This Week on the Box Office Podcast: L.A.’s Iconic Vidiots Plans Its Return In Late 2021

Image courtesy Vidiots Foundation

This week on the Boxoffice Podcast, co-hosts Russ Fischer and Rebecca Pahle talk to Maggie Mackay, Executive Director at Vidiots. Founded in 1985 in Santa Monica, for decades the alternative video store Vidiots was a Southern California institution until rising costs forced it to close its doors in 2017. But the dream was not dead, and plans (and fundraising) are underway for Vidiots to return bigger and better than ever—this time as a combined movie theater/video store/community center located in East Los Angeles’ old Eagle Theatre, originally opened in 1929.

In her conversation with the Boxoffice Podcast—available in a condensed format below, or in full on your podcast service of choice—Mackay speaks about the importance of communal cultural experiences, plans to re-open Vidiots in late 2021, and the state of LA’s indie theater scene.

Tell us a little bit about Vidiots—what’s the elevator pitch version of what you’re doing right now?

Vidiots started as an alternative mom and mom—because our founders are both women—video store in 1985. I didn’t found Vidiots, so I get to be a little self-centered and say that I think we’re one of the best video stores in the world. We were certainly one of the most recognized for a very long time. Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber, our founders, opened in ’85 in Santa Monica very much because the kinds of work that they wanted access to, they weren’t finding in the video stores that were cropping up in Southern California. That included documentary work, experimental work, and work by women and people of color and the LGBTQ community. 

They started down the road with 800 VHS tapes and almost no money and then grew the collection to almost 60,000. [They] had one of the most successful independent video stores in the world. And then, of course, as you can imagine, sad technological shifts [occurred]. And what I think is a really unfortunate case of not paying attention—culturally, on behalf of all of us, the public—to what happened with video stores. 

We hung on. We transitioned to a nonprofit organization around 2012. I got involved in 2016 and drank the Vidiots Kool-Aid very fast. I grew up in and out of a video store, and it really had a massive effect on my adolescence and everything I did after that. When the rent became impossible in Santa Monica and we realized that the community that could support Vidiots as a nonprofit organization was shifting to different parts of the city, we knew that we needed to move. I was not willing to close without the hope of reopening. 

For a few years we hunkered down and went into hibernation, put everything into storage, and started putting the pieces together to figure it out. And those pieces are people like you and many, many others like us who were interested and said, “We’re game to help. We’re game to lend expertise and then eventually money.” And we stumbled on a movie theater called the Eagle, which is in Eagle Rock in northeast LA, a historically underserved area when it comes to film and exhibition since I’ve lived in LA, which is over 22 years. 

The flash-forward is that we secured a very long-term lease on that building about a year ago. We were expecting to open last November. Of course, we all know what happened there. But we’re one foot in front of the other. We’ll be a full-service, for lack of a sexier phrase, film center for the east side of LA and really for the entire city. And hopefully a blueprint for many other places around the country.

You’ll have two screens, right?

Right. The main space is this huge movie theater which once housed up to 800 people. We’re taking that size significantly down. A single-screen movie theater in Los Angeles really doesn’t need to have that volume now. So we’ll be a 250 seat movie theater. 35mm, digital projection, pretty much any way you can imagine projecting a film, we’ll be able to do it in the big house. And then we have this amazing storefront that is from the same era as the movie theater that’s attached to the building, which we’ve also secured. And that’s where our video store collection will live and operate as exactly what we have always been since 1985. An operational video store with 50,000 titles-plus, mostly on DVD and Blu-Ray. And then we have part of the storefront [where] we are going to create a very flexible screening, event, and community space. We’ll have digital projection, but it’ll also be able to be used for live reads, for friends and family screenings, for private events, for community events.

A space in Santa Monica is vastly different from a space in Eagle Rock, where Vidiots is going to be located. They serve very different audiences. You’ve got a different cross section of the city coming into your space. Like you said, Eagle Rock and the east side of LA in general is not a place where, historically, there have been big independent movie spaces.

