Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing

 by R.K. Hook

What ever happened to the video rental business?  How could a business so popular and widely appreciated just fall off the face of the earth overnight, as though it were hit by some unknown plague?  So many of these little rental stores were scattered around the small, modest town of Berwick, Pennsylvania in the 80's and 90's.  At that time in Berwick there were more video stores than grocery stores.  I specifically remember a few right off the top of my head: Take One Video, Front Street Video, West Coast Video (later known as Powerhouse), Blockbuster Video, and last but certainly not least, Hollywood Video.  That is only naming the few.  There were others, but of all them, Hollywood Video is the only one still standing and operating for business.  The rest have all dried up, long since gone; a distant memory.

Hollywood Video is special.  You always feel at home when you walk through the doors.  You're always greeted with kindness, and the men who work there know most of the customer's by name. When you walk into that store, you're greeted not only as a patron but as a friend.  And you're always apt to find what you're looking for with a smile and hospitality.  There are over 10,000 titles to choose from, most of them book-ended because you wouldn't be able to fit that quantity on the shelves otherwise.  Many video stores stock films by categories.  For example, popular comedies, Dramas, Action and Horror.  But Hollywood carries this concept a bit further having specific sections for more esoteric categories such as the Classics, Cult Classics, Film Noir, Westerns, Professional Wrestling, and even a designated spot for the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

Nick Miller, owner and operator of Hollywood Video (not the chain) in Berwick, Pennsylvania is above all else:  a hardcore movie fan.  You'll usually find him standing behind the counter wearing a Hawian-style shirt, khaki pants, and sometimes sporting a handlebar mustache, while some classic western is playing in the background on the screen.  His brown hair is shoulder length, his posture is confident, and he's usually smiling from ear to ear.  At the door, a bell sounds, and one hundred percent of the time, Nick's attention is always at that door, waiting to greet his next customer.  With a soft voice and a keen memory of film, you can be in his store for hours just talking about movies.  He's apt to know what director you're looking for, what actor or actress you want and how many Oscars they've won.  His mind is a film projector, constantly spinning reels of film forever within the walls of his mind.

In addition to the store itself, Nick has a personal collection of over 3,000 movies, an extensive knowledge of film and a pinch of business sense.  He's successfully run Hollywood Video since August of 2007.  "I've loved movies since I was a kid," says Nick Miller.  "My favorite movie is RoboCop.  There's a great story there, and to this day the special effects hold up."  He adds.  "My main desire in high school was to work in a video store.  My love of movies is endless.  I need to be around them everyday."

To understand Nick's story, or that of any other video store owner we must go back a few decades.

The VCR is the father of video stores.  In 1977, RCA was busy manufacturing the very first VCR's for the general public.  Customers had to dig deep into their pockets to pay the $1,000 that those initial machines had cost.

Once the VCR, although expensive for the average person, became readily available, video rental stores were peppered throughout the United States.  In L.A. Video Station was one of the very first stores opened.  And soon many others would follow.  The business was rapidly spreading like wild fire.  Mom and pop video stores continued to grow at a very fast rate.  When studios allowed easier access to their films, fans from all over the world could now see their favorite movies in the comfort of their homes.  Previously, you'd only have a chance to see the films in theaters, or play high prices for VHS tapes.  Some of those tapes averaged a hundred dollars or more.  From the late 70's, and all through the 80's, video stores thrived and grew in communities.  Instead of being out late on a Friday evening, people where at home, on their couches, with friends, or a date, taking in a movie.  Another big time competitor tore its way through the competition to become the corporate staple of the video rental business.  Blockbuster Video would eventually move into those small towns, driving the independent mom and pop shops out of business.  In 2004, at the very height of their success, Blockbuster Video employed an astronomical 60,000 employees.  Around that time Nick Miller was one of those 60,000.

In 1999 Blockbuster Video opened a store in Berwick.  But the town already had its fair share of video rental stores and most of them were independently owned.  Take One Video, Hollywood Video, and West Coast were the heavy hitters in town.  With the addition of Blockbuster, the market was quickly overcrowded.

Nick Miller's stint with Blockbuster Video started in 2003.  He remembers it well.  "It was fun at first, I loved that I was able to work with movies."  The fun wouldn't last too long and soon his opinion on his situation changed.  "Once they told me I wasn't gonna be anything more than a cashier I lost interest in working for them."  Nick wanted more than just another meager cashier position.  Management or even a shift leader would have been satisfactory, but his superiors disagreed right away.  "They said I had no business sense.  What it boiled down to was that I didn't ram the sales down the customer's throats."

His disenchantment with Blockbuster soon lead to his venturing out and looking for something new.  Their lack of commitment and drastic schedule changes, including shortening his hours to a mere fifteen a week finally drove that wedge between them.  With an undying passion for films, Nick wanted to stay in the same line of work.  He went to Bonnie Sweeney who, at the time, owned Hollywood Video.

After explaining his situation to Bonnie, she offered him a job.  Bonnie couldn't compete with the salary that Blockbuster paid, but she assured Nick that he'd have at least thirty hours a week with her.  Within a few days Nick's role at Hollywood was more demanding, and satisfactory than he'd experienced at Blockbuster.  He quickly became Bonnie's number one employee.  "I was the one that didn't have two jobs so she gave me more hours.  I learned a lot more with her than I ever did with Blockbuster."

