Books on Tape: Daniel Herbert’s “Videoland”

Daniel Herbert is an Assistant Professor  at the University of Michigan, teaching students about the wonders of motion pictures. Dan is a member of the home video generation, and he looked to the social experience of the video store as the subject of his first book “Videoland”, now available from the University of California Press. We spoke to Dan about the importance of the video store in his personal development and the process of writing the book.

Dan at his desk. This is where the magic happens.

Dan at his desk. This is where the magic happens.

When did a VCR enter your home and what was the initial impact?

The first VCR in my house was actually rented from a video store, in 1982 or 1983. I don’t remember what movies my family and I would watch at that point, but I do remember my dad bringing home a gigantic suitcase of a machine. I’m pretty sure that we bought our first VCR in 1984, when I was nine years old. I grew up in a working class town and ours was probably the first VCR on the block. 

We didn’t really use the VCR to record television programs, but we rented a lot of movies. We would go to this mom-and-pop video store that was pretty beat up –it had carpeting on the walls and the shelving was pretty rough. I was totally fascinated with the covers for horror films and action films. The cover art for Exterminator 2 totally captured my imagination. But my parents were pacifists, and so I wasn’t allowed to watch movies that were violent. Exterminator 2 was not an option. I remember watching tons of Alfred Hitchcock films with my mom and my dad. They must have chosen those because they could be entertained by them but they weren’t too intense for me to watch. On my own, I watched all the James Bond films that were available on VHS. Saturday afternoons turned into movie afternoons.

Too violent for the young, impressionable Dan.

Too violent for the young, impressionable Dan.

Things changed when a Blockbuster Video came to town in 1987. Looking back, it is kind of surprising that Blockbuster went into that area so early. I remember my mom taking me there and being totally blown away by how brightly lit it was, how many movies they had, and how wide the aisles were. As soon as Blockbuster came to town, we stopped going to the mom-and-pop shop.

What did the video store mean to you when you were younger? Has your relationship with the video store changed over time?

My relationship to the video store has changed profoundly over time. I was a pretty typical teenager, going to the video store all the time and buying pizza and soda from the place next door. When I was in high school I discovered independent movies and cult movies and so I would rent anything like that I could find. There wasn’t much, because all the video stores near me were pretty “normal.” But the video store nevertheless provided access to a world of media that I couldn’t find on TV or in theaters, and it helped me develop an “alternative” taste in movies. 

I rented a lot of movies from Hollywood Video when I lived in Albuquerque during the 1990s. They had a great selection of Anime, cult films, and foreign films. Eventually I got a job at a video store called Alphaville Video that catered in American independent films as well as foreign films. I worked there from 1999 to 2002, when I moved to Los Angeles to go to graduate school. It was at Alphaville that I really developed my strong love for the video store. 

Hollywood Video, the first major Blockbuster competitor.

Hollywood Video, the first major Blockbuster competitor.

I grew to love or at least appreciate so many of the customers. I loved the way that I got to talk with people on a steady basis about something that I loved – movies. And I think that my experience working at the video store is really important to the way I continue to think about movies – as common, mundane objects. Although I’m a bit of a cinephile with somewhat “highbrow” tastes, I tend to think of movie culture as this very routine, everyday thing. 

Working at the video store made movies an everyday part of my life. That sounds contradictory, perhaps, but that is what movies are – both very common and yet very special.Later, in Los Angeles, I got a job at another video store for about three months, Video Hut. This store was pretty different than Alphaville because it mostly made its money from new releases. It had a good selection of foreign films and independent films, but mostly it catered in popular movies. Video Hut also had a back room full of adult movies. I had never worked at a place with adult movies before, and that was really interesting. I don’t have too much to say about adult movies, other than that, as a video clerk, I felt the need to wash my hands every time I had to return adult movies to the shelves. I called it “porn hands.” 

The last store that really mattered to me was a place I went a lot as a customer, Video Journeys in Silver Lake. It was around the corner from my apartment, and I would go there twice or three times a week while I was writing my dissertation just to browse and clear my head. I loved walking there. I loved walking around the store. I loved talking with the clerks. It was really a great video store. That was the last time that I had a strong and intimate relationship with a particular video store. 

Video Journeys in Silverlake.

Video Journeys in Silverlake.

Since I moved, I’ve mostly used my library here at the University of Michigan for movies, and I do a lot of streaming through Netflix and Amazon, and I buy things on demand once in a while. 

Of course my relationship with video stores continued when I was researching the book, beginning in 2008. I guess when I stopped going to video stores as a customer I kept going to them as a researcher. 

What made you think the culture surrounding the video store would work as a compelling subject for a book?

When I began researching my book in 2008, Josh Greenberg’s amazing book “From Betamax to Blockbuster” had just come out, which I found impressive and intimidating. But I thought that there were aspects of the video store that he didn’t cover. Specifically, I was more interested in social interactions and movie culture than I was in video technology. 

There was another book that came out at the time that really influenced me, called “Production Culture”, by John Caldwell. It looks at the way that film industry workers in Southern California think about themselves and their work. And this seemed to me like a really interesting way of approaching film and media studies in general – to talk to people, everyday people, about how they related to movies. There had been various ethnographic-style works in the field before, but “Production Culture” made it feel like a really lively, vibrant, and contemporary approach. Given that I was interested in capturing the social aspects of video stores, it seemed like a natural way to proceed. I also thought that fieldwork and doing interviews would be fun.

"From Betamax to Blockbuster", by Joshua M. Greenberg.

