Closing the Doors

author198 Jul 12, 2010

This essay was written by Dan Vhay, a friend of mine and college classmate from long ago. He got laid off from his job at Hollywood Video in May and wrote this soon after. I read it on Facebook originally and thought of it again when reading about Blockbuster’s recent troubles. It’s reprinted with Dan’s permission. – John Moe

I love movies. I love them more than just as a hobby or a momentary distraction; I love them because when done right, they stir me to my very core. Whether laughing, crying, or just watching something blow up real good, they move me, and they always have.

STAR WARS was first. Sure, I had seen other movies before then, and I can’t even tell you exactly when it was I saw it first (sorry nerds). But I do know that after seeing it, something switched on inside me; I didn’t just want to memorize every character’s name and every bit of dialogue, I wanted to know what actor played that character and who wrote that dialogue. I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the composer John Williams and his beautiful score, I would probably only be interested in the canon of Huey Lewis and nothing else. That movie basically turned the switch on in my brain that has never been turned off: I became a cinematic sponge.

I have only had 2 steady, paying jobs in my life in unrelated fields; I had a paper route for a few years around 8th grade or so, and a summer or two at a fast food franchise. One summer, a local Mom & Pop video store needed a new employee. I jumped at the chance and became a counter jockey for VIDEO U.S.A. I didn’t know it then, but it would become my profession for the next 20+ years.

They still had BETA tapes back then, that’s how far back I go. I remember it being an excellent summer job: you sat on the counter if you wanted, even munch on food right in front of customers if you felt like it. I normally didn’t. I was the teen that lobbied for playing PG-rated fare for the customers to see, not the latest installment of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET like my peers chanted for. I got to take home any movie I wanted, expanding my brain with all sorts of stuff. I loved going back to college with posters I had gotten from work, as well as photos taken from the video catalogs that we were sent, in the hopes that someday I would wallpaper the rooms of a giant house with pics of actors and movies.

Then, one summer somewhere around 1990 or so, a friend of my sister said her husband was looking for new employees to work at a big video rental chain. I had heard of Blockbuster, and all I knew was that it was a monster of a rental chain, and that I did not want to work there. I met him anyway, and it turns out he was hiring for a new chain called Hollywood Video. Instead of asking me corporate questions like my level of education or my computer acumen, he simply asked, “If I came up to you and asked what family movie was really good, what would you tell me?” That’s what he wanted to know: my movie suggestions. He liked my answer, and I accepted a job at Hollywood Video in Tigard, Oregon.

After I graduated college, I began working full-time at the store, working nights so that I could go on acting auditions during the day. More movie-watching, this time in full force and a new mission; before I went home each night, I would walk down the aisle of a certain category and take home the first two movies I saw that I had not seen (not as much straight-to-video crap back in those days). It was glorious. In addition, I became friendly with the staff of some local movie theaters as well, and free viewings ensued.

But it was the video store that still made me happy. Look, I’m not stupid, not entirely. I know that all of you have a story about getting charged late fees you thought were bogus, or of an exceptionally rude desk monkey who insulted you. I get it. But you know what? I loved working on Friday and Saturday nights and watching people file in by the hundreds to get the latest flicks. Sure, we ran out of stuff, but that’s what’s great about the video store; if one title was gone, you just walked a few feet and there were thousands more. I really felt good when I could find someone that lone copy of the new movie that came in the return bin just as they were leaving. Sure, there were bad times, but the good outweighed the bad.

My favorite type of customer was the one that said, “I’ve seen everything, buddy. What have you got?” My favorites at the time that always stumped them were MANHUNTER (which I prefer to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), MIRACLE MILE (tense stuff, I’m telling ya), MOSQUITO COAST (an overly-surly Harrison Ford), FANDANGO (Kevin Costner before he became Kevin Costner), ROMAN HOLIDAY (do I have to explain?), and my favorite, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER. Kids and chess? It was a hard sell, but they always came back with thanks.

