Viva Videodrome, the Atlanta video rental store that refuses to die

Please (don’t) rewind
Videodrome
Owner Matt Booth curates the movie posters from a collection in the back.

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

In 1998, film lovers Matt Booth and Jeff Sutton quit their jobs at Video Update, a movie rental store in Little Five Points. With $25,000 and a stash of cult VHS tapes, they took a chance that was as risky then as it would be today: They opened their own movie rental shop in Poncey-Highland.

At the time, there was no shortage of places to rent current hits like Face/Off or Armageddon. In addition to Video Update, there was a Blockbuster a short drive down Ponce de Leon Avenue. Movies Worth Seeing, two miles away, was the go-to spot for foreign films. Even grocery stores were in the video rental business. Named Videodrome in homage to David Cronenberg’s mind-bending sci-fi film, Booth and Sutton’s store would specialize in subgenres such as foreign horror, indies, and anime—movies ignored by chain stores. And nearly 20 years later, their competitors are all gone, victims of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu; crushing debt; and hubris.

Videodrome
Videodrome staff view the store as a “public cinema library.”

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

The roughly 2,000-square-foot shop at the prime corner of North Highland and North avenues is the last video store standing in Atlanta that is not of the XXX variety. It is an oasis for film buffs and the occasional visiting celebrity—Peter Fonda, Woody Harrelson, and Bill Paxton have all walked through the doors—who are suckers for special features, director’s cuts, or not letting Netflix’s algorithms ration out their media diets. In the process, it’s become a cinematic library filling the glaring gaps in indie and foreign selections in on-demand video catalogs—and become as much a beloved Atlanta institution as Murder Kroger, the Clermont Lounge, or its neighbor Manuel’s Tavern.

“It’s like going to a record store,” says Tommy Morgan, a 17-year employee and carpenter who has spent years building and expanding shelves. “It’s a tactile experience. We are the neighborhood hardware store. People know us.”

Videodrome
Matt Booth, owner

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

What’s their secret to survival? A mostly supportive landlord, who Booth says has raised the rent by just small amounts over the years, helps. More critical are customer loyalty, the extremely knowledgeable staff, and an almost daunting number of films. With roughly 23,000 titles available—thousands more than what major streaming services currently offer—customers can peruse categories like Scandinavian dark crime, Australian exploitation gems, or early films from a director’s oeuvre. Matt Owensby, who first walked in 15 years ago, kept showing up until John Robinson, a DJ and writer who manages the store two days out of the week, offered him a shift. “That’s pretty much the hiring process at the store: rent a ton, and hang out around the counter until a shift opens up,” says Owensby, who switched his film studies major to anthropology because he learned more about cinema from the stacks of movies he took home after every shift.

“Movies are two-hour vacations from your world, and you should look to someone who’s been there and knows what they’re talking about,” says Christopher Escobar, the executive director of the Atlanta Film Society. “Quentin Tarantino worked at [a video store]. These are people cut from that same cloth; it’s their passion, and someone pays them for it. This is walking into a restaurant where everyone there is a chef.”

As an industry fades, so do the businesses that depend on it. The manufacturer of the plastic cases that hold the rented DVDs—Booth buys hundreds at a time—doubled the price. The sleeves employees glue to display boxes to hold check-out tags were discontinued, so employees had to start cutting slits in the plastic covers. The paper company even quit making the check-out tags, so now staffers print and cut their own. Film-centric magazines list what’s streaming, not upcoming DVD releases.

As eastside Atlanta has evolved and rents have risen, some loyal customers have had to move farther away, and that displacement has possibly hurt Videodrome more than customers relying on Hulu and Amazon Prime, Booth says. The store extended its rental time for older titles to one week partly to give customers more time for returns.

Over time, like video stores in cultural hubs such as Seattle, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, the store itself has adapted, too, switching from VHS to DVD and Blu-ray and stocking some Hollywood hits. In addition to film screenings at East Atlanta Village’s Gaja and nearby JavaVino, the crew provides witty criticism—filmed in-store—about esoteric topics like regicide in cinema or blacklisted director Joseph Losey for Turner Classic Movies’ FilmStruck. Bret Wood, an Atlanta-based producer at film production company Kino Lorber, drafted Videodrome employees to provide DVD commentary for a reissue of Clambake, a 1967 musical starring Elvis as an oil heir turned water-skiing instructor. Starting in January, the store will screen movies at the Plaza Theatre in a partnership with TCM and the Atlanta Film Society. And a 20th anniversary party is planned for June.

But what could most endanger the shop is being viewed as a novelty rather than a resource for cinema. “To have a healthy cultural diet, you need the local,” Escobar says. “It’s not enough to like that they’re there; you’ve got to go there and spend money.”

Get your Popcorn
Videodrome staffers’ holiday movie favorites

Videodrome
Blast of Silence

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Blast of Silence (1961)
Allen Baron’s dark existential film—“mean-ass noir,” says Matt Owensby—follows a hitman who comes to New York during Christmastime to kill a mobster.

Videodrome
2046

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

2046 (2004)
Directed by Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai, the sci-fi/drama sequel to In the Mood for Love “captures the loneliness and melancholy of the season,” John Robinson says.

Videodrome
Brazil

Photograph by Patrick Heagney

Brazil (1985)
In Terry Gilliam’s dystopian classic—“a top-notch weird Christmas pick,” says Owensby—a quiet home on Christmas gets interrupted by soldiers rappelling through a window.

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.

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