Friday, May 06, 2011

Videomatica is Closing! (Graham Peat interview)

As the fates would have it, the day after writing a piece that climaxed in the exclamation, "Long live Videomatica", shocking, saddening news came my way: the news that Videomatica - founded in 1983, doubtlessly the best video store in Vancouver, and perhaps even all of Canada - is, in fact, closing down, sometime this summer, far sooner than one might have expected. No video store has been more important to me in my development as a cinephile, not even the two I worked at in Maple Ridge. Their print catalogue was like a mini-IMDB, years before IMDB existed, and I can remember poring over it for its educational value alone, prior to weekend runs where I would rent five or six titles at a time (many of which, I confess, I dubbed VHS-to-VHS, in the old days of RCA cables and EP speed, making my own private library). I've applied to work for them on more than one occasion - once contemplating busing in from Maple Ridge to do the job, after acing the movie-trivia quiz given to all applicants - and I even, in the days of VHS, sold a few videos of my own to them (like Japanese VHS editions of the rare - and terrible - Klaus Kinski vehicle Nosferatu in Venice, Jim Jarmusch's so-so early feature Permanent Vacation, and a mildly censored but widescreen tape of Nic Roeg's essential Bad Timing, back when all of those movies were pretty much unseeable here). It is very, very hard to conceive of Vancouver's cultural landscape without Videomatica - the closure of the Granville Book Company, a few years ago, is nothing by comparison, and I still feel that loss like a fresh bruise any time the fates force me to walk down Granville Street as it exists today.

Videomatica co-founder Graham Peat and I spoke at some length about the impending closure. I started out by checking in about a list of "firsts" in their press release. "I can't absolutely prove it," Peat told me - brimming with chatty energy despite a late-night, post-movie-screening interview - "but we know from the company that developed our in-store public terminal system that we were the guinea pigs. They sold it based on what they tried out with us, and how we worked with them on it - because it was something we wanted, and they created it for us and then sold it. So we know we were the first to be like the public library and have an in-store database that customers could search. That happened in about 1988 or 1989, and that was so early that we didn't have a website, at that point - nobody did." They also "can't prove" that they were the first to have a print catalogue, "but people loved that thing, and it was unique, and not like anybody else's. We were also told by the industry in Canada that we were the first rental store to have our own sales store, too - it used to be in a different part of the building, in a different unit. And we were definitely the first to have the full-display 'virtual video store' with the front and the back of the box. Nobody's ever done the back-of-the-box thing, because it's so expensive for bandwith to put up all those giant images. We just wanted to do that. Nobody else does it - not even the studios. We could never even get the studios to give us artwork - we had to scan it, all these years."
Very early customers will recall that Videomatica used to be in a different location on the same block (which also used to house Zulu Records; the whole block has been more or less rebuilt since that time). "A lot of people don't remember that, because they're not old enough. From 1983 to 1987, we were at 1829 W. 4th, which is now the Pizza Hut. But they kind of ruined the building. It used to be a very charming little Spanish villa. It still has the very charming Spanish roof at the top, and it had beautiful movie-theatre-like columns inside that were all plaster, and we painted them gold and white and put up theatrical curtains. We used to have a big-screen TV in there. We didn't show publicly, but it was for the staff, and it was a lot of fun. And then we outgrew it, in four years, and had to move down the block, to a space three or four times the size; video stores were expanding, then."

Priceless anecdotes from Videomatica's heyday abound (look for more in an upcoming piece by John Mackie in the Vancouver Sun, also featuring stories from Videomatica's other founder, Brian Bosworth; articles will also appear in the West Ender and the Straight). "One of my favourite stories, that Brian didn't tell John, is about Jodie Foster. In the 1980's, she allowed us to use her quote about our store - that we had more foreign films than she'd seen in New York or LA. During the month or two she was here shooting The Accused, she was renting movies. Her favourite movie was A Thousand Clowns, with Jason Robards; even though it was really, really hard to get, I found her one, and I mailed it to her in Beverly Hills after she left, because it took awhile to get. But the funniest thing that happened after she left was the note. She'd been renting movies, and one of them never came back; I don't know which one it was, but at some point, it DID come back, with a note on it, as she was leaving town or something," Peat laughs. "People like Courtney Love and others just don't return movies. Or Johnny Depp - they just forget, right? But she was so astute, and so well-brought up, that she gave me a funny handwritten note that said, 'Graham' - something to this effect - 'I apologize profusely for the error that my mother Brandy has made. I borrowed this movie and she left it in a closet for a month and I just found it. I'm so ashamed - and here it is back!' We thought the note was hilarious, so I saved it. I loved the fact that she was the responsible daughter taking charge of this stage mother's bad habits...! It was pretty classic." (I forgot to ask Graham if he dinged her for lates; who among us hasn't paid a Videomatica late fee at least once?)

