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San Francisco’s Le Video Looking For New Model to Survive

| March 14, 2014
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Le Video website takes aim at Netflix.

Le Video website takes aim at Netflix.

Earlier this week, Le Video, a favorite place to rent movies among San Francisco film lovers, said its financial circumstances had become dire, and barring a “miracle” would close at the end of April. Or, as the site French Morning put it: “Le Video, véritable trésor culturel francophone, se meurt.”

Well, se meurt, maybe. Fifteen-year employee John Taylor, who works as a buyer for the store, said the outpouring of goodwill that the announcement prompted has made him a “little more hopeful” the store would survive.

“There’s been a ton of good response on Facebook,” he said. “People have been tweeting about it. Different people have come forward with ideas, either coming into the store or in emails.”

The Inner Sunset neighborhood fixture opened in 1980. Owner Catherine Tchen, who was born in Paris, told the Sunset Beacon in 2012 that she launched the store because of the dearth of French and other foreign films available in San Francisco. “Tchen searched the globe to find a wide range of silent, black-and-white, experimental, independent, cult and foreign films,” the Beacon wrote.

“I wanted to create my own personal Cinématheque and to give customers their own personal Cinématheque in their backyard,” Tchen said.

John Taylor said the store has been losing money for years. While some other treasured cultural retail outposts have come under financial pressure due to rising rents in the city, Tchen actually owns the building that her business is located in. But Taylor said she can no longer afford to keep the unprofitable business afloat instead of renting out the 3,000-square-foot ground floor that it now occupies.

Taylor said the store wants to implement a plan in which it would move the 80,000-90,000 titles in stock to an upstairs space. There customers would not be able to browse the films, but could peruse the titles in copious binders. Ideally, the store wants to switch to a rent-by-mail business, like Netflix. Le Video has been working on cleaning up its database and creating software for such a transition, Taylor said.

“My hope is that we’ll go upstairs, keep the collection alive,” he said. “We’re working on doing a Kickstarter or Indiegogo.”

In the meantime, the store has truncated its hours. Le Video is also asking that anyone who has prepaid for movies to use their remaining credits while they can.

The widespread changes in media delivery over the past few years may have some observers amazed that the store has lasted this long. As Netflix has gradually swelled into a movie rental colossus, the city’s video stores, independent and chain store alike, have shut down. Taylor attributes the lousy video business climate to “people’s interest in having things streaming to them and not having to leave the house to get stuff. They want instant gratification for their entertainment, and even though they have less of a choice it doesn’t matter to a lot of people.”

Sounds about right. Years ago, serious cinema fans automatically put Le Video on their must-visit list. The store says it has “the largest rental selection in California,” and anyone who’s snaked his or her way through the aisles, awestruck at the breadth and depth of the selection, wouldn’t doubt it. While I made that pilgrimage many times awhile back, I also stand as a good example of why even the most exceptional video stores are moribund. I used to actually schlep to Le Video on Muni for the privilege of renting an obscure Werner Herzog film or something. But when Netflix came along with its so-called long tail, the strategy of stockpiling a vast array of niche content so that it becomes profitable in the aggregate, I more and more made the decision to have my hard-to-find movies delivered direct.

Netflix’s business model has changed, however. They’re very much trying to move people away from DVDs and onto streaming, a service that currently has a much more limited selection of titles. Perhaps, consequently, the famous long tail has been trimmed. Strictly anecdotal, but I’ve noticed some DVDs that used to sit patiently waiting their turn in my queue have now dropped down to the “saved” section, where the time of their availability is “unknown.” Le Video’s John Taylor pointed out  Netflix’s collection now omits many standard titles — like some Woody Allen movies. A quick check reveals “Bananas,” “Mighty Aphrodite,” “Everyone Says I Love You,” “Deconstructing Harry,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask” and “September” — all unavailable. Via streaming, it’s really slim Woody-pickings: Just “Manhattan” and “Play It Again Sam.” A Netflix spokeswoman emailed me that it doesn’t publicize numbers for its library. She did not respond to the question of why some DVDs previously available on Netflix are now MIA.

I encountered a problem stemming from this trend recently, when I needed to get hold of “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” the seminal black independent film by Melvin Van Peebles, for a piece I’m writing. I had rented it through Netflix in the past, but it’s currently unavailable. I couldn’t find it for rent on Amazon or iTunes either. I would have run down to my local video store, but I don’t have a local video store. My wife eventually snared a copy at a library in Marin.

One moral of that story is the lengths to which I went to avoid having to head over to Le Video to get the film. But there’s another point as well: For those who want to get hold of more obscure titles, subscriptions to multiple services may now be necessary. And a one-stop movie shop like Le Video, long tail intact, may still be relevant.

In the meantime, ideas for keeping Le Video afloat are all over its Facebook page. Said one customer: “It’s crazy, but someone find a way to contact Tarantino. He’s a well known lover of the SF movie scene and has a special place in his heart for video stores for true film fanatics like himself.”

Anyone?

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  • Ragazzu

    KQED deleted my comment. I took this film writer to task for going out of his way to avoid a trip to Le Video.

  • http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix Jon Brooks, KQED

    Hey there,

    We didn’t delete your comment. It still exists on this earlier version of the post that appeared on KQED Arts:

    http://www.kqed.org/arts/movies/article.jsp?essid=134827

    Sorry for the confusion.