Aspen Times Weekly: Surviving in the movie-rental business
March 27, 2013
ASPEN – “Tim!”
Marty Stouffer barreled into Take 2 Video and made a beeline for the rack labeled “Drama.”
“Do you have that psychology movie, you know the one about Freud and Jung?” he asked.
“Aha!” said Tim Boyer, who has owned the shop for 13 years. “I believe I do, let’s see.”
Boyer, 60, rose from his seat behind the counter and limped – he has an artificial hip – to the shop’s far wall.
He selected the film “A Dangerous Method” and handed it to Stouffer, who smiled.
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“I’ve got a friend who’s a Jungian psychologist, and Keira Knightley ain’t too bad either,” said Stouffer, by way of explanation.
As an Aspen resident since 1973 and a filmmaker himself – he produced the PBS documentary series “Wild America” – Stouffer is a regular customer at Take 2.
“It’s a wonderful store with a great selection, and (Tim’s) kind of a movie buff himself,” he said.
Yet Boyer is an increasingly rare brand of movie buff – he owns the only remaining brick and mortar video store between Aspen and Grand Junction, a corridor that 15 years ago boasted more than 15 such stores.
With the rise of online streaming, automated DVD kiosks and video on-demand through Netflix, Redbox, Apple TV and other providers, curators like Boyer have been going out of business in droves over the last decade.
Even Boyer describes himself as a “dinosaur,” and like a whale-oil salesman at the dawn of the petroleum age, he knows he’s living on borrowed time.
Yet he also knows what it’s like to love movies and share them with people.
On a recent afternoon, beneath the movie posters, prayer flags and cardboard promotional displays that adorn the walls of Take 2, Jordan Kern was browsing.
Unlike many customers, though, Kern was looking to buy. He dug through a bin of duplicates or used films that Boyer keeps on sale, and came up with a few keepers.
“I have a hell of a collection at home,” Kern said. “It’s almost like a drug, and Tim is the pusher!”
For a movie buff like Kern, mainstream options like Redbox, with their focus on new releases, have little appeal. And when it comes to online streaming, he said, “I don’t like being dependent on an Internet connection.”
In the hour after Kern left the shop, five or six more customers came in to get their movie fix.
For all of them, Boyer is a strange hybrid of guide, advisor and sounding board in the world of cinema.
“I just met Tim, and I feel like I’ve known him my whole life,” said Toni Sears, a real estate appraiser who recently moved to Aspen from Summit County. “I can talk to him and he steers me in the right direction.”
For some customers, the shop also doubles as a sort of town square, a place to swing in, grab a movie, and chew the fat.
“I’ve been going to Tim’s shop for 10 years, and we’re like-minded guys,” said Ben Larson, who works for the city of Aspen maintaining the Lewis Ice Arena and the Aspen Ice Garden. “I’m usually in there at least twice a week to drop in and do a little B.S.-ing.”
“I have a lot of customers where I know what they like, I can give them strong recommendations,” Boyer said. “I try to watch everything that comes in here, and if I don’t remember it, it probably wasn’t a good movie.”
It’s a role that online services like Netflix have tried to replicate with recommendation software – watch a film and you’ll be presented with 20 others you’re mathematically likely to enjoy.
Yet Eric Gruenwedel, who edits a trade publication called Home Media Magazine, says there’s really no substitute for the human touch.
“Quentin Tarentino used to work in a video store in southern California,” he said. “I’m sure everyone would love to go to his video store now. He probably talked your ear off about why a movie was good or bad, and no Netflix algorithm is going to top that.”
Digging into the details of Take 2’s business paints a revealing picture of the Aspen residents who make up Boyer’s clientele.
Boyer is the warden of between 3,500 and 4,000 titles. Comedy is the most popular category. Horror doesn’t rent well. The shop stocks a lot of foreign films, partly to appeal to Aspen’s international tourist population.
There are three movies that Boyer says he absolutely must have in stock at all times: “The Big Lebowski,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “Aspen Extreme.”
His most popular rentals? Anything relating to Scooby Doo.
“Kids just can’t get enough of it,” he said. “The movie, the cartoons, everything. I used to have about eight Scooby Doo discs, and now I have about 20.”
Occasionally, Boyer orders a film for the shop that he receives, watches, and rejects outright.