Jodie Foster is one of a long list of celebrity customers that Videomatica has had, also including David Bowie, Julie Christie, and Colin Firth (whom I once rented to, myself, when I worked at a Maple Ridge Rogers Video and he was a relative unknown outside Britain). "The story used to be that the Queen rented from us when she was in town," Peat chuckles, "but it's a bit indirect, because the bottom line was -" Peat stops and backtracks. "There are three levels of celebrities that will come to the store. There's the ones that are so confident that they just walk in by themselves. Or nobody knows them, or they're well-disguised, like Bryan Adams or somebody. And there's the ones who can't quite do it themselves, so they have their roadie come to the counter, like David Lee Roth or k.d. lang - they're either shy, or they don't want to deal with you. And then there's the ones who absolutely can't come in, they just can't, it would be too big a scene. Or they have to come in late at night. People like Sharon Stone and others, their concierges at hotels would rent for them, and we would just know who it was for. But we'd never see them - sometimes they'd be kind enough to send along an autographed photo or something, but we didn't always meet them. But the reason this Queen story got going, when she stayed in Vancouver - I really don't remember what year it was - some members of her staff had come from the hotel and asked for something. We don't actually know if she rented from us or not - we think, frankly, that it might have been her staff viewing things, not her... but we liked to say that the Queen probably rented here!" Similarly, high end hotels in Vancouver would sometimes send staff to rent or return movies, "And we never knew who they were for. Somebody would come in in a uniform and give you the movies back..."

There is also the Terence Stamp anecdote, which, though it has been told before, bears repeating, especially since we have an illustration; it involves the Alternative Oscars contest, which Videomatica ran for about ten years. "We always had a little bit of fun with it, because it was very tongue-in-cheek; and one of very the first years we ran it, we nominated Terence Stamp in the 'best actress' category, for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And he won - the customers decide who wins, we just put out the ballots." Stamp heard about the award through a crew member on a film he was working on, apparently (because often industry people would recommend Videomatica to visiting actors and actresses), leading to several visits to the store. "I remember him coming in in coveralls - it was rather an interesting fashion statement - and introducing himself to me. He was buying some movies from us. One of my favourite accomplishments was that he wanted some of his more obscure films, that were hard to get. And you know what that's like. One of the hardest to get was Meetings With Remarkable Men, because it was never on any major label; I was quite delighted to get that for him. There were a couple of others like that. And a couple of years later, when The Limey came out, he was nominated for best actor" - again, for the Alternative Oscars - "and he won in that category, too. At that time he was in town doing something else, and he phoned me: 'This time I heard that I won again, and I still don't have my prize from last time! So what do I get for this one?' And I said, 'Ulp! Gee, of course we have a prize from you. Can you give us 24 hours? We'll bring it to your hotel - he was staying at the Pan-Pacific, I think.' He said, 'That would be wonderful, but I can come in...' 'No, no, we'll come down there, just let us take a picture!' But of course we didn't have any awards; no one actually claimed their awards, we weren't prepared for that. So our very creative sales manager said, 'No problem, I'll make one.' So we went and bought a little miniature easel, which you'll see Terence Stamp holding in the picture, and they printed up something cute, and made this little award. They put a flower on it or something. It looked passable! Since then we've had to make up scrolls or something, in case someone claimed their prize, and a couple of local actors have, for embarrassing things like 'Worst Movie.' The people who were in The Fog remake, which was dreadful, came in and got their awards, so we got a kick out of that. But in his case, it was a good award! The picture I sent you was cropped a bit, because there were two or three staff with me. We went down to the Pan-Pacific and he submitted himself to a photo session. We had quite a bit of fun with that, and he was as charming as ever... but the best part was the phone call..."

