With around 250 stores remaining in the United States, Family Video is the largest video store chain left — and they’re trying to launch a hashtag campaign and build some partnerships to bring attention to the struggles they and other video stores are facing amid the coronavirus pandemic. #SaveTheVideoStore is an initiative cooked up by Family Video’s brand management and social media managers, and they’re hoping to build the kind of broad coalition with the remaining video stores that fans are used to in industries like comic book and record stores, each of which have successfully banded large chunks of the market together to celebrate things like Free Comic Book Day, an annual event that helps keep eyes on the comics market.
It is an uphill battle: about half of the Family Video locations that existed at the start of the year have been closed since the start of the pandemic, as the company does their best to keep as many shops open as possible by closing down underperforming locations, or stores that are close enough to other locations that they might cannibalize their business. Blockbuster became so synonymous with the very idea of video rental that their collapse in 2010 left a lot of potential customers thinking that the whole business model was extinct, meaning that a key part of the challenge is just reminding Americans that there probably is a video store near you — and doing it without things like the Comic Shop Locator that Diamond Comics Distributors make available to fans.
“People forget the video store exists; they can’t believe it’s still around,” Alexandra Beaton, who runs the company’s social media accounts, told ComicBook.com during a conversation today. “Blockbuster got back on Twitter in August because of that pop-up with AirBnB. We saw so much chatter and activity and so much of it was what? You’re still around?’ We need to get in front of people and say yes, we’re still here, and there is a local video store for you in so many places, so let’s get them all together and see what we can do.”
Since the collapse of the other big chains, much has been made of Family Video’s business model, which involves buying the property their stores are on so that they aren’t paying rent. What it also means is that when a location closes, selling the property can help keep the remaining stores afloat, allowing the company to come out of the closure with more cash on hand rather than piles of debt.
“I think today’s video store has evolved,” Beaton said. “Mom and pop shops have always been kind of this way, but Family Video tries to be more rooted in the community. That can sound like some marketing BS a little bit, but our regulars bring us meals and cookies; there’s a blood drive going on every weekend. I think that’s how you build a sustainable video business at this stage. People can go so many other places, and there has to be that little something special in the store.”
That’s something that appeals to a lot of people. In the upcoming documentary film The Last Blockbuster, the filmmakers tracked numerous everyday people and celebrities, all of whom found the Blockbuster Video in Bend, Oregon to be a kind of hallowed ground, missing the smells and sounds of a video rental shop — a kind of business that used to be omnipresent and now requires a special trip to find it.
“There’s nothing like it,” Beaton said. “To this day, it remains my favorite job that I’ve ever had. It was my dream job, when I was in middle school and high school, that was all I wanted to do was work at a Family Video, but you had to be 18 because they had a back room, and I was devastated. All I wanted to do was work there, but it all worked out in college.”
She said that once she got the job, she would drive 45 minutes to work at the video store, before eventually moving into a job on the corporate side of the business rather than the retail side.
Family Video is trying to adjust to the changing industry — they have had big success with their ecommerce site, especially when they have sales on collector-friendly items like TV box sets and collector’s editions from Arrow, Criterion, and other prestige lines. Beaton guesses around 70% of their online customer base have never set foot inside of a Family Video store.
They also have a couple of benefits that smaller stores don’t enjoy; in addition to simply the number of locations, Family Video has some additional visibility afforded to them by Stranger Things, the wildly popular Netflix show that has featured Family Video stores and logos in a number of episodes. Beaton said that the decision, relatively recently, to sell a Family Video logo t-shirt on the website was almost incidental, responding to a small number of customer requests — but as soon as they became available they flew off the digital shelves, and it seems likely a good chunk of those sales were from Stranger Things fans who didn’t even know the company was real, let alone still in business.
Still, part of the focus on foot traffic in the stores is the same reason you focus on that in other niche industries like comics: without your regular customers, it’s hard to see a light at the end of any tunnel.
“It’s our regulars that keeps us afloat, like any other business,” Beaton explained. “They’re coming in on Tuesdays, they’re coming in on Fridays, and they know what they want. What really hurts lately, is no new releases. The studios aren’t putting stuff out, and trying to hype some of the lesser titles has been a little bit of a challenge. Hopefully this means people can rediscover some of those older movies that aren’t on streaming.”
Beaton said that she’s always a little surprised, and very tickled, by the stories she hears on social media about customers who met, became friends, or got married when they were either working at a Family Video or just sharing small talk in the horror section.
“Especially now, if you’re making the trip to a video store, you want a human connection,” Beaton said. “You want to nerd out with the person working there about your favorite movie. You want to talk to the person who’s sitting in the horror section about what they would recommend. Conversations with strangers is something that we don’t get a lot of now, since it’s been replaced by social media, but there’s something special about the aspect of community and the kind of happenstance too that you find at the video store.”
It’s that social aspect that so many movie buffs talk about missing when nostalgia for video stores comes up in conversation, and that’s a big part of what Beaton and Family Video are hoping to try and preserve with the #SaveTheVideoStore campaign.
“I think it’s a perfect storm of several events; even last year, we’d seen a slow decline in foot traffic, but it was still really active in a lot of the communities. Then the pandemic hit and it was like ,oh crap, we need to make these decisions to keep as many stores afloat as possible. The ‘Save the Video Store’ hashtag is really just a way of us trying to band together with all the video stores. We may be the last of the big ones, but there are many mom and pop stores from around the country that are also suffering through the pandemic. It’s really about, how do we get everybody back in the video store?”