On Monday night the film rental store Le Video posted on its Facebook page that, barring a "miracle," it would close by the end of April.
The Inner Sunset fixture first opened in 1980 and has long been a favorite among cinephiles. The problem, says veteran Le Video employee John Taylor, is that the store has been losing money for years. Though the owner, Catherine Tchen, also owns the building, Taylor says she can no longer afford to keep the business afloat instead of renting out the 3,000-square-foot ground floor that the store occupies.
Taylor isn't ready to hit the off button just yet -- more like the pause. He says a plan is in the works to move the store's fantastically copious stock of 80-90,000 titles to an upstairs space, where it wouldn't be browsable but customers could at least peruse the titles in binders. Ideally, the store would transition to a rent-by-mail business, like Netflix. Taylor says Le Video has been working for several years on cleaning up its database and creating software in preparation for the switch, but that development delays have slowed the process.
"My hope is that we'll go upstairs, keep the collection alive," he said. "We're working on doing a Kickstarter or Indiegogo."
In the meantime, the store has shortened its hours from 12-10pm to 12-8 on weekdays. The previously extended weekend hours are also now 12-8pm. Le Video suggests that anyone who has prepaid for movies come in and use up their remaining credits soon.
It's probably unnecessary to note that Taylor identifies the Internet as the one and only suspect in the non-mystery of "Who Killed the Video Rental Business?" As Netflix has gradually swelled into a movie rental colossus, the city's independent video stores, not to mention its non-independent video stores, have closed one by one. Taylor blames "people's interest in having things streaming to them and not having to leave the house to get stuff. They want instant gratification for their entertainment and even though they have less of a choice it doesn't matter to a lot of people."
Yeah. Back in the day, Le Video was many a cineaste's go-to source for rare items. The store bills itself as having "the largest rental selection in California," and anyone who has been in awe as they browsed the stacks wouldn't give that a second thought. I visited many times over the years, but now I stand as a good example of why even the most exceptional video stores can't make it anymore. I used to actually schlep myself on Muni to Le Video for the privilege of renting some obscure Werner Herzog film or something. But then Netflix came along with its so-called "long tail," the strategy of stockpiling a vast array of niche content so that it becomes profitable in the aggregate. And suddenly I found that instead of having to get on public transportation to procure certain movies, I could get many of them delivered straight to my door.
Netflix's business model has changed, however. They're doing everything they can to get people off DVDs and onto streaming, where there is currently a much more limited selection of titles. Perhaps consequently, that much-ballyhooed long tail has been trimmed. This is strictly anecdotal, but I have noticed that some DVDs that used to sit patiently waiting their turn in my queue have now dropped down to the "saved" section, where the time of their availability is listed as "unknown." I'll read that as a euphemism for "never," at least where a physical disc is concerned. When I was talking to Taylor, he pointed out that Netflix's collection was now omitting many standard titles -- such as a bunch of Woody Allen movies. I checked; he's right. Bananas, Mighty Aphrodite, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, and September -- all unavailable. I have a request for comment out to Netflix but haven't heard back yet. (Via streaming, it's really slim Woody-pickings: Just Manhattan and Play It Again Sam.)
I came up against this trend just recently, when I needed to get a hold of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, the seminal black independent film by Melvin Van Peebles, for a piece I'm writing. I knew I had rented it through Netflix before, but found it's now unavailable. So I tried Amazon streaming (nope) and iTunes (nope). I would have run down to my local video store, but I don't have a local video store. My wife eventually snared a copy for me from a library in Marin, where she works. My only other option would have been Le Video.
I guess one moral of that story is the lengths to which I went to avoid having to physically go somewhere to rent a movie, just like John Taylor said. But another point is that for someone like me who wants or needs to see more obscure titles, subscriptions to multiple services may now be necessary to get the same breadth of selection available at a one-stop-shop like Le Video.
In the meantime, ideas for keeping Le Video afloat are all over its Facebook page. Said one customer: "It's crazy, but someone find a way to contact Tarantino. He's a well known lover of the SF movie scene and has a special place in his heart for video stores for true film fanatics like himself."