Peat and Bosworth have very different roles in the company, which may explain why most of my readers will only know one of the two. "My job was mostly content and public relations, and staffing, and Brian's is mostly financial, even though he's a movie buff, too. He always ran the place, financially. He also was better at tech stuff than me, so he was the one behind developing the website for the DVD-online drive, the DVD's-by-mail thing. He's the industry researcher, but he's not very public," Graham explains. In my 20+ years as a customer, I can't say I've ever met the man. "I've been the face of it most of the time," Graham concludes.

Bosworth, apparently, quite agrees with my previous assessment of the situation with video stores, as Peat relates. "What you said about the Golden Age of Video Stores - he also believes that there was a peak in VHS that was really great in the 1980s, and there was another peak in the 1990's, when DVDs came out. Those were prime years. He thought that you really nailed it. He reads all the industry stuff, and all the reasons why the business is failing, and he said he really enjoyed yours, because you knew what you were talking about, and that it absolutely was right; he hadn't seen that perspective before, so he quite enjoyed that. And he reads everything about it. I don't read all the trades, I'm much more about content, I just see movies, and he's much more about the industry, so I thought it was a real compliment, coming from him. He doesn't know you from Adam, and he read it and went, 'Hey, who is this guy, he knows what he's talking about!'" (Thanks!).

So where did the decision to close come from? "It was very, very long and slow. We noticed a trend in August of 2008, for the first time ever, we had a drop year-to-year. And that's Brian's job - he tracks everything, and he said, 'hey, we had a drop in August, but I don't think it means anything.' Then he came back in October and said, 'That drop has not gone back up again.' By the end of the year, he was even more concerned, and he's been tracking it ever since. We eventually found out it was an industry trend. We thought we were doing something wrong, at first, and he got me to promote more and do all kinds of creative things, because he said, 'We should be able to reverse this.' But eventually we realized - people weren't talking about it in the industry, but everybody was losing at least 10% every year, over what they made before, over the last three years. Which means a minumum of 30% over the last three years, which is enough to bring some places down. Some of them would have lost 50% or more. Even with us, though we weren't losing as much as many places, we had a much higher overhead than some of the smaller shops - because they run it themselves, have a small staff, don't have big websites, don't do a mailorder program... nobody offers the kind of level of stuff that we offer, and pays the kind of rent we do; they just aren't crazy enough to do all that stuff." (And contrary to the chain-store model, the store doesn't dispense with older titles once they've ceased to rent; they've built up a remarkable library, thus, but it ain't cheap to maintain a stock that large). "All of what we did was fine during the heydays, but we're painfully aware how much taxes are now in Vancouver, and how much a place on Fourth Avenue costs."

As with many businesses that decide to close, the prospect of a new lease was a major factor. "We knew we were going to get hit for a big increase, since it's only every five years," Graham tells me. The current landlord, it happens, is the son of the former landlord, keeping things in the family, and, when he was a student, used to hang out at Videomatica himself; but he has little power to help. "He's our age, now, and he's still a fan of the store; he doesn't want us to close, but he couldn't give us the place for free. The people in his company - the accountants - were really bugging him to get more money out of us. And it was a big increase, like 30%. So we went month to month, and we knew - when we hit the wall, we hit the wall, say, when we don't make enough to pay the rent. That gets closer, each month, you see - though there is no fixed date for the closure yet. If it comes sooner rather than later, that's sad, if we can keep it going for a little while, that's good. But we thought, 'Let's do this right, let's do a Duthie's, and tell people in advance and pay our staff right to the end.' It took us over a year to make the decision, and it was a big relief for us, to say that - we had to tell our staff and deal with our landlord... but nobody wants to disappear in the night, and nobody wants to have their stock confiscated, as happened to another independent, recently." There are two questions that remain: why exactly does Peat think video stores are suffering so, and what will happen to the massive Videomatica catalogue?

