Los Angeles: Enter The Video Vortex

The Alamo Drafthouse just opened LA's first specialty video store in 15 years. Let's take a look inside.

Disclosure: Birth.Movies.Death. is owned by the Alamo Drafthouse.

Even if they have vivid memories of poring over the shelves at their favorite video store, most people will probably have a tough time remembering the last time they rented a movie that wasn’t streamed directly to their televisions. But where the new downtown Los Angeles Alamo Drafthouse delivers a moviegoing experience that locals haven’t had before, Video Vortex, located in the theater’s lobby, delivers one they’ve probably forgotten, offering an impressive, carefully curated selection of approximately 45,000 DVDs that visitors can sign up to take home for free. 

Built from the remnants of the now-shuttered Vulcan Video North in Austin Texas, Video Vortex marks the opening of first new specialty video store in Los Angeles in more than 15 years, supplying a city rich in cinephiles with a welcome and much-needed influx of materials - that is, physical media - to expand and augment their knowledge and passion for film. Bret Berg, American Genre Film Archives’ Theatrical Sales Director, and the Drafthouse’s Los Angeles Creative Director supervised its installation in what is quickly becoming a premium destination for moviegoers whose curiosity for the medium continues long after a film’s final credits unspool. With four locations nationwide, Berg says that Video Vortex doesn’t just have a business plan, but a mission - to preserve, protect and where necessary, resurrect the video store experience for cineastes who long for a more expansive and yet personalized experience when choosing what to watch. 

“Part of the Video Vortex concept is to rescue closed out video stores,” Berg tells BMD.  “We would rather see them be intact and used as they were intended than for them to be broken up and sold on eBay in lots of thousands or something so that people can pick at the remains.” Nestled in the lobby of the Drafthouse adjacent both to the theater box office and its lobby bar, racks of titles are arranged alphabetically according to genre where visitors can scour before their movie, or booze and browse afterward. If you’re unsure where a film might be filed, there’s also a searchable electronic database that indicates genre and availability. 

“We've only yet begun thinking about how to further break it down into subsections,” Berg says. “Like right now TV just is TV, I would love to have British TV or sketch comedy TV or any obvious breakdowns on the macro level.” With limited space for the store’s library, Berg says they’re developing new ways to lay out titles for maximum visibility and accessibility. “Most video stores back in the day were spine out - so you could separate a section visually by physical marker. [But] in the browsing bins, we have to come up with different ways to do that.”

Particularly in Los Angeles, the importance of a resource like Video Vortex cannot be overstated; iconic stores in Los Angeles like Vidiots and Video Archives - a launchpad for Quentin Tarantino’s indefatigable cinephilia - have grown to mythic status as much because of their disappearance as their impact while they were still in business. During their heyday, video stores were a place both to check out films and to gather like-minded individuals (meaning: film nerds) for conversations that led to new discoveries and new interests, and Berg and his team hope to replicate that experience by employing a staff that knows about all different kinds of films, and is happy to answer questions and make informed recommendations. In just the Vortex’ first three weeks of operation, they had already rented more than 700 titles to customers. 

Building on the Drafthouse programming, as well as its guests and visitors, plans are in motion to showcase relevant titles and filmmakers who visit the theater. Additionally, the Drafthouse has developed a partnership with Vidiots to host screenings and other events to further refine the titles made available to the public, and to attract attention to the organization’s entertainment, educational and philanthropic initiatives. “Vidiots’ piece of the puzzle here is curatorial as well,” Berg says. “We are going to be collaborating on an on-screen series with them called Tales From the Video Store, which basically are the same kind of events that they were doing at Vidiots before they were closed. But we're going to have them curate special sections too.”

John Spooner, who manages the space’s retail options (which include a broad selection of Mondo merchandise along with t-shirts and other items from Drafthouse partners), says that a portion of the sales of Vidiots-related products will go back to the organization as it searches for its own brick and mortar location. “It's a really fun partnership that we have,” Spooner says. “We’re selling some of their merchandise, shirts, pins, hats and the proceeds go to help them so it’s kind of cool little partnership that we got going with them.”

Currently, Video Vortex’ library contains only DVDs and a handful of Blu-rays - which means that those VHS tapes on display by the box office are unavailable, at least for the time being. But for anyone who regularly visited a neighborhood video store - or like Berg and this author, worked at different ones in years past - the opportunity unto itself to dig through racks, discover titles, and take them home for a few days for free, is a thrill that was understandably thought to be lost. Streaming services have virtually replaced physical destinations for rentals, and most of their digital libraries, even those meant to be encyclopedic and far-reaching, are somewhat hopelessly tied to algorithms or programming blocks that obviate the opportunity to wander and explore like people once did through the corridors of stores, gawking at unexpected titles or provocative box art for some new future favorite they previously didn’t know existed.

To that end, Berg and the team that collected the Vulcan archive hope to integrate new titles into the library going forward but are still solidifying a plan that will allow them to do so in a curatorial, and most importantly, cost-effective way. In the meantime, companies that are still prioritizing physical media releases, including Warner Archives and MGM’s on-demand service, are well-represented in the collection, along with boutique labels like Severin and Grindhouse Releasing, to ensure that there are a wide variety of options beyond the latest blockbusters. And ultimately, it’s options, plain and simple, that Video Vortex wants its members to have - not just more movies, but more ways to find movies, in a highly personalized and interactive way, on more formats. 

“As someone who managed video stores for years - I used to be at Cinephile Video in the 2000s - this is really important,” Berg says. “I think it’s important not only to people who are going to be coming here and patronizing the store, but the people who live and work downtown and in LA as a whole. Video Vortex is for them.”

(All photos courtesy Tiffany Roohani)