by Maxine Frank
Videomatica, the specialty video store, operated in Vancouver for 28 years. Started to fill a niche in the growing video rental industry in 1983 the store earned a strong reputation and loyal customers. In the fall of 2011 the rentals aspect of the business had to close. One year later the collection has been donated to universities and the Videomatica sales continues near its old West 4th location.
The co-founders of Videomatica, Graham Peat and Brian Bosworth, both attended the University of British Columbia together but didn’t meet until they worked together in the Vancouver television industry. In the early 80s there was a large amount of video rental stores, but none that catered to people with more specialized interests. Peat explained in an interview that trying to have “movie nights” with friends who worked in TV was difficult because none of the stores carried the movies they were interested in.
The small number of second run theaters in Vancouver also limited the options of viewing older movies or documentaries. When looking into the availability of classic, foreign and music films Peat discovered that many were able to be acquired through distributors in the United States. He began to compile information on different suppliers, considering opening his own store. After mentioning this idea to Bosworth, the two decided to go into business together in the spring of 1983.
When choosing a location for their store Peat and Bosworth decided that places like the North Shore or South Vancouver wouldn’t be convenient for many customers to commute to, and that downtown would be too difficult to find parking. Burrard and 4th was chosen because it was at a crossroad where customers could travel to from multiple locations. A record and movie collectible store, Cinematica, had gone out of business so it was converted to Videomatica. “And that was me just saying ‘Oh we’ll save money, we’ll just buy three neon letters,’” joked Peat.
The first location was 1,000 square-feet and the stock at first was only 350 movies. Peat and Bosworth had decided to carry movies on VHS instead of Betamax, and started with no membership fees. According to Peat, Videomatica was popular very quickly. People in the neighbourhood started patronizing it, and the co-owners advertised in as many avenues as they could. Eventually the reputation grew, if you wanted specialty movies you went to Videomatica.
With customers and movie acquisitions growing after four and a half years, Videomatica moved to a new location on the same block. The new location was 3,000 square-feet, and the collection still grew. The video store scene of the 1980s experienced a boom, with stores becoming abundant. Peat describes there being one across the street from Videomatica, and two on the same block at one point.
By 1985 larger companies such as Rogers and Blockbuster opened up stores to compete with the smaller video store chains. Not wanting to be limited by the terms of joining a franchise, Videomatica opted to be independent. Eventually during the 1990s there was what Peat calls a “thinning out” period and many of the smaller rental franchises closed.
In the 1991, while VHS was still viable as a format, Videomatica also introduced Laserdiscs into their collection. Laserdisc was seen as the new up and coming format for serious movie collectors. Unfortunately, the high price of the discs and players alienated most customers except for dedicated videophiles. Although it never caught on, Videomatica continued to carry the movies it had on Laserdisc that were unavailable in any other format.
DVD was available in North America in 1997, and eventually became the format to overtake. While VHS could cost as much as $120 per movie, DVDs were $30 and could still be rented for the same price. Bosworth further explained the convenience of DVD in an interview with the Vancouver Sun: “If people took 10 VHS movies home they could barely carry them. Ten DVDs, no problem. You’d rent it and slip it in a pocket. It was a nice, shiny technology, and people liked it.”
Videomatica purchased DVDs as soon as they became available direct from Seattle retailers. Starting with less than a hundred, the DVD collection continued to grow. This coincided with the creation of Videomatica’s first rental website, so the staff was able to scan the new movie covers. This website allowed customers to browse and reserve films online. Videomatica was the first rental store to carry DVD in Western Canada.
Videomatica earned its reputation as the movie connoisseur’s choice for video rentals. It received many recommendations from The Georgia Straight, The Vancouver Sun, and The Province among others over the years. By the time rentals closed the stock contained 30,000 DVDs, 5,000 VHS tapes and 1,000 Blu-Rays. The entire collection is valued at $1.7 million.
The range of movies at Videomatica was wide. Specializing from the beginning in classic, foreign and music films the genres would grow to include large amounts of gay and lesbian cinema, documentaries, and indie films. On the stores 25th anniversary a list of the top 25 rentals of all time was compiled. Withnail and I, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Baraka, and The Bicycle Thief were among those most popular.
In 2005 Videomatica opened its online Rentals by Mail website. The site allowed people from all over the country the ability to rent the unique movies often only available from Videomatica. The intention was to compete with the growing market of DVD rentals-by-mail. Zip.ca, a division of Rogers video, was the primary competition before Netflix became available in Canada.