The downturn, he explains, "is something that Brian has analyzed much more than me, and I'm going to go with him on this. Even though we get the most common, simple answers - 'oh, it's just downloading,' or 'oh, it's just Netflix' - I would say that Brian's right when he says that overall, it's a mix. It's not the same from city to city and region to region, but especially in larger cities, it's a mix of reasons. I've checked, and stores we know that are in captive markets, in medium-to-small towns where there aren't many entertainment choices, are still doing relatively well, especially if they're the last independent and all the chains have closed. I've seen that happen in at least two BC towns. But in the cities, there's a huge amount of choice for people, and the choices have increased tremendously in the last five years, especially. People entertain themselves hugely on Youtube and other things that they can get for free - ANYTHING that they can get for free; it's not just downloading, all of the internet has made a huge difference. Netflix, too, has been a challenge, but... people just don't see any reason to pay for what they used to pay for, when they can get it more conveniently, for less money, if not free! There's no way we can argue with that. Who the hell wants to walk, or drive, or cycle to a video store and back again, and maybe pay a late fee, when you have so many other options? And of course, theatrical distribution is also hurting - Brian says they're down 20% this year." Publishing, the music industry, book stores... the problems span several different media. A major sea change appears to be underway.

In terms of video rentals, format wars haven't helped, either. "Blu-Ray got too late a hold," Peat continues. "We really are disgusted with our industry, that they spent two years fighting over a new HD format. That hurt the public's confidence, and it wasn't good. Blu-Ray is so much superior to what people are looking at and downloading and streaming that it really should have been the solution, and kept people on track. But it's not been adopted widely enough. Projectionists love it" - he chuckles - "but the public has not taken it up enough, so I don't think that's going to save the industry, either."

As for Videomatica's library (which, I'm told, still includes 5000 VHS titles, many of which have never seen release on DVD, like Alex Cox's Highway Patrolman - which I had cause to rent, myself, a few months ago - or the arthouse hit and former star-renter Latcho Drom)? That question remains undecided. Peat and Bosworth are in discussions to ensure that it can be made a public resource, but failing that, it may end up being sold off piece-by-piece, as recently happened with Reel Bulldog in Gastown. "That could happen, but we've been lucky enough to have a lot of meetings and to try to find a home for the collection that the public could access. It's not a done deal yet, by any means, but we've been working on it for over six months, and we very much hope - and there's some reason to believe - that it could end up being a publicly accessible collection that would be kept intact. Even if that means in academia, rather than a public library, it would still be some kind of good home."

Peat, throughout our conversation, spoke in an relaxed and positive way, without seeming to complain, but he does have worries. "There's just so many industries that are in flux now, and so many media shifts, and so many delivery shifts, that I don't know what's going to happen to content. I worry about it quite a bit - I worry that in the future, unless everybody makes everything for free and at an amateur level, what's going to happen? Where's the money going to come from to create new art - whether it's moving images, or print, or stills, or music? We're all going to have to go through this big shift, and I hope somebody can find a good model, for people to be willing to pay for it again, before they realize, wait a minute, we don't have anything anymore! It's all free and it's all crap!" Plans for a final, closing party, likely some time this summer, once the end is clearly in sight, will be forthcoming. Watch this blog, for news - and if, by chance, you don't know what you've been missing, peruse the Videomatica website for awhile; it's a remarkable resource, which, if all goes to plan, will also be preserved. Best of luck to Graham Peat and Brian Bosworth, and condolences to any Vancouver cinephiles who don't have hi-speed internet yet (or just really like the social/ community aspect of video stores).

The times, they sure have changed.


Kevin Doherty said...

Hi Allan - My name is Kevin Doherty, I'm an independent Filmmaker/writer from Winnipeg, and I'm working on a Video Store Memories book that I plan on self-publishing early next year and was wondering if I might be able to quote some excerpts from your Videomatica blog article? I would of course credit/attribute it to you and the Blog. Thanks - Kevin

Allan MacInnis said...

Sure thing! I can also put you in touch with current Videomatica staffers (it still exists as a sales-only store). If you would like to interact in a less public way about this, make a new comment and include your email address, and I will respond by email without publishing the comment.