“From Betamax to Blockbuster”, by Joshua M. Greenberg.

It was ultimately my editor at University of California Press, Mary Francis, who convinced me that it was a viable and interesting book project. I had been working on another manuscript for a long time and was meeting with her about this other project in the fall of 2010. She wasn’t very interested. But when she asked what else I’d been doing, I mentioned the video store research. She was immediately excited and pushed me to go for it.

How did you research for the project? 

When I first started the research, it was really haphazard. I interviewed the owners of a handful of video stores in Los Angeles before I moved to Michigan in 2008. In 2009, I got a research assistant to help me with a study of specialty video distributors, like Facets and Kino, and that research eventually turned into half of a chapter. But the research really started after I got a very generous grant from the University of Michigan, which allowed me to travel extensively, by plane and car, and visit video stores all over the country and talk to the people who worked in these places. I flew all over the place but mostly I went on road trips – two extensive road trips and a handful of shorter ones. Those road trips were some of the best times my life. There was a real romance to those trips. I got to talk to many different people in many different places, all of whom were really wonderful and had interesting things to say about their lives and their work. It’s like I fell in love every day.

An issue of Video Store Magazine from 1993.

An issue of Video Store Magazine from 1993.

I also did a lot of archival research. I looked through newspapers, popular magazines like TV Guide, trade magazines like Video Store Magazine, and other material like SEC filings. I had an amazing research assistant named Dominic Czarnota and he would find and gather all of the data and documents I needed. He and I would meet every other week, and I would say things like “tell me everything I need to know about Hastings Entertainment,” or something like that. And two weeks later he would come to me with hundreds of documents related to whatever I had requested. He was amazing. 

I should also say that Josh Greenberg gave me access to his entire research archive as well, which was totally generous and amazing, and helped me with the historical aspects of my book.

What was consistent among the people that you spoke to for the book?

Because I interviewed so many different people in so many different places, it’s hard to say what was consistent about them. I talked to men, women, mothers, fathers, grandfathers, teenagers. It was a pretty diverse group, really. And their reasons for working at the video store were also quite diverse. Some people loved movies, while other people viewed working at the video store as a simple job like any other. 

A decaying sign for Videoland.

A decaying sign for Videoland.

I did find that a number of video clerks were initially hesitant to talk. Then something would happen about 5 to 15 minutes into the interview process – they would really open up. At that point, they would just talk and talk. Once a video clerk starts talking they don’t want to stop! I could have talked to almost any of these people for more than two hours. It seemed like they appreciated being taken seriously. They liked the fact that someone was taking their work seriously.

What do you hope your readers will take away from the experience?

Although I tried to make it as readable as possible, the book is primarily written for an academic audience. So I hope that my book gives students and other scholars a deeper understanding of how the video store shaped movie culture. But I do hope that a more general readership finds the book, particularly people who worked at video stores or who loved going to video stores. 

I tried to provide something like a holistic view of video store culture, and that produced a multi-faceted book. It’s funny, because each chapter can feel quite different than the others. Lucas Hilderbrand, a colleague of mine who helped me tremendously with the book and who has also written a great book about video called “Inherent Vice”, told me that he thought that readers would have a “favorite” chapter. Like, some people will really like the historical overview of the video industry in Chapter 1, while others will like the description of video store social interactions in Chapter 2, and yet others will like the interviews with small-town video store workers in Chapter 4. I think it’s possible that anyone who likes or liked video stores could find something interesting in there. That is a hope of mine, anyway.

Do you think there is a fundamental difference in how the home video generation experiences movies when compared to previous generations?

I suppose we’ve become accustomed to the idea that movies can be stopped, rewound, fast-forwarded, etc., etc. We’ve grown accustomed to controlling the way movies play; it is like we have all become film editors. We have a sense that movies are under our control.

Another major shift is not in how we watch movies themselves, but in how we approach movie culture more broadly. After the video store, everybody has developed a sense that movies are everywhere, all the time, and that we will have access to them whenever we like. The video store helped us develop a sense of media abundance and perpetual access. Now Amazon, Netflix, and pirate BitTorrent networks provide that sense of abundance and access even more.

Streaming entertainment, the dominant way to experience films at home in 2014.

Streaming entertainment, the dominant way to experience films at home in 2014.

What do you believe the future holds for the home video concept?

Well, if history is any indication, then we will see an increasing amount of fragmentation and personalization of movie culture. For the wealthy, this will mean getting better access to a wider variety of movies. (Although I suspect that people will still watch mainstream hits. But the definition of “mainstream” may change a bit, such as with the growth of documentaries over the last 20 years.) It will also mean even higher resolution playback – 4k, 8k, or whatever. 

Convenience will continue to be the primary concern for most people, however. Some people will watch first-run releases in home theaters that are better than contemporary movie theaters, while other people will continue to shop at Wal-Mart and Redbox for cheap and convenient entertainment.

Dan's book. Available now!

Dan’s book. Available now!

I also think we will see major struggles and realignments in the corporate realm. The major media conglomerates control much of movie distribution. But as we saw with Comcast buying NBC-Universal, and as we see right now with the potential Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, the companies that control access to home media are very powerful and only becoming more so. I think the companies we think of as “Hollywood” (Disney, Warner Bros., etc.) are going to be challenged by the companies that control home media infrastructures. Also, the companies that we currently think of as “retailers,” such as Amazon and Netflix, are becoming more and more a part of “Hollywood.” I think that we will eventually think of these retailers similarly to the way we do the other media companies.

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