Against the Stream:
Video Shops

by Bill Mousoulis

Picture Search video store, Melbourne

This article was inspired by Mike Retter. See his article from 2018, Film Festivals Should Save Video Shops.

When the ephemeral becomes permanent, it will be too late. We need to act now.

With the internet still peddling its philosophy of "instant access to everything", the reality is displaying a dangerous narrowness when it comes to the internet streaming of films. The corporate mainstream platforms have limited playlists, whilst even the more niche platforms have huge gaps in their catalogues and, more worryingly, are struggling to survive. Only illegal file-sharing sites seem to offer some remedy to this.

Are we heading to a future where streaming is fully monopolised by the major companies and smaller operations are bullied out? Leaving only certain films available, and even those discarded after a while, never to be viewed again? Dystopic visions indeed.

Let's say we like a particular film, and would like to see it again sometime. Would you trust the platforms (any of them, even any niche and/or illegal ones) to have it available for you? The only real way to safeguard against this absence or loss is to, of course, physically own your own copy of the film, most likely on DVD or Blu-Ray.

Now, this issue isn't about "ownership" for me (i.e. ownership for its own sake, or for any "collector" instinct in the owner), it's about access, pure and simple. One should not trust the "cloud", or friends, or retail stores, or even any official Archives and Museums (who may hold certain rare artworks, but who make the works hard to access). (In fact, many Archives depend on deposits made by individual people who had the foresight to hold on to rare or unique material.)

Picture Search video store, Melbourne

The next best thing to owning your own copy of a film, is to access it somewhere where you know it will be, such as the video stores that are currently still around (and, of course, there are not many of them). These stores usually have visionary individuals behind them, individuals who are, in effect, "super-owners" of thousands and thousands of films.

Also, this is a matter of culture, a matter of maintaining a community of people around this thing called cinema. Otherwise, the dystopia will continue: everyone will just be plugged into their devices, consuming films (or parts of films) in an ad-hoc way, without any context or critique.

Culture is about the experience of film artworks: being physically in the space where the unmediated artwork is presented (a good cinema if possible), and sharing that with other people. And no, it is not about being a "cinephile" and riffing about the film with your cine-literate friends. It is an inclusive act, open to everyone. It is about the atmosphere of the context, with the act of simply "being there" driving an organic and complete experience.

Galactic Video store, Adelaide

And video stores, unlike streaming platforms, have plenty of this "atmosphere". Each DVD (or Blu-Ray or VHS) has its own presence, its own atmosphere, the graphics, the info, the way it sits in with all the other titles. (Truly it is a space of "cultural overload".) Each DVD title cannot be "scrolled away" like on the online platforms, each one in fact calls you, with its particular siren call.

And then there are the people running the stores, and the customers in the stores at the time you visit. Yes, you can converse and learn something new or share your thoughts.

But will all this disappear in a hyperspace black hole?

Mike Retter with Mahalah O'Malley at
Film Buff Central video store, Port Adelaide

Mike Retter, who owned and operated the Film Buff Central video store in Port Adelaide in the mid 2010s, is in no doubt about the value and quality of the physical media experience: "DVD/Bluray is like a peak of technology. Streaming treats films as disposable, and has created a cultural decline for cinema 100%. For a brief period after VHS, we were given high quality widescreen movies, with directors' commentaries, directors' cuts, making-of documentaries, interviews, etc. It was a high point for cinephilia, particularly self-taught cinephilia, outside of the universities. Now it's dropped again and this has correlated with a decline in the medium (movies)."

He also values the culture around video shops, not just the fact that they hold many titles: "The culture around these shops is less tangible but just as important. I don't just purely see it as 'This is what we used to do, we must maintain our heritage'. I actually believe it is a superior process, the films are given intrinsic value, rather than being throwaway or worthless, and so we therefore treat the art differently. It's also separate to the internet and that's very important."

Recently, in the past few years, there seems to be a renewed interest in video shops, and the two stores that Retter mentioned in his Film Festivals Should Save Video Shops article published here in 2018, Galactic Video in Adelaide and Picture Search in Melbourne, have managed to survive. Picture Search especially has been getting some great media profile recently, for example this article in The Guardian and also a feature on ABC's 7:30 program a few weeks back. Galactic Video is the smaller store in the smaller city, but as much of an institution for cinema lovers as Picture Search, and gets its own media stories, such as this article on the ABC News website. Galactic Video's holdings were also greatly bolstered by Film Buff Central/Port Film Co-op loaning their entire collection over to Galactic Video a few years ago after the Port Adelaide shop closed.

The owner-operators of Galactic Video (Stephen Vincent Zivkovic) and Picture Search (Derek de Vreugt) are clearly committed and extraordinary individuals, who have both now run these stores for over 20 years. I conducted these short interviews via email with them in recent days.

Bill Mousoulis: How difficult has it been for you to keep the store going, in these times?

Stephen Vincent: I do my best to keep my shop going. Galactic Video is in a basement shop, so my monthly rent is cheaper I dread if I ever have to move because rent is the killer. I am always short of working capital.

Have you tried, in the last years, approaching government organisations for funding, for example Screen Australia, or the South Australian Film Corporation, for some funds to keep you afloat each year, due to the "cultural value" you provide?

I have not bothered to apply for any grants because a) I don't think there are any categories that would cover me, and b) if there were, I don't think they would give me one anyway. I believe video rental stores provide a lot of cultural value which is not recognised. Here in Adelaide our last remaining Drive-In Theatre is about to close down. I think they have great cultural value, and if the government doesn't care about the last Drive-In shutting down, then they are unlikely to care about saving the last few video rental stores. Liberal Conservative governments don't care about the arts or humanities anyway; they are always slashing the budget for the arts.

