At a time when the movie theater business is struggling to make it, the Alamo Drafthouse chain has thrived by doing things a little differently. Now, it’s trying to bring back the video store. Not only will it offer DVDs, Blu-rays, and VHS, but if you need a VCR it’ll rent you one of those, too.
It’s been 20 years since the first Alamo Drafthouse opened in Austin, Texas, and the chain has been expanding more than ever in the age of Netflix. It has 22 locations today. Most theater chains are having trouble reaping profits from standard concessions and blockbusters you can get anywhere, but Alamo has offered creative dining, rare repertory films, thoughtful programming, and festivals that make people want to get out of the house. The idea for Video Vortex is to bring that same experience to the home theater.
On Monday, Alamo announced that its upcoming location in Raleigh will also house the city’s “newest (and only) video rental store.” When theater-goers come check out a flick and have a meal, they’ll be able to peruse a catalog of 30,000 titles to take home with them. Alamo claims it’ll be one of the largest video archives on the planet. VCRs will be available for rent and HDMI to RCA adapters will be free of charge.
Alamo is betting on the rarity of its collection to pique customers’ interest. It’s hard to overstate what a massive success the VHS-era was. The format held strong for decades, and it didn’t have much competition. There are still plenty of films that never received a digital release, and Alamo’s collected a ton of them. A study in 2016 found that only 46 percent of consumers have bought or rented a digital video. Compare that to 78 percent who said they’d bought or rented a VHS.
Video Vortex started years ago at Alamo as a recurring screening program that focused on straight-to-video movies. Its curator, Joe Ziemba, will continue to oversee the selection for its brick and mortar spin-off. “It gives me hope for humanity to see VIDEO VORTEX grow from a series at the Alamo to an actual video store,” Ziemba said in the announcement. “VHS is still the only way to see hundreds of forgotten genre movies.” He hopes that the Raleigh pilot will be successful enough to expand Video Vortex into a full-scale chain.
Video store nostalgia is certainly a thing these days. It was fun to go to a store, spend half an hour picking up boxes with some wild art, talking to a clerk, choosing one thing, and being stuck with it when you get home. Streaming services simultaneously offer too much, and too little selection. I spend a lot of time scrolling through horrible interfaces looking for a movie, changing my mind, starting something else, and finishing nothing. A video store wouldn’t replace streaming, but it’d be fun to visit the store when I go to the theater and find a hidden gem from a selection that wasn’t curated by Netflix, Amazon, or Disney’s partnership deals.
The biggest concern I’d have is late fees. Late fees killed the video store. Redbox found success by keeping the fees to a minimum and Netflix buried them through a subscription model. Alamo, however, isn’t announcing its price model at the moment. It’s only saying that “visitors can return rentals on their next trip to Alamo Drafthouse, or they’ll have the option of mailing DVDs and Blu-rays back to the shop with a return envelope.” Late fees seem like an inevitable necessity to keep the store stocked, but if Alamo plays its cards right, the store might not even need to reap big profits. Having a method to keep people coming back to the theater on a weekly basis could function as a loss leader for the big new releases, food, and booze.
The SNES Classic has been outselling next-gen systems, and people got excited over a new release of an old Nokia dumbphone. It might sound a little crazy that people would lug home a VCR and adjust the tracking when they could just fire up Netflix, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it works.