You’re absolutely right. I do look at Eagle Rock in some ways as a microcosm of not just Los Angeles, but of a lot of places around the country that once had thriving access to film. In Eagle Rock there was more than one movie theater. Once video stores became a thing, there were video stores all over the place. And then, suddenly, everybody got excited about things like streaming services and DVR, and suddenly we lost sight of our access and got excited thinking, “Oh, this is what access means.” When in reality, all that access peeled back. 

The outside perception of the LA movie scene is that, “Oh, it’s LA, there’s cool indie movie stuff happening on every corner,” when that’s not really the case. What’s the state of the indie, art house scene in LA? With the asterisk of “If Covid weren’t around,” of course. Is it a particularly challenging time to embark on a project like Vidiots?

Vidiots has always been a challenging project. That’s one of the reasons why I dig my heels in and just stick with it, because it’s worth the challenge for me. It’s the most fulfilling professional experience I’ve ever had. I’ve always been in arts nonprofits, and it’s the mission that I most adhere to and I most see potential with to really change the culture and to really have a positive effect on people very directly. 

Historically, Los Angeles is surprisingly under-screened, meaning we don’t have the number of screens that we have the audience capacity for. It’s always shocking to people that we don’t have an arthouse theater in every neighborhood, in every community. We really don’t. We don’t even have as many commercial movie theaters as you would expect. In a way, I think that’s very representative of the country at large, with the exception of maybe places like San Francisco and New York. New York, historically, has many more opportunities to engage with independent cinema than Los Angeles does, which is a little mind-blowing considering we are the film capital of the world.

It’s something we’ve spoken about on the podcast before: the lack of diversity in the exhibition space in North America, and how there are a lot of minority communities in particular that don’t have movie theaters in them.  

Absolutely. Historically, the difference was, previous to this technological era, you had movie theaters in every neighborhood. And I think even though those theaters were likely run by white, cisgender men, smart movie theater operators did cater to the communities that they lived in, because that was the way to make money. We’re not there yet. We’re a long ways off. But increasingly, the world is more aware of the disparity in programming and in operations and in staffing. I think that we’re still, surprisingly, way off of where we were 20, 30 years ago. We’re actually becoming less diverse, because there’s fewer opportunities to see film in general. 

At Vidiots, our founders are women. We have an entirely female board, which is how it shook out as we rebuilt the board over the last few years. We’re 40% women of color. When the great day comes that we get to put a staff together, we have mandates about how we’ll staff, and representation is the number one mandate. Most theaters, as you know, across the country are programmed and run by white men. That needs to change. We talk a lot about representation in our field. We talk a lot about behind-the-camera representation. In front of the camera representation. We really don’t talk a lot about representation in programming and exhibition outside of these small circles. So that’s something that’s really important to us. And we’ve been doing it since 1985.

One thing that really stood out for me in one of the first conversations that you and I had was talking about breaking down barriers in programming in general. Something that was very appealing about some of the plans you have for Vidiots is the idea that programming and deciding to show a movie to a group of people can be more accessible. If I wanted to rent a night at the the Egyptian, I don’t even know how I’d booked the movie. The further you get away from being part of some central core, like a local film nerd community—which again, tends to be mostly dudes—the less you’re likely to know about that. Is that still part of what you’re hoping to do with Vidiots? That it can be an accessible space for people to get movies seen that they’re not seeing anywhere else?

Absolutely. We’re very different as an art house theater. We are growing this out of a very extensive library, which has everything from the most obscure art films that none of us even know about on rare VHS to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen videos to the biggest blockbuster of any year since the beginning of film to Sundance award winners from whatever the latest year is. 

Our programming is really based out of this idea of the video store, which is that you can program and watch anything and that there is an audience for anything you provide. We have a blueprint with the Eagle, because the Eagle existed in this community for 70 years before it shut down. The people that live in the neighborhood remember that movie theater. We regularly talk to people who will tell us double bills they saw in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s. We had a woman tell us she saw her first movie there in 1946. So we have a really interesting blueprint for what got programmed. 

