Written by Brenna Goodwin-McCabe
I vividly remember being too short to see the top shelf of my video rental store, too young to read the titles. Trying desperately to find a copy of Dragonheart (1996) at 5 years old without asking for help or being able to read. Some kids practice reading signs aloud, sounding out each letter, I practiced with DVD cases, even a copy of Bride of Chucky (1998) I found one time in the Kid’s section. I looked forward to Friday nights because it meant going to the video store,and not just picking a movie, searching for one.
I learned early on that rental was both welcoming and competitive, because you never knew if they would have the DVD you were looking for. There was one copy of Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (2001) at Rogers, and I think I rented it every week, until one dreaded day when it was already rented and never returned. Hope was lost, because buying DVDs online, buying in general, just seemed unheard of. I thought, why stream or buy a movie when you can rent it. Why pay a monthly fee to be alone when you can go to the store and interact with that community? Better still, why rely on a service that gets to decide whether or not to pull a movie simply because it’s not as popular as a different one, or a service that actively buries certain media, knowing how long the average person spends watching it?
I am 26 now, which means I grew up around the time the video rental universe began to collapse. I started my own collection during the Fall of Blockbuster, as they began hosting chaotic sales where people would clumsily dismantle the store, running out with 30 or more cases, sometimes furniture. I remember being so upset, I had this sudden impulse to rush in and grab whatever DVDs I could, just to stop them from disappearing. I guess everyone else had the same idea. All those covers, gone.
If you drive past the old Rogers on Hastings and Slocan, you’ll see that the building is still there, nothing ever moved in after it closed. It’s always been for rent, and it’s become a bit of a mystery why such a sturdy building, what with its attached parking lot, has been left empty. You can see damaged newspapers left draped across the windows, newspapers that have been there for most of my life. It’s a haunted space, Vancouver’s own video rental ghost. But video rental survived that strange Blockbuster era, survived and got better, for a time.
Black Dog Video opened 26 years ago, first at Cambie, and then moving to Commercial Drive. They hold roughly 17,000 films and are one of the last video rental stores in Vancouver. I cannot understate just how important this business has been to the film community, as unlike the big chain rental stores of days before, Black Dog holds a range of mainstream and eccentric cinema. They have always been there to help people find their next favourite thing; to talk about film, not just sell it. When you walk in, you are greeted by broad cubical sections, shelves divided by genre and medium, others by specific directors. Whereas Blockbuster was blue and neon, Black Dog is dark and cool, it feels like a vintage library, complete with weird movie memorabilia and posters. I never knew there could be so many stories until I visited Black Dog and saw more than just new releases and established classics.
I came into Black Dog years ago and rented Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos (1993), and it made a huge difference in my film consumption. I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere, and then there it was, just waiting on the shelf.
I watched it, and that screening went on to inspire my later thesis on del Toro. Their recommendation is the reason I found del Toro’s work, and the best part was that I got to return it so someone else could have a similar experience. I didn’t know who they were, but I was excited for them. Black Dog, and other video rental stores, focus on this community, on assisting specific people and sharing knowledge, while streaming focuses on net profit and the average person’s attention span.
Black Dog announced on April 14th that they will be closing their doors for good. It’s a heartbreaking event, one largely caused by the rise in streaming in recent years. I sat down with owner Darren Gay to talk about Black Dog, the closure, and why video stores are so crucial for open distribution.
How did you get into video rental?
I moved here from Ontario in 95, and I lived around the Cambie and 18th area, and I used to go over to, I guess it was Mega Movies or Blockbuster, there was a couple over on Oak Street, and they had such a crappy selection. Sometimes I’d go and I’d spend like a half hour, forty minutes, just to come home with nothing. It was very discouraging, and then I just thought ‘why don’t I open my own shop’, and I start doing research about it, and then a year later we opened, March 5th, 1996, over on Cambie Street.
It’s funny, remembering Blockbuster, it’s such a different video rental store than Black Dog.
It’s not a very nice place to be in, its bright, trailers playing all the time, which I found was quite annoying. And their selection was really terrible, unless you want one of a hundred copies of, I don’t know, Walk in the Clouds (1995) or something like that. I never liked going there at all.
(Laugh) There wasn’t enough Criterion Collection going on at Blockbuster.
Their foreign section was really terrible, their horror section was even worse. It’s funny because a lot of people look back fondly at Blockbuster, I think they just look back fondly on the days of video stores really, because Blockbuster was never a really good store.
It’s like the Stranger Things (2016-) phenomenon of looking back at a certain decade and media with a lens of nostalgia.
Were there any films that were foundational to your current love for film?
I’ve always been a horror fan, growing up, we had a swimming pool in Ontario, and I always had a lot of fair-weather summer friends, you know, they’d show up for the summer. I remember it being like a hot Sunday afternoon, and they’re all swimming in my pool, and I’m in my basement in the dark watching like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962), that was what I liked to do back then. Movies like The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), those sort of great 70s things that came out. I was 10 years old when I saw Jaws, scared the hell out of me.