Sure, I could tell you some horror stories about customers and employees alike, but not here, not now.

In 1995, I got a role as a student in the movie MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS. To say you were a student in that film is like saying you were ‘soldier’ in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, so don’t get too excited. But I will say this: to see a movie on the rental shelf that I was in, and to have my co-workers razz me about it in front of customers was a real happy experience for me.

A little after that, a friend of mine said he needed help at the corporate headquarters taking calls from stores with questions. This was a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday job, and I knew that it was a big step in BECOMING A RESPONSIBLE ADULT. I took the chance, and took a desk job. From there I would take a different position in which I would spend the bulk of my tenure doing.

You know how in grade school you would find yourself doodling the names of stuff you liked on your notebooks? Somehow, writing the words “GHOSTBUSTERS RULE!” just kinda made you smile. Well, Hollywood Video actually PAID me to doodle. I became the title entry guy for the company. Every movie, game and whatever else they carried in their stores had to be put in a database, and I was the guy. I would go and see a movie in a theater, knowing that in less than a year I would be typing it into the system, and knowing people all over the country would be reading it when they rented it.

Here’s the thing: video rental was HUGE. Hollywood Video was always in the top 3 in the country, and it all came out of Oregon, my home state. I always took pride in that, for better and for worse.

And worse it would get.

It comes down to this: technology just killed us. ‘Basic’ cable went from a handful of channels to hundreds. Every kind of cable service comes with a DVR device built in, designed to record days’ worth of shows, RedBoxes appeared outside of every place that most people go to once a day, and finally, NetFlix figured out that people like having movies mailed to them. All of that means that no one wants to get in their car to make a trip to the local video store. And now a company that once had close to 5000 stores, 2 warehouses, 2 head offices and all the employees that go along with it, will not see the light of 2011.

Is the company itself partly to blame? Maybe, sure, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the end of an era, really, if I may be so bold. Think about it: my son will grow up in a world in which when he sees a rotary phone, a tube TV, heck, maybe even a CD, he’ll wonder what the heck it is. He’ll never know that the internet did not exist at one time. In my mind, video stores used to be just as vital in American popular culture as iPods and Xboxes.

And soon they’ll be gone, and that saddens me. Not just because I am out of a job; too many in this country are out of work for me to throw a personal pity party. Not because I think these new media are ‘evil’; heck, who can argue with getting movies mailed to you? It’s a sweet deal. And certainly not because I think that everybody loved us 100% of the time; if they did, we would still be in business.

I am sad because I truly believe that a video store physically embodied a place that celebrated movies. Call me corny, I don’t care. But there was a certain sense of—yes—community, while I was in the store. Watching people roam the aisles and recognize movies they’d seen, saying to their friends, “Remember that one? That was great!”, or seeing them merely pick up a box and show it to their spouse, getting nothing but a knowing nod in return. Or the best: seeing a group—after searching forever without an end in sight—come to a sudden stop in front of a movie you know they had all already seen a million times and declare “THIS IS IT!” You don’t get that sitting alone in front of a laptop, I don’t care how many people are in your video chat room.

Was it always candy and flowers? Of course not. But even the horror stories got funnier over time and became something to look back on with a shake of the head rather than a wince.

And no matter how many people may try to paint Hollywood Video in a bad light, remember this: at one point at the top of their success, they opened up entertainment centers in hospital wings for children. Heck, I even got to put on a foam-rubber suit and make sick kids laugh. Focus on the late fees if you want, I’ll remember other things.

I am sad because it’s over. I am sad because I love movies, and I found a way for 22 years to be attached to every movie that came out, and get paid for it to boot. The friends I have made, worked with and fought with will always be with me, as will the movies.

Man, I love movies.

Think I’ll go watch a movie. Maybe CINEMA PARADISO, so I can cry my eyes out.

Then maybe I’ll watch another.

Maybe on VHS, just because.

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