As a programmer, I always found it very frustrating that programming tends to get into a niche. You’re either this or that. Saying “We only program this kind of art film” or this quality, in quotes. And the reality is, there’s no reason not to show a Charles Burnett film in the same night you might show a kids’ Disney movie. These things coexist. They coexist in the video store, so they should coexist on our screens.

The way that people watch movies has changed, especially this year. You’ve spoken to how streaming has had a huge impact on video stores As a programmer at an exhibition space, how can you convince people, ‘OK, you can see this movie on Amazon Prime, but really it’s better to see it at Vidiots, or rent it from Vidiots.’ How do you reverse that trend?

We can’t thank 2020 for much, but one thing we can thank it for is that I will never have to get on a soapbox again and remind people why it’s important to put their pants on and leave their houses. That argument is dead. I know, because every single day, multiple times a day, someone says via social media, via email, however it happens: “Please come back. We need to go to movie theaters. We can’t do this anymore. We don’t want to fart into the same couch cushion.” The doomscrolling has moved over to streaming services. 

As far as the video store goes, honestly, having worked with Vidiots for the last almost five years, I can tell you that if people have access to video stores, they use them. The issue is access. We have a wonderful video store on the east side of LA called Videotheque. That video store is still operational. Every time I go into Videotheque, it’s thriving. There are teenagers in there. There are kids in there. Grown-ups. Everybody you can imagine in LA is is represented in that video store every time I’m in it. So it’s not so much about whether people will use it. It’s whether they have access to it. And it’s not really about nostalgia. It’s about a lot of other things. Streaming services are very convenient if they have what you want and if you know what you’re looking for. They are not helpful if you don’t know what you’re looking for. 

That curatorial element.

Curation is wonderful when it comes to programming. It’s really important. But to be honest with you, I don’t want my access to everything curated. I want to be able to discover things that a corporate entity is not trying to get me to watch. I want to be able to find something that people in the video store have never seen. I want access to things I don’t know about. I want everybody to have access to the things that they don’t know about. Because that’s how you change lives: by somebody tripping on something, picking it up, and getting inspired. 

That really applies to the arts in general. We think a lot about younger generations at Vidiots. Streaming services are great for existing cinephiles and grownups who know exactly what they’re looking for. But sometimes you don’t know that there’s something you don’t know about. How could you? There are all sorts of other arguments for physical media. The quality is a lot higher than streaming. You have extras on DVDs and Blu-Rays that you would never get on a streaming service. Certain streaming services don’t even want you watching credits anymore, much less spending an hour or two watching through DVD extras [and] behind the scenes stuff. I have an old Hitchcock box set that I have spent hours with discovering things about some of my favorite movies that I had no idea about. There’s so much that you lose when you rely on a corporate entity to feed you your art. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have streaming services. They’re very convenient, and there’s great stuff about streaming services. But they shouldn’t be the only way that you access this incredible and historic art form.

What’s your experience fundraising been like? And where do things stand right now?

That’s a big question. Fundraising is an emotional roller coaster every day, especially during a global pandemic—the most volatile time in American history that any of us have experienced and an election cycle that really required a lot of us to put a lot of resources into it. So it’s been an up and down experience. It’s been very gratifying, in a lot of ways. We’ve seen people step up with small donations. We’ve seen a lot of people really step up with big donations. We are in a capital project. And even though we have 35 years in Los Angeles, in some ways this is a new project, so we don’t get the grant support that we were hoping for. Because all of the grant organizations now are really working to triage the the organizations they’ve been supporting for many years. When I can take on another project I really do want to scratch at and then figure out how capital campaigns for projects like ours can be better supported by government grants and by private foundations, because in my experience so far there’s very little capital support. And that’s tragic.

What’s your timeline for opening? With, again, the asterisk that we don’t know when theaters in LA are going to be able to open in general. I know there’s been some bureaucracy and red tape you’ve been dealing with.

