Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Is Opening a Video Rental Shop

(Bloomberg) -- Blockbuster may be long gone—well, except a few holdouts in Alaska and, until recently, Mexico—but Alamo Drafthouse Cinema wants you to relive your heady, aisle-wandering days. The Austin-based cinema chain is opening a video rental store tucked away in the bar of its forthcoming Raleigh, N.C., location. It’s set to open in February.

Founded in 1997, Alamo Drafthouse spans only 29 locations but has achieved an outsized following, thanks to its food and drink program—black-clad waiters take orders and deliver food and booze during the screenings—and its zero-tolerance policy for talking and texting. It’s all part of the chain’s plan to woo movie fans out of their homes and back to the theater. With the rental store pivot, it seems there’s a time for screens both big and small.

The blast from the past is an extension of Alamo’s national VHS-screening series, Video Vortex, which features the best straight-to-video releases (not an oxymoron, apparently). For the last three to four years, Alamo has been raiding the shelves of going-out-of-business video rental shops the world over, snatching up films that date largely from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. For the new rental shop, it plans to curate a rotating selection of those cassette tapes themed to whatever’s playing in the theater. There’s a logistical component at play: Alamo’s VHS catalog now includes tens of thousands of titles. Put together, they’re a remnant of a deeply influential film era you may not know even existed.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Is Opening a Video Rental Shop

“When video stores started appearing on the scene, there were a lot of people that said, ‘This is amazing,’” says Skip Elsheimer, an Alamo Drafthouse consultant who helped come up with the rental shop idea. “You had a lot of people making things, weird things. … They realized that the expense of releasing that in theaters—they couldn't afford it. But they could film something and sell it directly to video stores.”

So began the age of backyard, do-it-yourself filmmaking, buoyed by the introduction of the first commercial camcorder by Sony in 1983. The resulting films perhaps weren’t the most polished productions, but they offered something else. “They didn’t execute it well, but they had an idea,” Elsheimer says. “And that always makes for interesting stuff, I think.”

From art house to horror, these films often influenced big-budget, mainstream movies and directors that followed, says Joe Ziemba, a programming director at Alamo. But as media formats changed—from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray to online streaming—these films disappeared. “It’s definitely a missing link of culture,” he says. The store is “about making these movies available, because a lot of these movies are only available in these formats.”

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Is Opening a Video Rental Shop

Alamo is still in the midst of assessing which cassettes are in rental condition, but potential offerings are an eclectic bunch: They include the 1988 Hong Kong-filmed action flick, American Commando Ninja; Fistful Of Fingers, an early comedy western from 1995 by Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright; I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a 1957 drive-in classic starring Little House on the Prairie actor Michael Landon; and Grim Prairie Tales, a 1990 horror anthology set in the West, with James Earl Jones.

If these sound like esoteric titles, you’re right. “These are a little bit more underground and a little bit more challenging,” says Ziemba. “You’re not going to see a VHS of Jurassic Park, because who cares?”

Alamo isn’t sure yet how much it’ll charge per rental, but Elsheimer said the fee will be low enough that “people don’t balk.” For those without working VCRs in their basements to dust off, Alamo will rent those out, too. (Or you can buy your own, amazingly still available for sale on Amazon.com for upwards of $75.) The shop will also offer a limited number of straight-to-DVD and straight-to-Blu-ray titles and will be hiring certifiable video nerds to manage the store and collection. Because let’s be honest, it’s not an authentic video rental experience unless your selection is being silently judged.

Ziemba and Elsheimer, both VHS aficionados and collectors themselves, believe that with 1980s and ’90s nostalgia running at an all-time high, cinephiles are ready to give straight-to-video films their due.

“We loved Stranger Things and we love the idea that people are interested in [films] like this—I think it’s all part of the same cultural thing,” says Ziemba.

But although fans of the straight-to-video genre might described some films as “so bad, they're good,” Ziemba says this is a misperception that Alamo fights against. “People are understanding that these movies are fun and super-entertaining, and they’re to be appreciated,” he said. “People are rediscovering them for the right reason.”

Alamo hopes to expand the Video Vortex rental shop concept to other locations, but “we need to see how it works first,” Elsheimer says. That means people will actually have to rent videos, which doesn’t seem a promising business model, judging by recent trends. Still, he believes success is possible, even if it won’t be the second coming of Blockbuster.

“You look at some record labels that are actively doing things on vinyl,” he says. “It’s very much a boutique kind of thing. I think that’s the direction we’re looking at.”

To contact the author of this story: Rachel Tepper Paley in New York at ratepper@gmail.com.

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