Monday, 9 May 2022

[Interview] - Dave Taylor 20th Century Flicks; The Last Surviving Video Store

When I walked through the doors of 20th Century Flicks on Christmas Steps, in Bristol, I felt like I had been here before. I was surrounded by shelves loaded with an assortment of DVD's which to me was no surprise until I turned around. Behind me by the door were rows of old VHS covers of films I haven't seen since my youth. There were old straight to video titles with familiar home release labels such 'Guild Home Video' and 'Medusa Home Entertainment'. Beside the counter were familiar films on laserdisc. It was as if the teenager in me who spent a portion of his formative years browsing through the local video library had taken my hand and dragged me back to the age of the video boom. For a moment I forgot that it was 2022, the age of Netflix and digital VOD (Video on Demand) and the video rental stores were all but gone. Surviving the rise of film ownership and digital streaming, 20th Century Flicks remains the oldest running film rental store, and this year it's celebrating its 40th birthday. 

20th Century Flicks ('Flicks') opened its doors in 1982 at the height of the video boom, competing with a host of other single independent store and local chains such as Bernco Video Rentals (which boasted at least 3 or 4 outlets.) As the business changed, becoming more corporate with the rise of national chains like Ritz, eventually bought out by the multi-national giant Blockbuster, most independent stores struggled to compete and closed their doors. Yet 'Flicks' carried on, continuing to serve Bristol's film rental needs, despite the rise of digital home viewing and streaming platforms, eventually becoming an iconic Bristol institution. To mark its 40th birthday a celebration has been planned that has caused cinephiles to drool. 

Bristol will play host to the first Forbidden Worlds Film Festival, dedicated to the celebration of repertory genre films.  The doors of the Bristol IMAX will open after more than a decade to welcome in a cinema audience playing an assortment of ground breaking films from the year 1982 including the sci-fi classic 'Blade Runner' and a legend of the video nasty era Frank Henenlotter's 'Basket Case'. As preparations got underway I popped into the famous 'Flicks' shop to speak with its co-owner Dave Taylor, where we talked about the shop's origins, the challenges it face and the upcoming festival. 

I started here in March 2003 about a year after I moved to Bristol straight from uni where I've been studying film and literature. I moved to Bristol on a bit of a whim to stay for a few months, while I figured out what to do with my life. I became a landscape gardener up at  Hewlett Packard up at Filton for about nine months. I also worked in a call centre on Stokes Croft for three months and then I found 20th Century Flicks. It was kind of serendipitous really in that I went in because I was obsessed with movies. I was just chatting with them about that and it turned out they were looking for someone so I applied for the role. I honestly didn't think I'd get it because it was just such a cool shop and it was very well paid for its day. It was really cool. The hours and people were amazing, and it all just seemed so free. I was 22 at the time and this was the best place I imagined working in Bristol, so I didn't think I'd get it. They offered me the job, only working three or four days a week but it was £8 an hour for normal daytime shifts, £10 an hour for evenings, and at weekends it was £15 - I don't get paid that now. We were making a couple of hundred grand a year with a staff of about 15 sometimes nearly 20 people. There were three people behind a desk of about 2 metres on three computers, just serving people nonstop Friday, Saturday and Sunday. with queues out the door. That was 2003 to around 2005. 

Fascinating. How did you come to be the co owner?

There was a bit of a downturn when we lost the students, that was the first hit. There used to be a lot of music shops, and a few other video shops around. Music went first because the students could download music essentially for free, so that was the first thing that happened. Once the bandwidth got up to speed they found they could download movies for free as well as music. This was pre-legal. So many business relied on students and young people and they were the first people to latch on to this.  I guess they just felt it was a victimless crime, piracy. I could sympathise completely; I was spending probably £50  a week on movies and music on an ultra low income. To then have the opportunity to get all that for free it was just like it's just a free for all. When iTunes kicked off they tried to make it legitimate and end up getting all the money that the record shops are getting anyway. It was the same for the video shop. Our income probably halved in the space of about two or three years. Basically we just stopped replacing staff when someone left and probably went down to about 5 or 6 staff by 2009. I had gone away for a year cycling in Syria. I just wanted a break from this. I thought the video shop was over so I'll go away, come back and do something else. I ended up going away cycling for a year then I came back and worked at the River Cottage for a year and a half. I didn't really enjoy that so then I ended up just picking up the odd shift at 'flicks'. They were just winding stuff down essentially and the old owner Nigel was trying to sell off the stock. I had a chat with him and said, "if you're going to try and sell everything off, why not just sell the shop to me and the staff and we'll just have a go at making it work". There was some rent arrears and VAT bill which we ended up paying and he just signed it over to us.  

20th Century Flicks Dave Taylor at work

The film rental industry went through a  number of challenges that eventually saw its decline; from the resurgence of cinema goes in the late 80s, video sales purchases (especially when they dropped from £79.99 RRP to £9.99), and of course, television on demand, and streaming. Yet 20th Century Flicks has survived all of that. Even the giant Blockbuster chain eventually folded. To what do you attribute the store's longevity and success?