Nick would soon realize that Bonnie was actually grooming him for future endeavors.  Under her tutelage, Nick was being modeled into a business man.  Most, if not all the responsibilities were being placed on Nick's shoulders.  Early on Bonnie started to drop hints that she wanted him to buy the store.  At first the hints seemed like a joke, but after about a year of employment, Bonnie and her husband started to really show interest in selling the store.  Bonnie loved his ambition and passion for not only the business side of the store, but his vast knowledge of the films within the store.

Nick Miller became the official owner on August 1st 2007.  It was a personal victory for Nick and one that he takes great pride in.  With him is his co-worker and fellow movie buff, Steve Havlish.  The two have been flipping schedules and manning the store on their own.  They compliment each other in film knowledge - what one doesn't know the other will - and a mutual respect for customers looking for new releases or hard to find gems.  Steve was employed with Bonnie but remained with Nick through the changeover.

With his success, Nick still has certain reservations.  "At first I was very intimidated by running my own store.  After awhile, it just becomes second nature.  It's like anything else you do in life.  You live, you learn, and you either succeed or fail.  Giving up isn't an option."

When he bought the store in 2007 some of the competition was showing signs of weakening.  Powerhouse was struggling, only grabbing the "big box office titles", and had a weak back catalog.  They were never a threat to Nick.  "I did my best to emphasize my stores strengths over theirs.  I brought in as many "B" titles as I could get because I knew they weren't making any effort to bring any in their store."

Blockbuster was more of a concern.  It had two advantages over Hollywood Video: games and copy depth.  Game sales were keeping them alive, barely.  They also had more titles of a particular new release.  While Hollywood lacked in some areas, it excelled in others.  "What they [Blockbuster] didn't have was a selection of older titles.  So that's what I focused on," says Nick.  "The classics.  The hard to find gems that other stores didn't carry."

In September 2010, Blockbuster declared bankruptcy.  This was primarily due to two other new competitors, Netflix and Redbox.

Netflix began in 1997 and launched its mailing services in 1999.  This was now more convenient to the customer because the movie would arrive in the mail.  By 2007 Netflix gained over 1 million subscribers.  Blockbuster couldn't adapt to this online streaming monster.   Netflix slowly started to gain an advantage with customers around the United States.

Redbox, a subsidiary of Coinstar, was started in 2002.  After garnishing a following, they began installing kiosks on college campuses and around supermarkets.  The two important factors that led to victory for Netflix and Redbox were money and convenience.  Their movies were cheaper to rent and neither company ever charged you a late fee.  You had the liberty at all hours of the night, and at your own leisure to return or rent a movie.  Today, there are only about 500 Blockbuster stores left in the United State ( as of January 2014 Blockbuster has closed up all stores).  Netflix and Redbox are still serving millions everyday.  They're considered the best option, for most, to rent a move.

So how does a little, independently owned video store out live the corporate machine and keep up with the more convenient Netflix and Redbox?  There are a few answers.

Hollywood Video gets their new releases 28 days before Netflix and Redbox.  The major studios:  Warner Brothers, Fox and Universal have deals with Redbox and Netflix stating that if they wait twenty-eight days, they'll get more copies at a drastically lower rate.  Netflix's selection is constantly fluctuating due to contractual obligations with studios while Hollywood Video will always have thousands of titles to choose from.  Blockbuster used to send customers to collection agencies for late fees.  Many have said that this was a devious ploy for customers to pay those late fees.  It turned many customers away.

The digital age has all but swept the days of old under the rug.  Many people don't even have to leave the comfort of their homes to purchase anything.  Everything, even a grocery list, is just a click away on your computer.

What does this say about the future of our society?  It says that we've become socially inept and just plain lazy.

Is this all just a mundane argument.  Absolutely not.  Yes, it is only renting a movie, but why is walking into an establishment to rent a film such a thing of the past?  Have we become afraid or too lazy to leave our houses?  To have human interaction and to deal with people on a human level?  I've mentioned numerous advantages of Hollywood Video over Netflix and Redbox.  Is it really a money issues?  A laziness issue?  Or just convenience?

One thing is certain.  No matter how you obtain them, movies aren't going anywhere.  Movie viewing experiences are a pastime.  Will the digital age wipe out physical copies?  Yes.  But I don't believe that will happen anytime soon.  Not as long as guys like Nick Miller continue to thrive.  He may be in the minority, but he's still standing tall and providing entertainment to Berwick, Pennsylvania.

"I'm hoping to be around another ten years," says Nick.  "You can never tell, but I have a felling I'll be around for a while.  Just last year [2012] I had my best year financially in this store.  This economy is very unstable and has been for the last few years, so you can never tell what tomorrow will bring.  If you told me ten years ago I'd own a business and beat all the competition I'd laugh at you.  But here I am and I'm not planning on going anywhere anytime soon."

Humphrey Bogart once said, "The only thing you owe the public is a good performance."  Maybe the secret to Nick's success is in his hospitality.  Treat every customer like he or she is potentially your last.  Make them want to come back.

Certainly, whatever the case, or secret, six years later, Hollywood Video's doors are still open for business and still serving a world of entertainment to movie lovers of all kinds.

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