August of 2008 is when Bosworth first noticed a decline in business that was worrying. At first Peat dismissed it as a temporary trend, but it was noticeable that it was not an isolated incident. VHS rentals were down to almost nothing and DVD rentals were starting to recede. The new format Blu-ray was stocked around this time, previously having won its “format war” against HD-DVD. Consumers were much slower to embrace Blu-ray than they were DVD, so the rentals and sales did not help the slumping income. Rentals by Mail was helping to bring in profits and keep business going.
Peat elaborates in his interview that Videomatica and other video rental stores were experiencing a 10 percent drop in business. “We figured out quickly that if you go down 10 percent every year, you’re not going be around too long. And that’s what happened by the second year, it continued that way…” Making a profit was increasingly difficult since Videomatica had a high overhead and rent for commercial spaces on West 4th going as high as $50 per square-foot.
Eventually even the Rentals by Mail system was facing a decline. The preferred method of obtaining movies through the internet became online streaming, a service Videomatica could not offer. The lease on the building came up and the co-owners of Videomatica had to make a decision. Rather than lock into another five year contract and continue to lose money, Peat and Bosworth decided not to renew.
Many blame the closure of Videomatica and other video stores solely on sites such as Netflix and movie pirating. Peat, however, considers the “Netflix killed the video store” idea to be too simplistic. He points to the many sources of digital entertainment from Video On Demand and YouTube to illegal downloading. Coupled with the high cost of retail space in Vancouver, urban rental stores have little survival margin. In smaller towns; where lack of high speed internet access coupled with fewer alternate entertainment options result in a much slower decline.
While the store was in the process of closing, the question of what to do with Videomatica’s collection was considered. Most video stores that close sell their collection to the general public, but the co-owners did not wish to do that. Since it was a very unique collection the hope was to preserve it in a library. Vancouver Public Library was approached, however after several months of negotiating the VPL decided it couldn’t take the collection. They suggested the library of a university or college might be a better fit.
Peat and Bosworth were put into contact with SFU and UBC by Yosef Wosk, a local philanthropist. Nine months of negotiations followed, with proposals strongly considered from both schools. The idea of the entire collection going to one university and depriving the other was a situation that made Peat uncomfortable. Finally a film professor at SFU, Colin Browne, put forth the idea that his school would acquire only the documentary films with everything else going to UBC. All parties agreed to this.
After Videomatica’s doors closed to the public the staff stayed on to organize and pack all the movies for both schools. SFU received 4,000 documentaries, and the remaining 35,000 going to UBC. This process is described very positively by Peat. “They agreed that they would look at preservation first, they’re going to give the collection a unique identity, they’re going to promote it, it’s going to help them get international and specialized students in film; they feel it’s very good for them and it’s good for everybody.” that by spring 2013 the movies will be available to students and the public.
The assumption was the sales section of Videomatica would close when the store shut down; however discussions with the co-owners and sales manager BJ Summers made them realize sales still had a future. Zulu Records was chosen because Peat and Bosworth believed there was a natural fit for their two stores. After a deal was reached, Videomatica Sales opened a smaller version of its store located inside Zulu. They are still known as a specialty store, able to order movies for customers not normally available in Canada. As of November 15th, 2012 they have celebrated their one year anniversary in that location.
Not many video stores currently operate in Vancouver; most have closed down in the last few years. Their absence has left a void for consumers of certain kinds of movies that the internet doesn’t cater to. “In the long-run all we really care about is that people can get access to great culture, and our visual culture, and that’s what we want to do. It’s not about us making a buck.” Peat remains hopeful for the future, but acknowledges it may take some time. “Let’s hope there is some new delivery. In the meantime, there is a gap that was filled by video stores and it’s become hard and people are starting to realize what isn’t there.”
Peat, Graham. Personal interview. November 6, 2012.
Anson, Jasper. Videomatica: 25 Years as Canada’s Leading Home Entertainment Alternative. November 17, 2008. Print.
Mackie, John. “End of an era: Videomatica, Vancouver’s renowned video store, to close.” The Vancouver Sun. May 6, 2011. <http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/movie-guide/Videomatica+Vancouver+renowned+video+store+close/4740107/story.html>
Monaco, Ginny. “Videomatica closes its doors as UBC looks to save its collection.” The Ubyssey. October 10, 2011. < http://ubyssey.ca/culture/videomatica-closes-its-doors-as-ubc-looks-to-save-its-collection875/>
Takeuchi, Craig. “Videomatica is not dead. Guess where it’s moving to? Zulu Records.” The Georgia Straight. October 24, 2011. < http://www.straight.com/article-502466/vancouver/videomatica-move-zulu-records>
Media Release. “UBC and SFU welcome $1.7M Videomatica film collection.” The University of British Columbia Public Affairs. January 16, 2012. < http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/2012/01/16/ubc-and-sfu-welcome-1-7m-videomatica-film-collection/>