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VOL. 7 | NO. 46 | Saturday, November 8, 2014

Survival of the Fittest

Memphis film institutions weather industry upheaval

By Andy Meek

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Back in 2010, as the video rental giant Blockbuster was circling the drain in the wake of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, the irony was inescapable to Matt Martin.

Black Lodge Video co-owner Bryan Hogue fills a customer's rental order at the Midtown store that continues to succeed after the collapse of brick-and-mortar rental stores in Memphis.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Martin, co-owner of Black Lodge Video in Memphis, told a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor how Blockbuster employees “literally laughed in our faces” when the independent video rental shop first opened its doors.

Turns out, Martin would get the last laugh by virtue of being the last man standing, as one by one brick-and-mortar video rental chains big and small pulled out of Memphis or in some cases collapsed altogether.

When it comes to the business of selling physical media, longevity is a commodity more precious than most. And for Black Lodge – which gets its name from the Black Lodge of the TV show “Twin Peaks,” a place where time has no meaning – Martin is acutely aware of the implications of the shop’s milestone anniversary now at hand.

Black Lodge has now begun its 15th year in the space at 831 S. Cooper St., where it’s carved out an anachronistic existence. But it’s been no accident the store has hung on for this long.

“When we first popped up, Blockbuster hated us. They said we’d never survive,” said Martin, who runs Black Lodge with co-owner Bryan Hogue and an army of volunteer cinephiles. “Later on, once Blockbuster was gone, one of their district managers actually came to the store and apologized.”

The Black Lodge duo had stepped into a business that looks easy – build an inventory of movie titles and rent them out – but is actually fraught with peril. How Black Lodge sidestepped Blockbuster’s fate is two-fold.

Adam Farmer, left, rents a stack of movies at Black Lodge Video.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The shop amassed an exhaustively curated catalog stocked deep with movies of all genres and eras, some 35,000 in all. Martin and Hogue also run a lean operation to insulate themselves from the possibility of costs outrunning revenue.

“We started the business with zero debt and made sure it ran on the most bare bones of profit structures,” Martin said. “So we weren’t worried about money. All I’ve got to do is pay rent and utilities, and I can rock and roll.”

This, however, is not just a story of a survivor eking out its existence. On the contrary, Martin said Black Lodge – which has expanded its identity somewhat by serving as a performance venue in Cooper-Young – is hoping to renovate its building in the winter. That would pave the way for space for more bands, but the shop could also soon have amenities and features well beyond that.

Martin is paying attention to the example of fellow independents around the country that have turned spaces within their stores into screening rooms and places where bands can play. Stressing that he has more plans he’s thinking about than will probably come to fruition, Martin’s ambitions also extend to things like the eventual existence of a small kitchen and limited menu at Black Lodge, including some food and alcohol.

He’s also giving thought to renting movies in different ways, like through the mail, and adds that Black Lodge has apps for iOS and Android mobile devices in the works. It’s all an acknowledgement of the reality that, in Martin’s words, “rental revenue is never going to be enough.”

Or, to borrow a line from “My Dinner with Andre,” one of Martin’s favorite movies: “If you’re just operating by habit, then you’re not really living.”

The leadership of the Malco cinema chain in Memphis can empathize with, if not the plans Martin and Hogue are trying to implement, then at least the rationale behind them.

Memphis-based Malco is dealing with competition for entertainment dollars with special offerings, like being able to show operas at the Paradiso.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Malco is preparing to celebrate its own milestone anniversary – its centennial – in 2015. Like Black Lodge, Malco – which executive vice president Jimmy Tashie says is still part of a “healthy, viable” industry – is squeezed by cheaper conveniences available to customers.

As the cost of a movie ticket has risen, for example, movie fans have found it easier to stay at home with a rental or to stream titles from Netflix in lieu of justifying the $20 expense of venturing out to the cinema. The problem Malco and Black Lodge must continue to mitigate, then, is one of competition for slices of a smaller pie.

The pie is customer attention. If a consumer is streaming a title from Netflix, that’s time that could have been spent watching a rental from Black Lodge. And if someone has chosen to rent a title from Black Lodge to watch in the evening, that’s time they’re not spending in one of the cushy chairs at one of Malco’s several Memphis-area locations.

“We know that people who want to see movies today have options now,” Tashie said. “One thing the (cinema) industry has done is convert totally from film to digital, and there are many advantages to that. We’re able to have more alternative content now. We can present things like operas at the (Malco) Paradiso. We can show DVDs and bring in conferences via satellite dishes. The digital projector allows us to get more utilization out of the facilities.”

Like what Black Lodge is trying to do – create more amenities that give customers more reasons to come through the door – Tashie says the future for cinemas as he sees it will also be driven by “amenity improvements.”

“You’ll continue to see more comfortable seating,” Tashie said. “There’ll be some improvements in the areas of sound. You’ve got millennials coming up, and they love to go to movies. So you’ve got to keep them happy. You’ve also got to keep families in the mid-range happy. And older customers, we want to reach out to them, too.

“If you do it right, like with the Ridgeway (cinema), you’ll bring older people back. That’s an important part of our business now. You give people a big, wide chair and the opportunity to eat dinner there and have wine and beer and the opportunity to enjoy a good movie. You don’t see a lot of texting and talking on the phone at theaters like that.”

Illustrating how the company tries to stay attuned to the patterns and behavior of customers, Malco recently announced it would not renew the lease for its cinema inside the Wolfchase Galleria mall when that lease ends in 2017. Instead, the company will replace it with a new freestanding location built on U.S. 64, west of Houston Levee Road.

Malco spokeswoman Karen Scott said it’s a result of the Memphis-based theater chain preferring to build freestanding facilities moving forward, rather than operate inside someone else’s facility, as it has done at Wolfchase.

Likewise, Tashie adds, “Over the last five years, we’ve seen people just don’t want to fight crowds, like at a mall. They like a standalone parking lot, where you pull up and you’re there.”

Meanwhile, Martin looks ahead to the future with resolve, eager to charge full steam ahead at Black Lodge into the wake of the digital revolution. To paraphrase Nick Carraway’s famous closing lines in “The Great Gatsby,” Martin and Hogue beat on, boats against the current, embracing their rebel status as among the last of their kind.

Black Lodge Video caters to fans of hard-to-find obscure movie titles.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“If everything comes together like we’re planning, there’s never been anything in Memphis close to what we’re attempting,” Martin said, who adds that he’s a Netflix customer himself, and that there’s still room for streaming and brick-and-mortar in the film business of today.

“Digital inevitably freed up the game so that anybody could make movies. Netflix is simple and fast and relatively cheap. It’s like a cigarette. It has its function.”

What Netflix can’t do, though, are some of the things Martin is dreaming up for Black Lodge – things like a micro cinema with themed nights, more live band performances, the serving of food, beer and wine, and upgrading the space above the shop that could be used for studio recording.

In the movie version of the Black Lodge story, at this point, there’d still be a lot left to come.

PROPERTY SALES 56 437 16,061
MORTGAGES 76 508 18,556
BUILDING PERMITS 241 876 33,390
BANKRUPTCIES 64 301 10,314