We control our overheads and make decisions week to week, for example, we might no't buy any movies this week because we haven't got enough money. We just have a very clear baseline of what we need money wise to stay solvent. I think that that's, that's how we've survived, we're all low paid but we enjoy it. That's the only thing I can attribute it to. We've never stretched ourselves,  never gone into debt, which is  a huge part of it as I just don't like owing people money. So we've never been in debt we just pay and stick within our means. And that's how we've carried on. I live on a boat as well so I don't have a mortgage or anything like that. I don't need much money and everyone else who works here is part time and does so as sort of goodwill.

There's obviously a demand for it because you've outlasted even Blockbuster!

But that's the thing. They were not afraid of running up debt and then they end up servicing debt and got caught in this trap. So in a way they had  a harder time but then they had huge premises . large numbers of staff, and  they've got contracts with people. They've got so many things to maintain in that corporate structure that as soon as one thing goes wrong in their forecasts  everything falls apart very quickly. Whereas here if something's not working, we just say 'okay, we just won't do that anymore'. We've tried so many things over the years like we tried selling coffee, selling T shirts, posters, film memorabilia, we even tried to do an online shop. After a year or so we even tried to be a record shop for a while. They're fun for a while but then you realise actually this isn't gonna make any money and is a lot of hassle. So we just knock it on the head whereas in a larger structure you can't be as nimble, you can't try these things and then kill them if they stop making money. Instead you end up trying something, seeing it through and then it becomes a real problem if you try to stop. The thing we tried, and it's just kicked off, that's saved us completely are the little cinemas. We had them in Clifton which we were charging people £50 quid to come in, sit on bean bags, and watch a movie. That was just stupidly popular. When we moved here we dedicated two rooms to doing the same thing and that's been 90% of our income for probably the last eight years.

Of course biggest challenge was two years ago, lockdown and COVID. And yet, you're still here.

For everyone lockdown was difficult and a lot of people got burnt in the process.  One of the best decisions I made was not to go the way of paying ourselves dividends and not pay tax. A lot of people did that but we've always just done PAYE and as a result we got we got furloughed, we got £10K  grant from the council. Over that period until that that dried up, around nine months later we were absolutely fine in fact financially it's probably the most stable the shop's been for that nine month period. Then when all the funding and support went it was like waking up from  sleeping, we had to remember how to run the business again. We started doing groups of six in the cinemas rather than bigger group. We were trying to keep people safe as well because we didn't we didn't want to be like the mayor in 'Jaws' opening the beaches when it wasn't safe. We didn't want to be that guy. We very much stayed on the cautious side of things and even now we don't run it capacity and don't have concurrent screenings. We try and keep groups separate, try not to have any crossover and touch wood, there's been no cases of COVID here, which is quite impressive. At the moment we're just not quite scraping by at the moment so we will have to start increasing capacity, probably adding another slot in a day. 

It's certainly been a challenge thought it wasn't necessarily surviving that period but coming out of it and re re-calibrating what we did before, we're capable of doing, and what we need to do financially afterwards. That's been the hardest bit. What we did so it was quite natural breaking away, like to be like, Okay, that's how we did things. Over COVID we introduced this dropbox system where people send in their requests, and once a day we come in and leave their movies for them to collect anytime. To be honest that works so well that we just don't need to change it. We just come in now when we're doing screenings. So that was a really useful interruption in a way because it just helped us completely, once again, sort of disassemble what we do, take out any excess money we're spending that we don't need to keep it functional, so it's still providing service without any irrational sort of behaviour like staying open 10 hours a day when there was nobody coming in. , We're sort of still getting to grips with this. It's quite a cumbersome emotionally, mentally and sort of an odd task intellectually to get back into that groove. It's sort of like an existential thing of what kind of business do we want to be and what role do we serve? I don't want to deny people a video shop, but at the same time we can't be as available as we were which is a shame.  There's an upside and a downside to people's viewing habits changing, the downside being that there's there's just not much money in this now and it's not as vibrant as it as it was.

But you're still here and celebrating 40 years where other shops have faltered Let's talk about the Forbidden Worlds Film Festival. Can you  tell me a little bit about how the idea for the festival came about? Why a film festival to celebrate the shops birthday?

A friend of mine Ti [Timon Singh] who runs the Bristol Bad Film Club, and he's been coming into the shop for years even since we were up in Clifton. One of his complaints about Bristol is that all the good film festivals are in London, and he was fed up with it, especially genre film festivals. I was a bit ignorant of what a genre film festival was. He explained it was essentially a celebration of the kinds of films that video shops made their bread and butter on back in the day; martial arts, horror, sci fi, fantasy the real staples when you'd have an amazing video cover in the video shop and it just really fired off the imagination. We'd been talking about doing one of these for a good few months, and I'd been talking about how I really want to do something for 'flicks'  40th. We asked  Mark [Cosgrove] at the Watershed if they were interested in putting something together with us since they're the same age having also started in 82 as well. However they're doing their own celebrations, so we decided to do the same; basically show some trashy movies from 1982 and with this idea we approached The Cube and the Watershed as possible venues. And then I remembered, there was the IMAX. 