In some ways, we benefited from having not already been open when Covid hit. The bureaucracy you mentioned has to do with with permitting, with city permits. Which we won! It took seven months. It was unfortunately a sort of unnecessary battle. We got stuck with some really weird conditions attached to our permits to sell beer and wine for extended hours. As a single-screen movie theater and a nonprofit art space, beer, wine, and food are really pivotal to revenue streams. Almost every movie theater in the country, now, has some additional revenue stream to help bolster their their budget. We won that battle. And we won for one reason. We won because we had an enormous outpouring of support from the community. Thousands of letters during our public hearing, which was telephonic because of Covid. We had 170 straight minutes of people, a lot of whom I had never even met. They weren’t necessarily our donors, because they had to be people in our district, from Eagle Rock. 

The timeline has slowed down. However, where we are now feels pretty comfortable. We’re hoping to hit our immediate fundraising goal, which is to secure enough to comfortably start construction without the fear of running out of money midstream—start construction, have a six month build-out, and then hopefully open close to the end of ’21. Which feels like a pretty good timeline for a vaccine. And feels like a pretty comfortable timeline not just to be able to open, but to be able to open in a strong way. We will have been shuttered for many years at that point. So to get open late ’21 feels pretty good. And we’d really like to be able to do it the right way, which is [with] a full house and people feel comfortable at the bar and feeling comfortable browsing physical media. And just do it the right way and have the biggest party anybody’s ever seen.

I hate that it’ll be on the wrong coast for that!

One thing this time has shown us is that we have supporters all over the globe. And even though, yes, we’re rooted in a sort of different time technologically, we do really well with virtual events. You will be able to come to our opening in some way, shape, or form. And we will never stop doing some virtual-format programming. Because it works. It’s really fun. We brought back our signature movie trivia night, and it’ll probably always have a virtual component to it. We’ve been able to invite people from Hong Kong and Australia and Korea to join. And it’s been enormously fun. 

And really, Vidiots is not just about this local community or this local nonprofit. If we can do this in Los Angeles, then we can help anybody figure out how to do it anywhere. Especially in light of events over the last many years, I think that the socio-cultural divide we’re experiencing, which is so catastrophic, has a lot to do with the fact that we as a country have fewer and fewer opportunities to access the arts. And especially those art forms that have really been designed for the masses for a long time. Public radio, FM radio, non-cable television, and video stores and movie theaters. The more of those spaces that exist, the closer we are, culturally, to each other, regardless of where we live.

Everything’s gotten very silo’ed.

Yeah. Everybody talks about the big cities being in bubbles. But I would argue that small towns that only have access to a radio station that’s playing Christian rock and has a very political outlook to it is pretty limiting. That’s a bubble in and of itself. If you’re a queer kid growing up in a really conservative part of the country and you don’t have access to a movie theater or a video store or space that you can go on your own—and the internet, I would say, has real serious limitations and real problems when it comes to finding community. Sometimes it’s really helpful. But there are real problems with that, as well. A brick and mortar space that somebody can go to for free, that’s equitable, like a video store, like a library—those spaces are pivotal to our society, and they need to be supported. If we can do it here, then maybe we can show other people how to do it in places that needed even more.

I agree on every point with the idea of access to the arts being important to community-building and unification. But to refine it even a little more—access to the arts together. Accessing stuff in a space where you are shoulder-to-shoulder with other people who are hopefully not the same people as you. And that affords opportunities for community-building that you just can’t have without a physical space. Without being in the same room together.

That’s right. And the video store is really central to that for us. Traditionally, movie theaters are spaces that you go to with people you already know. You know exactly what you’re going to do when you get to that movie theater. Video stores are really different. You can go to the video store by yourself, and you can plan to be there for 10 minutes to return something or pick something up and not expect to have a really deep and enlightening cultural exchange with a stranger. And that’s typically what ends up happening at the video store, whether you’re talking to a clerk or you’re talking to the video store owner and operator, or whether you’re talking to a complete stranger who tips you off to something you never knew about. Having watched that happen at Vidiots, I know that that exchange is not only important to the individual, but important to the health and the stability of the industry in general. People need to talk about movies with each other, or this industry dies. Financially, culturally, it dies. You cannot have film without human interaction. It does not work. 

You can follow Vidiots on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or on their website vidiotsfoundation.org.

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