brothers. “I appreciate that it’s run purely off of devotion and love.”

Beyond Video already feels lived-in, humming with conversation and familiar, almost quaint video rental store concerns. One night, a customer said the disc for low-brow, high seas fantasy Chris Elliott comedy Cabin Boy had skipped about halfway through, so they threw it in the player to see what the problem was. A renter wandered in looking for radical, speculative fiction semi-documentary Born In Flames, and Hatch encouraged her to find a screening, due to its gorgeous 4K restoration — the ideal way to experience it for the first time, instead of a rental. They took Hatch’s advice and rented tragic, pyrotechnic homeless love story Lovers On The Bridge instead.

“The eight of us are collective members. We are unpaid. Our volunteers are volunteer members — unpaid,” Tropea said. “Our patrons are Beyond Video members, part of a community that we are stewarding and fostering.”

If the collective can make the store sustainable, then they can stop putting their money into it — or at least not work for free, for now and the foreseeable future. All that happens eventually, they hope. Right now, the whole point is to just get this thing into orbit. “There’s something beautiful about just creating this space again,” Hatch said, as we wandered Beyond’s first floor, taking in everything we could see.

Brandon Soderberg is a reporter in Baltimore.