A Portland Video Store Goes Nonprofit To Save Itself

Oct 21, 2017

Portland's Movie Madness will take you back in time. The walls are lined with movie memorabilia — everything from the actual dress Julie Andrews wore to sing "Do-Re-Mi" in "The Sound of Music" to the knife from "Scream" and the soap from "Fight Club." The labyrinth of aisles arranges some 84,000 films by countries, directors, actors, and genres, which get as specific as Rampaging Teenagers, Childhood Icons Gone Terribly Wrong, and Problems with Rodents.

Owner Mike Clark started Movie Madness in 1991 with 2,000 VHS tapes, after working in the industry himself in Hollywood. He grew the store year after year until 2010, when he says he grossed more than $1 million, thanks in part to the closing of his biggest competition: Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Along the way, he became a regular at major memorabilia auctions, building a small museum-worth of items.

"When I first opened up on April 12, 1991," he recalls, "there were 50 video stores within a 5-mile radius."

Now, Clark knows of just one. He says Movie Madness itself is breaking even, although its business is half what it was at the peak.

Last year, the 71-year-old decided it was time to retire, but he didn't want his life's work to go up in eBay smoke. So he approached the Hollywood Theatre, a Portland nonprofit that restored a historic movie theater and turned it into a thriving film center, about buying the store.

For program director Dan Halsted, who relies on Movie Madness for researching films to program at the theater, they simply couldn't say no.

"It's more than just a video store; it's a film archive — it's the history of cinema in there," he says. "I think there's a misconception right now that movies are all available online, and that isn't the truth at all."

Last year, analysts at the investment bank Barclays calculated that the streaming content — both movies and TV shows — on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu totaled 37,638 titles, less than half of what Movie Madness has. And it's not just obscure films that are missing from the big three. The tracking site All Flicks says Netflix has little more than 250 movies from the entire 20th Century, and that its selection has shrunk significantly in recent years.

Clark offered to sell Movie Madness to the Hollywood Theatre for $250,000, less than half its appraised value. The theater nonprofit decided its best bet was a Kickstarter campaign. Looking for advice, they called a neighbor to the north: Scarecrow Video in Seattle, where a group of employees had formed a nonprofit and raised $100,000 to take over the store from the owners in 2014.

"Once we did the Kickstarter, we started getting calls every month from video stores all over country, and more of them were exploring the nonprofit route," says Scarecrow board president Kate Barr.

Similar nonprofit transformations have happened in Los Angeles, New Haven, and Norfolk, Virginia. Most recently, a collective raised $30,000 to start a collection from scratch and open a new store, Beyond Video, in Baltimore, a city that hasn't seen one since 2014.

The outporing of support in Portland was immediate. The Hollywood Theatre's Kickstarter raised more than $170,000 in just two days.

"This is really something of a deep cultural significance that needs to be preserved," says Barr. "In the same way that we should always be advocating for there to be public libraries, what is really evolving are these video libraries."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many of you might know today is International Independent Video Store Day. Those shops are mostly gone, but there's a bit of hope in Oregon. Aaron Scott of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on an effort in Portland to preserve one of the country's biggest collections.

UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: All right. That's $4.

AARON SCOTT, BYLINE: Remember this?

UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: Yeah, that's due Friday at 10 p.m.

SCOTT: Portland's Movie Madness will take you back in time. The walls - they're lined with movie memorabilia. And then there's the organization. Owner Mike Clark sorts the maze of aisles as only a true film buff would.

MIKE CLARK: 'Cause it goes by the director first. And if we don't have an area for that director, then it goes by the actor. And if the actor doesn't have an area, then it goes under a genre.

SCOTT: It's the kind of layout that leads to constant discoveries, according to 20-year-old Thomas Grover. He drives over every five days from Vancouver, Wash., to swap out his rentals.

THOMAS GROVER: Just for, like, a recent example, I've seen "Good Will Hunting" a lot as a kid.

SCOTT: And thanks to how movie madness is organized, he found a whole shelf by the same director, Gus Van Sant.

GROVER: Everything else I've watched by him is so much better even. So yeah, it's been great with, like, finding new stuff.

SCOTT: With more than 80,000 titles, Movie Madness draws people from all over the Portland area.

CLARK: When I first opened up on April 12, 1991, at that time, there was 50 video stores within a 5-mile radius.

SCOTT: Now Clark knows of just one. Last year, he decided it was time to retire. But he didn't want his life's work to go up in eBay smoke. So he approached the Hollywood Theatre about buying the store. It's a nonprofit that restored an old movie theater and turned it into a thriving film center. For program director Dan Halsted, they had to say yes.

DAN HALSTED: It's more than just a video store. It's a film archive. It's the history of cinema in there. And I think there's a misconception right now that movies are all available online. And that isn't the truth at all.

SCOTT: Last year, the investment bank Barclays added up the streaming content on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. The number they came up with isn't even half of what Movie Madness has. The tracking site All Flicks says Netflix has little more than 250 movies from the entire 20th century. Mike Clark offered to sell Movie Madness to the Hollywood Theatre for $250,000. They decided their best bet was to do a Kickstarter. And looking for advice, they called a neighbor to the north that had gone nonprofit, Scarecrow Video in Seattle.

KATE BARR: Once we did the Kickstarter, I started getting calls every month from video stores all over the country.

SCOTT: That's Scarecrow board president Kate Barr. When the owners there wanted out in 2014, Barr and other employees created a nonprofit and raised $100,000 to take over the store and save the collection.

BARR: This is really something of a deep cultural significance that needs to be preserved.

SCOTT: Similar nonprofit transformations have happened in Los Angeles, New Haven and, most recently, Baltimore.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Scott in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN VAUGHN'S "BRUSHFIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.