I was pretty sure in my head that when it closed it was full of water and they'd just turned it into a big aquarium. They hadn't. It's just been locked up all this time and it was like a big time capsule. So Ti and I went talked with the owners and they were really nice and keen to do something there. It snowballed from there really. It was such a golden opportunity to use the IMAX, and to me it seemed very funny to use this huge screen with an amazing sound system for watching films that you would have watched on a little crappy TV in your bedroom in 1982 - if you were lucky enough to have one in your bedroom. That was how it all just came together. We're going to be watching old straight to video action movies on the IMAX but we're only showing films that we could find restorations of. 

If it's a success then I'm sure  it'll become a yearly thing because there are so many great films that we've been trying to include. In that sort of genre there are certainly so many good ones like 'Basket Case' - that was huge on video. It had a real reputation of being like a video nasty.  I feel like it has a real melancholic edge. It's almost like a documentary of New York at that time, like a real snapshot and MoMA [Museum of Modern Art in New York] they recognise that. They've just done an amazing restoration on it and that's the one we're showing at the IMAX. Films like this are really fun especially to watch with a crowd, because they capture a time, and they're not pretentious.

So the festival itself is let's not just celebrating a tremendous year of film, and the store's  40th Birthday you're celebrating something else as well - this year marks what would have been Christopher Lee's 100th birthday and there's a screen 'Dracula AD 1972'.

Tom [Tom Vincent - Film Archivist part of the programming team] really wanted to show that one to kind of reassess it. A lot of people really liked that movie; I watched it and thought it was some kind of a joke. It's more like a postscript to the Dracula franchise, but I like it is actually it's really interesting. The soundtrack is insanely good and also Christopher Lee is just fantastic. Since this year would've been his 100th birthday, and 50 years since its release so that was the logic behind that was just like, we Yeah, it's like 100 Yeah, you still want to let Christopher Lee's 100th Birthday go on. And so that was why even though it wasn't a two one. It's an easy one to squeeze in.

So they're all being shown at the IMAX at the Bristol Aquarium which will echo the sound of whirring projectors after 15 years. That's that's going to be quite a surreal experience. Did you go to the IMAX when it was open?

Many many times.

And since it closed - ahead of the festival did you get a tour?

The first time we went round to have a look we were shown around everywhere; the auditorium the projection room, and I've been on probably about a dozen visits since then. We're doing the install because the actual projector in there is the old IMAX one and you need to be a very qualified team of IMAX projectionists to work it. It's 70 mm film on huge spinning platters eight feet wide. What we're doing is installing a Christi 2K Xenon projector, which is the same one they use the IMAX in Bradford and we're  installing that by the side of it. That's  the big unknown, kind of going on faith with a lot of the expertise here,  people who say this is what will happen and this is what we can get away with, how we bypass the sound system. There's been a lot of technical riddles to solve. Luckily, I've been in touch with the ex chief projectionist [Andrew McLean) of the IMAX cinema who works at the NHS around the corner - luckily he never left Bristol. Finding him was crucial to it moving forward as he could show us how the kit works, how we could bypass the proprietary stuff and know what we could expect to achieve.

So you're really sort of kind of feeling the pressure because it's a test pilot in every respect.

There have been people who have tried to do this who've sort of gone gone along a little bit and then walked away, and usually for very good reason. I'm not sure if it's the technology or the cost of the technology but everything seems to have dropped to a place where the tech is available at an affordable rate and the people that needed to be around, are around and we have a lot of goodwill around the video shop too. People know I'm not doing this to make money so they're are much more willing to give their time and help make this happen. I think if it was a corporation trying to reanimate the IMAX, there's be a lot more resistance and people would be less keen to just give their time and expertise. This is something of a passion project. That's basically brought it along to the point now where we'll be testing how well the film will play there, then a week or so to fine tune it, and watch a few movies in there before we let people in. Touch wood it doesn't it won't blow up in our face.

It's quite fitting really to have the festival here not just because it's celebrating. You know the shops 40th birthday, it draws attention to the fact that Bristol has been [and still is] a hub for celebration of film. The city's history is rooted in cinema all the way back to William Freese-Green. 

And the Whiteladies Picture House that's a very old cinema. We're a UNESCO city for film now we're global. I think there's only eight, maybe nine in the world and Bristol is one of them. I don't know where we fit into that. I think long term I'm happy to do this thing and almost be like a midwife. I can show people that it's what you can do and what what it looks like. Then probably I imagine some bigger organisation with a bit more expertise will come along and take it from there. 

Some festivals though remain a grassroots led event, yes they grow in size, attracting audiences from all over but at their heart remain rooted in the original goal with all the founders still running it.

There's so much goodwill in the city for that kind of thing. People understand there's not a huge amount of money going around grants wise, and no one's getting rich doing it. So that's the only way for these things to thrive really is just have that  base of people willing it on, happy to put in some effort and and support them when they come along. 

Forbidden Worlds Film Festival will take place on the weekend of the 13th to 15th May at the Bristol IMAX cinema. Passes have sold out but individual screening tickets are still available and selling fast. Visit the Forbidden Words website for more details 

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