Blame the Internet, Amazon.com, Comcast video on-demand, corporations, customer laziness, or the recession, but whatever the reasons, Oakland residents’ options for renting movies have shrunk drastically this year.
Four video rental stores serving North Oakland have shut down this year: two Hollywood Video stores in Oakland, as well as Videots and—despite a strong effort to save it—Reel.com, both in neighboring South Berkeley. Montclair’s Blockbuster shut its doors this year too, and more regional Blockbusters could be closing, as the chain has more than $900 million in debt, according to the Wall Street Journal.
These are only the most recent losses. In the past five years Oakland has said goodbye to countless others, including Global Video on Telegraph in the Temescal, Captain Video on Grand Avenue, Offbeat Video on MacArthur Boulevard, and Movie Express in Piedmont.
What’s left around North Oakland? Not much: Video Room on Piedmont Avenue, Silver Screen on Grand Avenue, Mega Video on Park Boulevard, and a handful of Blockbuster Videos.
“Red Box killed it more than anything,” said Stuart Skorman, who founded the original Reel.com store in 1996; Red Box provides unmanned DVD rental kiosks inside businesses like 7-11, Walgreens, Lucky and McDonalds. “That and of course Netflix,” Skorman added. “The other thing is actually Comcast, video on demand.”
Comcast started selling movies on demand three years ago through its digital cable services, and its customers download an average of 1.6 million videos per day in Northern California alone, according to Comcast spokesman Andrew Johnson. “We’ve seen that [on demand] growth continue to inch up and up,” he said, though he wouldn’t comment on specific growth numbers in the Bay Area or Oakland. The company currently offers about 12,000 titles per month. “We estimate we’ll be offering about 20,000 titles every month in 2011,” Johnson said.
Amazon.com also offers movies that can be purchased or rented online and viewed on your computer.
Meanwhile, Netflix, based in Los Gatos, California, has about 15 million subscribers, a 40 percent increase from last year, according to its Securities and Exchange Commission filings. In the Bay Area, 26 percent of households have Netflix accounts, according to Steve Swasey, Netflix’s vice president of corporate communications.
All of this digital media means fewer customers setting foot in actual stores, though the effects are worse for large corporations unable to cater to a local clientele. That’s what happened to Reel.com’s corporate parent, Movie Gallery.
When Hollywood Video bought Reel in 1998 for $100 million, it was the most profitable video store in the country. Then Movie Gallery bought Hollywood Video a few years ago. Unable to handle the debt load it carried from its other enterprises, Movie Gallery entered bankruptcy proceedings this year, shutting all its remaining stores last month, including Reel and the Hollywood Videos in Oakland.
The Berkeley store was still turning a profit this year, according to Skorman and Gabe Fried, who works for Stream Bank LLC, which is selling off Reel’s intellectual property, like the domain name and trademarks. Reel’s inventory is being sold by Hollywood Video.
Skorman was one of a host of Reel fans—including Berkeley city officials—who tried to keep Reel open by any means necessary, hoping to raise funds to make it into a kind of nonprofit public enterprise. That effort came close but eventually failed because of insufficient funds and time.
For Videots—and other independents—business was just too slow. Videots, a small, locally-owned store on College, had been progressively losing money last year, according to the owner, John Huffman. He decided to close the store in February. Many of its DVDs are being purchased through the Rockridge DVD Project and donated to the Oakland Public Library’s Rockridge branch.
Nearly 3,000 DVDs will go to the branch, expanding its current stock of about 4,300 films, said Patricia Lichter, the Rockridge branch manager. The project administrators will hire outside vendors to catalog the new stock, since the last rounds of budget cuts have left the library with insufficient staff. “They’re handling all that work—it would’ve overwhelmed us,” Lichter said.
Oakland’s public libraries have been seeing a significant interest in DVDs. “It’s a large part of the circulation,” said Ajoke Kokodoko, who works at the circulation desk in Oakland’s main branch.
Aside from the library, North Oakland has a few rental spots remaining. Silver Screen and Video Room are still open and doing steady business, taking on lost customers from Reel and Videots. In the more northern regions of Berkeley, Five Star Video and Video Maniacs are also still in business.
“I had four [former Reel customers] today, and that’s a weekday,” said Bill Wedemyer, Video Room’s manager. Squinting into the late afternoon sun outside the store, he said there’s been “quite a significant upturn” in recent weeks.
“Two years ago our losses were so great that we were forced to tighten our belts,” Wedemyer said. In 2008, the company sold off its videotapes and consolidated its business to a space one third of its former size, giving up the front window along Piedmont Avenue but staying at the same address. “Now, I think we’re in a cautious comfort zone,” he said.
Inside the shop, the efforts to be frugal are obvious, with DVDs carefully stacked high overhead along the walls. “Every time something new comes in, something old is going to have to go out,” Wedemyer said, smiling but not really joking, before turning around to coax a customer’s shy dog to try a dog biscuit.
He said one advantage of renting at a store is the ability to “talk about movies with staff that understands and loves movies.” The shelves at Video Room are proof of the employees’ knowledge of movie lore; they’re stocked with a few new releases, but the emphasis is clearly on variety, with foreign films, staff picks, local fare, and a relatively large children’s section. Wedemyer stopped to chat with several customers while explaining the layout.
“It’s a sad tale to recognize that we’re losing community at every turn,” he said.