You’ve mentioned in a few other interviews, and I am quoting you here from CBC, the “convenience of mediocrity” when it comes to streaming. You seem like the most appropriate person to speak about the importance of DVDs and collections, so what brings you back to the actual DVD, versus streaming?
A number of things. First, the selection we have here. We have films from the turn of the century, 1900s, to now. That breadth of history, of movies, that we’ve curated here. We don’t have everything, of course, but we’ve got a pretty good selection that way. Having all of that, mostly stuff you can’t find on streaming.
I remember looking at Netflix one time, I typed in 1970s movies, just to see what they had, and they had 6 movies from the 70s.
Like how sad is that? It was ridiculous. And I also like the DVDs and Blu-ray for all the extra features. They have making-of documentaries, or interviews with people. It’s really good for filmmakers that way. I always go for the DVD, they’re better quality. Streaming I find very poor quality, I sit there with the remote in one hand, turning it up and down when there’s like a big explosion, and then turning it back up for the dialogue. I guess it’s just the nature of the way it’s presented on streaming, the quality is poorer. DVDs, they reign supreme over streaming, in pretty much every facet.
There are some pretty good TV shows among streamers, but for movie selection they’re all pretty crappy. Except for maybe Criterion streaming channel, I don’t have that one, but I’m sure I’ll have to get it in a few months after we close up.
I’ve even heard of directors that have films that were done by Netflix, and they want a DVD copy of their own film or show.
And they don’t have it. A few years from now people will look back on the age of DVDs and Blu-rays as the Golden Age of cinema, when you could have your own copy of a film in your house. We are relying on the streaming services that pull stuff all the time, you go searching for something you want and it’s rarely there. And if it is, it’s going to cost you like $10 or $20 or something like that.
It’s hard to say, Netflix is also apparently losing money hand over fist. I mean they have always been millions of dollars in debt but now they are heading in the wrong direction, so who knows, they might not be around in the next few years. There might be a resurgence in home video, I know since we made the announcement, we haven’t been this busy in 10 years. It’s been crazy, people have just been flocking to the store. A lot coming in and buying merch, but lot of people coming in and watching films that they aren’t going to be able to see again. The future, I don’t think it’s very bright. After all the video stores are closed, you’re just not going to find them [these movies] anymore. Where are you going to find it? Not online. It’s quite sad.
It is really sad. There’s something about being able to go to a store like yours and just peruse the collection and see it in front of you, and actually hold it and learn about the other directors that are around it.
And to get recommendations from staff, or other customers that just happen to be in the shop, you can’t replace that.
No, and we’ve seen that happen with record stores, we’ve seen the resurgence of that. The common complaint with that is the records are so much more expensive than what they were.
I used to work in a record store back in the 80s and the records are way more expensive now than they used to be. You’d think it would be the other way around.
Exactly, but that said, are there any popular sections in Black Dog, genres or directors that people run to?
Wes Anderson is probably our most rented director; I think he is the only one that we have two copies of each film in his section. It all depends on your taste. I have people that beeline it to the horror section, people also like the classics, foreign films, documentaries. Not any specific area, but we have a great selection of cult films, the weirdest, the strangest things you could imagine. There’s definitely a clientele for that.
It’s funny you mention Wes Anderson, I vividly remember coming in with a friend and she rented Wes Anderson. So that makes perfect sense, I guess.
Yeah, and smaller films like Harold and Maude (1971), it’s always been a great renter, I’ve got a couple of copies of that. Wicker Man (1973), classic ones from the 70s.
You run a podcast in your store about movies, are there any specific episodes you would recommend for new listeners?
The later ones, go with those ones. When we started out, it’s myself and two of my employees,Dylan and Alex, and our very first one we recorded on Dylan’s iPhone, and then we moved up to a single microphone, we huddled around, and [now] we finally have a producer, a friend of ours, Gregg. The last five or six I would recommend. We just did Life of Brian for Easter, that one was pretty fun.
I remember around Halloween you rewatched all the Freddy Krueger movies and raised funds for the Food Bank, I can’t imagine how strange that experience of sitting down and watching all of those in a row must have been
It was weird. That’s the second time we’ve done that. The previous Halloween we did all the Friday the 13th films and there’s way more films in that series than the Freddy films. It was surreal and bizarre, and a long day. For the Friday the 13th one, we started at 10 in the morning, I got home at 3 in the morning, and then one of the guys, Alex, stayed by himself to watch like Freddy vs. Jason (2003), I can’t remember, or the one that’s in space. He got home at 5:30 in the morning. It was a long crazy day, but it was fun. We raised quite a bit of money for the Food Bank, which was awesome, and we are going to hopefully squeeze one more of those in before we close up shop, because we really like doing it, and it’s a great cause, and it’s fun to just hang out with my friends and watch movies all day long
Thinking about that commitment, because there are certain movies that as a filmgoer you have to watch, would you say that there is a necessary work when it comes to movie watching? Maybe this ties into the act of finding and renting a movie.
