I’ve long wanted do an interview with Mark Wright, who established a remarkable DVD store named Videotheque in South Pasadena a few years ago. Los Angeles has a few stores renowned for their ambitious classic Hollywood and world cinema selections (Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, Cinefile, Vidiots) but none in the San Gabriel Valley. I first heard about the newly-opened Videotheque on a film discussion board in 2003, and soon became a loyal customer attracted to its great selection (including many imports) organized by country or director, genuinely friendly staff, and fun, cinephile vibe with laminated magazine clippings, film reference books, and colorful collection of Godard posters.
In this day of mail-order rentals and streaming video (not to mention the Great Recession), it’s nice to see an independent brick-and-mortar store thrive–Videotheque recently moved across the street into an expanded space that makes it bigger and better than ever. And it’s still conveniently next to the Mission Station on the Metro Gold Line. Even though I no longer live in Pasadena, I still make regular excursions to the store because there’s no online substitute for browsing its aisles; I always come across titles I didn’t even know were available on DVD. And little touches make a big difference, like the fact that the store rents DVDs with the sleeves/liner notes included. (Thursday nights the farmer’s market across the street doubles the pleasure.) –Doug
Q. When did you first become interested in movies, and when did you decide you wanted to enter the video business?
Mark Wright: There’s an amazing art deco styled cinema called The Tower Theater in Fresno where I grew up that would show occasional kids matinee repertory programs on Saturdays like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I also remember seeing current release movies at the UA or Mann like Time Bandits and War Games and being scared to death! Those freaky cages suspended in the black mid-air and the kid nearly abandoned in the house fire in the former, and Matthew Broderick and sexy Ally Sheedy almost setting off nuclear holocaust via Commodore 64 in the latter, were tough on the gentle sensibilities of this pre-teen. Madame Medusa, the “Cruella De Ville” of Disney’s The Rescuers also gave me fright on its re-issue in the early 80’s.
My parents watched foreign films and sometimes I joined them at the Tower for kid-friendly ones like the hilarious mismatched buddy movie La Chèvre, with Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard. When we got our first VCR, I would record stuff like The Sting, Mary Poppins and Bugsy Malone off of TV and memorize all the lines. I loved The Empire Strikes Back, Superman II, and Raiders of the Lost Ark like every one else on the block– but near high school seemed to find my way towards the foreign fare that was making the rounds at the time like A Room With a View, Au Revoir les Enfants, Manon of the Spring, and The Double Life of Véronique.
In college, I was a French major and got to live a year and a half in Paris (’93/’94). It’s such a movie lover’s paradise, with endless retrospectives and so many different little (and grand) cinemas. In addition to films by Nikita Mikhalkov, Zhang Yimou, or Almodóvar, I discovered English language filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Atom Egoyan, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, David Cronenberg, and Jane Campion. Pulp Fiction had just won at Cannes ’94, so it was a big deal seeing it in a packed Paris house, prior to its US release.
Auspiciously, Clerks also played to nice acclaim at Cannes that year and I saw it as well; I would be clerking myself a couple years later after graduation, at a new arthouse video store. I worked at Video Paradiso in Claremont for six years, managing the last four, and picked up invaluable retail training. I thought I could give it a go on my own, and found a great stretch of shops on Mission Street, South Pasadena, where I opened Videotheque in March of 2003.
Q. Videotheque is unique, not just in South Pasadena, but in the whole San Gabriel Valley, for specializing in foreign, classic, and rare DVDs. Did you ever worry about finding or building an audience for world cinema in the suburbs?
A. In addition to the chains (Tower Records, The Wherehouse), I used to rent films from a small indie shop in Fresno called The Movies. They carried an eclectic selection and would break out the titles into categories of directors, genres, and interesting subsections. Although modest in size, they had a nice coterie of customers; it seemed if done right, this type of shop could flourish in most moderately cultivated places.
I noticed the same success at Video Paradiso; it didn’t hurt that it was right next to Rhino Records– a great music store and interesting-people magnet–and located in the heart of the Claremont Village, a charming college town with an independent vibe. I got the same feeling while taking in art films and midnight movies at the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena, and later when I discovered the Mission West neighborhood’s beautiful trees, craftsman homes, mom and pop shops, coffee houses, and attractive old buildings, it felt like a perfect fit.
Even out in the suburbs, we get the occasional star drop-in. Two favorites who were charming and friendly: Vincent Malle, brother and occasional producer of Louis, once special ordered a couple Hedy Lamarr movies, and the son of Paul Gégauff (French New Wave screenwriter/actor) picked up one of the films his father made with Chabrol, Pleasure Party.
Q. In this day of rent-by-mail, pay-per-view, and streaming video, a lot of people assume a brick-and-mortar store is a losing proposition, but Videotheque always seems robust and lively, and you recently moved into a larger space. How does your store fit into today’s video market? What do you attribute to your success?
A. Thanks! We’ve been so lucky. Our great customers deserve all the credit. We’ve tried to lay out the store in an interesting and attractive way, to keep the collection fresh with new releases of every stripe–big Hollywood hits, documentaries, international titles, classic reissues, cult items, TV, music, kids–while maintaining a bedrock back catalog of the same, and supplementing with hard-to-find rareties & imports, plus a revolving for-sale section of DVD, Blu-ray, screen-printed cinema t-shirts, posters, CDs, vinyl and most recently, several dozen rare Japanese chirashi (promotional lobby cards) of classic and foreign releases.
I’m fortunate to have an amazing, creative, people-friendly and movie-knowledgeable staff who add to the shop’s inviting atmosphere. I know we have customers who use Netflix, order movies on demand, or procure by other means, but so far we’ve managed to remain appealing and valuable, among a host of home entertainment options. We also have the advantage of being a destination away from the couch or computer; hopefully the desire to leave the house and engage in a pleasing retail environment will continue to persist. We aspire to offer the same satisfying experience that I’ve found as a customer at great indie establishments like Powell’s Books in Portland, The New Beverly Cinema or Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, Vroman’s across town, or Nicole’s Foods across the road.
Q. Videotheque has organized public screenings at various venues in the past. Is this something you’re still interested in doing?
A. They were a lot of fun, and a lot of work. Much organizing and promoting went in, plus set-up and breakdown of projector, screen, sound, folding chairs, etc. Sometimes for a crowd of six people! Regarding future screenings, I wouldn’t rule them out but as the Magic 8 Ball might say: “Outlook not so good.”
Q. You’ve always displayed good taste with your acquisitions; do you still find time to watch a lot of movies? How do you keep up with the interesting titles?
A. I don’t seem to watch as much at home as I used to, but still try to make time to get to the big screen. I’m a big fan of all the great programming around town at all the usual suspects like LACMA, the American Cinematheque, the Hammer, the Cinefamily, the New Bev, the Nuart, etc. I read things like Film Comment and Cineaction, and enjoy listening to the crtitics’ round-ups on KPCC’s FilmWeek, or catching At The Movies when I’m at home. For comprehensive listings of everything going on movie-wise in L.A., Karie Bible’s filmradar.com is invaluable, and you can sign-up for her helpful newsletter bulletins, too.
Q. What do you enjoy most about running the store?
A. Turning people on to treasures, from Alphaville to Zelig.