I imagine there will be a mini-revival of hard media (DVDs, Blu-Rays) soon, as people become a little disillusioned by the streaming platforms. Do you sense this at all in the community of people that come to your shop? Is there a new breed of film-lovers growing, that wants to be "surrounded" by other cinephiles and films on shelves, etc.?

I get customers who come in and complain that their streaming service doesn't have their favourite film or TV show. This is because a streaming service will buy the rights for a package of films and TV shows for a certain number of years; once the rights have expired those shows disappear. Whereas a video rental store will often have it on DVD; physical media can exist for decades and be rented out to hundreds or thousands of people. Lots of younger people have been coming into the shop over the last year or so; these are people who would rather browse a physical title they can see and feel. They enjoy the tactile experience of actually holding something. People also come into the shop for the social experience; they enjoy chatting to staff and other customers about movies, and many other subjects - including politics and the weather!

Do you connect with other cinephile organisations such as the Adelaide Cinematheque? What about connecting with media/film students at universities?

I have many university students as members. My shop has been featured in student run university magazines. They come into the shop looking for hard to get titles that are not available for streaming. I have had media students interview me for video projects, and one independent film production did a location shoot in my shop last year.

Bill Mousoulis
: I gather you're in constant threat of being evicted, but your business (selling records now too) is allowing you to stay afloat. Have you tried, in the last years, approaching government organisations for funding, for example Screen Australia, or the Melbourne International Film Festival, for some funds to keep you afloat each year, due to the "cultural value" you provide?

Derek de Vreugt: I keep waiting before I promote the store or reach out to groups until I can show them what we have by having the catalogue on-line. And then "when I strike, they won't know what hit them!". Obviously better to be able to show what we have on-line, or in advertising, if the web-site is basically vacant, they won't probably look again when the catalogue does appear better to promote and show them what we've got. But it keeps never happening... but now we are nearly ready to put the catalogue on the web-site and so that it is interactive you can click on the titles and they'll have a URL. This thanks to some computer savvy customers of mine.

Have thought about asking if we should be associated with ACMI have a deal on hiring with members of the Cinematheque? Seeing if we could be housed in Federation Square, or associated with the National Sound & Film Archive. ACMI didn't seem to convert their hiring library to DVD from VHS. Could they buy me out I don't mind if people have access to all these titles without me being involved or they could pay me a salary as well.... I would have thought that MIFF would be in the business of needing support themselves. Could I be a not-for-profit or is that only for charitable organisations?

I imagine there will be a mini-revival of hard media (DVDs, Blu-Rays) soon, as people become a little disillusioned by the streaming platforms. Do you sense this at all in the community of people that come to your shop ? Is there a new breed of film-lovers growing, that wants to be "surrounded" by other cinephiles and films on shelves, etc.?

I don't know about a revival, maybe time will tell. Yes there are people coming in saying NETFLIX is shit. But if I've had an increase lately it is because people that didn't know I existed saw the 7:30 report story on us. Those that watch foreign and arthouse maybe eschew the streaming services more than most and always have....

Do you connect with other cinephile organisations such as the Melbourne Cinematheque? What about connecting with media/film students at universities ? Have you thought about trying to have a lounge/cafe section in your store, to further encourage the engagement and community of cinephiles? (yes, I know you don't have much space there!)

Media students have found us, they keeping making films in here, and some find some things they want to research here but you are right, they don't look for us really, they assume there is nowhere left and just give up so yes, advertising... apart from the catalogue on the web-site, I think we will be moving premises, so I might wait for the new address....

A 'GoFundMe' campaign? Annual memberships? I've heard a rumour that there may be incentives in the form of a certain percentage off rents in the CBD as, due to this COVID climate, apparently there's a need to incentivise business activity returning there. Prices in the inner city have been prohibitive, except for being in a basement somewhere perhaps. Although poor for parking, being in the CBD would mean we are one train journey from everybody in Melbourne who might want to hire a bunch of particularly good or rare or just un'downloadable' movies for the week.

This is a crucial time for us - I'm going to have my work cut out for me in this next month working out what happens next.

As Derek from Picture Search says above, his store does not have much of an online presence at the moment, and neither does Galactic Video. You can find them on Facebook if you want to, but the best bet is to literally walk into them one day and experience them for yourself.

Mike Retter: "The fact that neither Galactic Video or Picture search have a strong web presence is a beautiful thing. It creates that sense of separation between their methods and the internet. The cybernetic nature of things is creating a singularity that feels unstoppable. But it only feels unstoppable until you walk into a video rental shop or something else that ignores technological trends. I really hope that Derek never completes his online database of films... That's actually how Netflix started, as a mail-order service with an online database of movies, which then morphed into a streaming platform and nuked the video store. The best thing Derek can do for support is get decision-makers physically into his shop. I think their separation from the internet makes what they do sacred. Both shops are very different and reflect their very human owners. Picture Search is a labyrinthine cinephilic heaven that you can get lost in for hours. Galactic Video is well-curated, distilled-down to cult-classics and rarities in an underground bunker that feels like it could survive WW3. Expand your horizons, get out of internet algorithms and into these aesthetic zones."

Visit the stores:
Galactic Video
102-104 Gawler Pl, Adelaide SA 5000 - (08) 8224 0466
Picture Search 139 Swan St, Richmond VIC 3121 - (03) 9429 5639

There are several other notable video stores in Australia too, such as the NSW trio Film Club, Network Video and Bellingen Video Connection.

More power to them!




Bill Mousoulis is a Greek-Australian independent filmmaker since 1982, and a programmer and critic. He is the editor of the Pure Shit: Australian Cinema website.

Published March 1, 2022. © Bill Mousoulis, Mike Retter, Stephen Vincent, Derek de Vreugt March 2022.