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Company Town

Eclectic Video Store Brings Old Hollywood to Life

March 25, 1998|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under a lobby card for the 1943 Ole Olsen-Chic Johnson comedy "Crazy House," Donovan Brandt is chuckling over a printout detailing the quirky habits of customers of a video store unlike any other--Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee.

"I can't believe I still rent 'Lucy' and 'Twilight Zone,' " said Brandt--the long-haired executive of the family business founded by his father, Eddie. He studies the printout as his mother, Claire, and sister Heidi Aucelluzzo bustle about, getting ready to open for the day. "They were great shows, but there are marathons every year and they're still on, and here we rent them like they were brand-new."

Nearby, units of nationwide video rental chains are drumming up business by putting out 50 copies or more of "Hercules." The Brandts have two copies of Disney's latest animated feature, but they make up for it by renting out the old American films and TV shows that are closer to their customers' hearts. And although growth in the $9-billion-a-year video rental industry lately has been flatter than a laserdisc, the Brandts are purchasing a larger building so they can expand.

After 20 years at 6310 Colfax Ave. in North Hollywood--a windowless cinder-block building with the feel of the thrift store it once was--the Brandts are planning this summer to move their unique inventory of 45,000 movies--many of them obscure titles only a true movie buff could appreciate--plus thousands of lobby cards and posters and millions of old stills and news photos to a roomier store at 5006 Vineland Ave., where customers can stretch out on sofas and sip coffee.

"We've been out of room for five years," Donovan Brandt said. "To be honest with you, there are more people and more telephone calls than we can handle."

The family's formula for success doesn't attract imitators:

They are open only five days a week, no later than 6 p.m. They shun 99-cent specials and even raised their prices recently. They rely on word-of-mouth, limiting ad buys to a few column inches a year in collector magazines. Yet they maintain a roster of 20,000 active customers. More than 300 clients--many from the East Coast--rent by mail and make up 10% of the store's rental business.

"Our reputation is our inventory," Donovan Brandt said.

A video store is considered large if it stocks 10,000 to 12,000 tapes. Outlets of the nationwide Blockbuster Video chain, spokeswoman Liz Greene said, average 6,000 to 10,000. But Saturday Matinee stocks 2,000 tapes for sale and 43,000 for rent.

The Brandts' extensive collection was acquired over many years. Eddie and Claire, former Hanna-Barbera animators, went into retailing in 1969 with a boxful of old stills for a dime each.

They constantly prowled around town for old posters. As the business grew, they bought out warehouse-sized private collections and, along the way, the photo morgue of the defunct Los Angeles Herald newspaper. They got into videos on the industry's ground floor, stocking the first Beta-format tapes introduced in the mid-1970s.

Now the four family members are co-owners, with Donovan shouldering day-to-day operations. Three employees answer phones and do shipping and filing.

The videos now pretty much overrun the store--displayed horizontally to save space, but the Brandts still do a brisk business in lobby cards, posters and photos, which sell at $6 per still or publicity shot and $10 per news photo. Many are printed from negatives, bringing a profit of 95% on annual revenue in the mid-five figures, Donovan said.

The store's 1997 sales and rentals produced revenue in the mid-six figures, he added, with profit in the range of 20% in that segment. Most business was in feature films, but--thanks to Lucy and Desi--18% was brought in by videotapes of TV programs. In addition, 8% of revenue was in the documentary segment, and more than 10% was in silent and foreign films--reflecting the esoteric tastes of the industry professionals who troop into the store for recreation and work.

Michael Danahy, a producer at E! Entertainment Television, recently sent an aide to collect photos taken at the scenes of two tragic Hollywood deaths for episodes of a new series, "Mysteries & Scandals."

"It's easy to find glamour shots of old movie stars, but to find photographs of a corpse is not as easy," Danahy said.

The video collection is a favorite source among film researchers. Carolyn Chriss, for one, has fielded assignments from writers composing scripts set in the past.

"They will want the language of an era and to find out the way people were talking; I'll just go and get out whole bunches of movies and listen to the dialogue," she said.

The Brandts have two major headaches: steep premiums for casualty insurance against the loss of inventory, and the occasional customer slow to return Saturday Matinee's stock-in-trade.

"They try to keep those irreplaceable movies," Aucelluzzo said. "But we put a hefty charge on their credit cards and then go banging on their doors to get them back."

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