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Video stores carve out a niche the Internet can't reach

Despite the dominance of digital movie platforms, the joy of browsing for gems among fellow film lovers lives on.

January 10, 2013|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times

Leland Bankowski watches only documentaries these days. "Narrative filmmakers don't have a style; the movies are plot-heavy and they don't use filmic language," Bankowski told me earlier this week at a DVD rental store.

Bankowski, 55, is an artist with a film degree who lives on the frontier between Echo Park and Chinatown. He patronizes Video Journeys in Silver Lake because the clerks know film and can steer him to stuff he'll enjoy, like Martin Scorcese's doc on Beatle George Harrison. He also comes to the little store upstairs in a supermarket center to practice what he calls "the lost art of browsing."

"It's all about chance," Bankowski said. "You let your unconscious guide you, it brings you to something you're interested in you didn't know existed."

The spread of video rental giants such as Netflix and Redbox, as well as digital movie platforms, has killed off many of what we used to call movie rental stores, and deeply wounded big chains like Blockbuster, purchased out of Bankruptcy Court by Dish Network. In Los Angeles, however, a small but gallant band of independent video stores is holding its own in South Pasadena, Santa Monica, Studio City and here.

"We've been here 28 years, and we're doing OK pretty much," Video Journeys owner Hayley Nahmias said. "The community has kept us in business."

Some people come to Video Journeys because it gets new releases the same day DVDs go on sale. Streamers and downloaders often have to wait.

But the main attraction is that Video Journeys is a social hub. The store has a toy chest for kids to root around in for whistles and play tattoos, and a coloring section to keep them occupied while their parents shop. On Tuesday morning, a steady trickle of customers moved through the neatly arranged store: a retired editor, several screenwriters, a scientist and just plain folks, talking about their kids' time off from school, films they liked and didn't and life in general.

"It's an outing for me," said Steven Alvarez, 55, of Mount Washington. "We need human interaction."

I joined Video Journeys soon after it opened in 1985. But my kids got me into online video streaming and I hadn't been there for years, until a young friend told me of her shock when she could not instantly access "Road House" from any of the usual digital services.

The young woman had planned an evening with friends around the 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle about an NYU philosophy PhD-turned-bouncer hired to clean up a rowdy small-town bar. Like most people in their 20s, she uses the Internet almost exclusively for her music, radio and film needs, and it had never occurred to her the film might not be instantly available.

I agreed with her that the omission from digital platforms of a gem like "Road House" is unpardonable. But it's your fault for relying too much on the Internet, I told her. The Internet is not your friend.

With their insidious "If you like this, you'll like that" recommendations, video on demand, Internet radio and music downloads are reducing pop culture to the lowest common denominator. My Netflix account currently tells me I like cerebral and foreign movies and dramas when in fact I consider the stoner comedy "Pineapple Express" the highest expression of cinematic art. I want to yell at the screen: You don't know me! But because of these features, people no longer know how to browse, to stumble on unfamiliar movies, music or reading material by serendipity.

Some of the best movies I ever saw I knew nothing about until the DVD case or a single character actor way down in the credits caught my eye. Books, even more so: if I saw a jacket or even typeface that looked interesting, I'd pick it up. As a child, some of the books went over my head, but those unexpected finds formed my tastes, and gave me a real education.

Getting back to "Road House": I investigated and learned that, once a staple on basic cable, the movie was scheduled in our area this month only on HBO. And once again, another Internet kerfuffle might be responsible.

A titanic battle is underway among Netflix, HBO, Amazon, Hulu, Redbox Instant by Verizon, Wal-Mart's Vudu and other digital platforms over how film will be delivered to our phones, tablets, laptops and TV sets. Behind the scenes, the companies are in a free-for-all to lock up exclusive digital rights to film franchises and entire studio outputs.

The Internet Movie Data Base lists the former MGM/UA Home Entertainment as "Road House's" DVD distributor, but no one at MGM could tell me what that means for the digital rights, or if, in fact, they are the distributor. The people who would know were all at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"Road House" director Rowdy Herrington's agent, Rima Greer, told me "it would take an IP lawyer" at this point to sort out who has what rights to the film. "Would we like it to be out there? Yes. Is there anything we can do about it? Probably not," said Greer, president of Above the Line Agency in Beverly Hills.

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