There are certain directors, I am working my way through stuff I should have seen by now too. I haven’t seen a lot of Fassbinder or Bergman; I’ve got a lot of way to go myself. There’s actually this great 5-disc box set called ‘The Story of Film’, it’s amazing, like really in-depth, gives you the history of cinema up until about 15 years ago, whenever it was made. I learned a lot from that, it made me go and watch some stuff I hadn’t seen before. It all depends on what you’re into, because if you are into like Herzog we can fix you up with that guy, or if you are into classics, it all depends.
I think one of the best things about your business is being able to go in and learn. It’s different when you’re on a streaming service, and you just see a bunch of titles, and some summaries, and they are not really in an order of any kind.
I always find that, if I didn’t bring anything home, and I am touring around any streaming services, I just end up watching something I’ve already seen, because there is nothing there of interest to me that I haven’t seen, their selection is quite dire unfortunately.
I think it’s important to note your role on the Drive. I mean you’ve seen the struggles a lot of your fellow businesses have been dealing with, what with rent surges and the pandemic. I remember the support you lent when the Rio Theatre was almost closed for good, and what you’ve done for Vancouver’s local film community over the years. Is there anything you want to say to that community, I know you’ve meant a lot to them, you’ve made a big difference.
It’s funny because I never really thought of it that way until we announced we’re closing. We’ve been getting so many people coming in and saying how much they liked us and relied on us, and that sort of thing. It’s just such a drag that we’re closing our doors, and I hate to do it, because I love to have this catalogue available just for everybody to come and check out whenever they need to. But the Rio is still kicking around, and our old location on Cambie Street, which I sold a couple of years ago, is still kicking around. Video Cat, they basically have the same selection we have, because I built both collections, I am sure that RJ has added more since he took over, but they still have a really good selection over there as well, so at least keep one of these awesome collections alive. We couldn’t do it, so hopefully he can hang on for awhile longer.
Is there any hope of you staying open if there was a fundraiser or something?
There’s always hope, but the problem is, I’ve had a few offers from people who want to invest x amount of dollars, but that’s basically stop gap measures. The problem is we’ve lost so many customers to streaming, we just need more people to come in on a regular basis, and I’ve been trying to get people to come in the past couple of years, putting it out there that we are kind of in trouble, all this kind of stuff, but nothing really worked, and you know, finally I just had to pull the plug. But you never know, I actually went and I bought a lottery ticket yesterday and I’ve had at least 10 people tell me that if they win the lottery they’re going to support us, because a lot of people really like us and they don’t want us to go away, and I don’t want to go.
Are there any films that you currently have that you encourage people to check out as a rental while they can?
I’m a big fan the director Billy Wilder, Sunset Blvd. (1950), Double Indemnity (1944), The Apartment (1960), Some Like It Hot (1959), so come check out his films if you get a chance. If you are interested in something weird and wonderful, we’ve got lots of that too. There’s this one called Bad Boy Bubby (1993) which I’m a huge fan of. People should check that out because I don’t know where they’re going to find that again. I could probably just sit here and prattle off 50, 60, 100 titles that people should check out.
The great thing about rental is you get to explore and then come back and talk about the movie.
I always like to get info from customers, when they bring it back, so I can either recommend it to someone else or if I know somebody has good taste, I’ll watch it myself. We’ve actually grown our library quite substantially just by requests from customers. When I first opened the shop, I thought I knew quite a bit about movies, and I realized really quickly that I did not. I put out a suggestion book on the desk and it got filled out with stuff I’d never heard of, and I started researching it, and finding all this cool stuff. It’s been a good trip, that’s for sure, and I don’t regret any of it, except that I am sad to go.
Absolutely. You mentioned on your Instagram page that you going to be holding a sale sometime in May, will you be holding rentals until then, or even after that?
I plan to have a sale on May 22nd , but that date may change. Check the website so you won’t be crushingly disappointed. Everything is going to be for sale, and we are going to be doing rentals until 2 weeks before we close. I am not putting any of the new releases up for sale, we’ll still rent those, and whatever’s left on the shelves after it’s been picked over.
In all seriousness, you have made such a huge difference, for me and for Vancouver in general. It’s been a place to go with friends and learn, I mean, people always joke about getting a nod from the clerk at a record store if you’re getting something cool, but you guys seem to have a genuine love for the majority of the things you have. That’s something that is so fantastic and welcoming to new filmgoers.
Well, we are all big film nerds here, some of my staff they’ve been here since day one. They are all long timers here.
You can tell there is that love in your business. I hope the people reading this will visit while they can.
Even to just come in and check it out, say hi, because you aren’t going to see many video stores in the future.
To not lose touch with Black Dog Video, check out their podcast below OR
attend their closing day sale and grab some great classics.