“Cougar Hunting,” the story of three 20-something men who come to Aspen in search of older women, was one of these, as was “Sharktopus,” the story of a half-shark, half-octopus creature created by the military and set loose on a rampage.
Boyer has a complete Woody Allen box set on sale for $90, which he says will sell, and a W.C. Fields box set on sale that he’s surprised hasn’t sold yet.
He’s also got adult films, though he says that sector has declined precipitously with the rise of free porn online in recent years.
Boyer now stocks just 80 adult titles, and he keeps them in a three-ring binder, in a custom-made cubby tucked into the side of the store counter.
Over the course of the afternoon I visited, one advantage of online porn became clear: unfettered access.
As I spoke with Boyer, I sat directly in front of the adult entertainment binder. As we spoke, a man kept entering the store, browsing the racks then leaving without renting anything.
Later, Boyer told me I had probably been blocking his access to the binder, and he was waiting for the store to empty before he made his selection for the day.
The current turmoil over changes in movie-viewing technology isn’t the first seismic shift that Boyer has weathered as the owner of Take 2.
Soon after he bought the shop in the early 2000s from Robin Morrison (she founded it in 1989), he oversaw the conversion of his entire inventory from videocassette to digital video disc, or DVD.
“I should have been quicker on the uptake switching the DVD,” he said. “I rent this space, and I should have downsized a little sooner.”
That change, though, affected Boyer’s business far less than the more recent shift from brick and mortar stores to online ordering, instant streaming and automated DVD kiosks.
When Boyer took over Take 2 at the turn of the millennium, the U.S. video rental market was near its peak.
Revenue for U.S. video stores topped out 2001 at $8.37 million, according to the research firm SNL Kagan, and has been declining ever since.
In 1997 there were more than 23,000 video stores in this country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Today, according to Gruenwedel of Home Media Magazine, there are just over 1,400 left.
Perhaps the most ominous indicator of the industry’s troubles came in 2010, when movie rental giant Blockbuster declared bankruptcy. At the time, the chain operated 1,700 stores.
Blockbuster is now owned by satellite TV provider Dish Network and operates just 300 stores nationwide.
For Boyer, these statistics have a personal flavor.
“Over the last 12 years, it’s been a steady decline,” he said.
Boyer knows well that cost and convenience are driving the trend, and even he can sympathize.
“People are lazy!” he said. “If I don’t have to get out of bed to watch a movie, I won’t either!”
Increasingly, though, Boyer finds himself serving a sort of “pinch hitter” role when the Internet can’t deliver.
He described a customer who came in seeking episodes of the TV show “Modern Family.” It wasn’t available on Netflix, and iTunes charged $25 for the entire season. At Take 2, Boyer offered the customer several episodes for $5 a disc, which he accepted.
Boyer then overhead the customer talking with his companion about whether to rent another film, a new release.
“He said, ‘No, lets just get that one online,'” Boyer recalled, incredulous. “They don’t want to support me that little extra bit!”
In recent years, many independent movie stores have fought to stay afloat by installing things like tanning beds to diversify their income. Boyer hasn’t done this yet, although a tanning salon now occupies Take 2’s former location a few doors down.
Instead, he’s got a “preferred customer program” offering discount rates to those who pay up front.
Participants in the program get an old movie for free when they rent a new one, and they get two-for-one deals on older films.
Boyer charges $5 for all two-day rentals, as he has for years.
“If you factor in inflation, my prices have actually gone down,” he said.
Still, the fact that Redbox charges $1.20 per night for its rentals is bound to siphon some customers away.
And Boyer’s “human touch” may be a detriment in certain aspects of the business. He describes himself as “a pretty forgiving person” on the testy subject of late fees, and says he would never charge more in fees than the value of an overdue film.
He’s got a good relationship with his landlord, he said, and has been able to stay afloat despite occasionally falling behind on the rent.
Yet because of the razor-thin profit margins, Boyer can only afford one employee – Kristin Sabel – one day a week.
He’s behind the counter the rest of the time, and it’s begun to take a toll on his health. He’s been out sick 10 days in the last two months.
For now, he said, the future of Take 2 remains uncertain.
“Spring and summer will be really telling,” he said. “I’d like Take 2 to be here another five years. I’ll keep motoring on for now.”