For nearly 30 years, there’s been a store holding the same spot on Halifax’s corner of Quinpool and Vernon. For some people who grew up in Halifax, it’s a staple part of the community. For many newcomers, it’s one of the first places they’ll hear about. The store’s business? Video rental. Its name? Video Difference.
“It’s an entity that’s a lot more than just going and renting a movie. That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to keep people aware of the many aspects of films over and above the next Hollywood blockbuster [and] to really keep you honest,” says Michael MacDonald, a film student at NSCAD University and a volunteer at the Carbon Arc, a small independent cinema on Barrington Street.
MacDonald, who is currently trying to watch seven movies a week as he works through a list of mostly rare, must-watch films, gave up a potential career with NASA to pursue filmmaking.
He says he loves film “from the bottom of [his] heart,” and it’s the sort of love that defines the store’s small but loyal market.
“[Video Difference] is really a gathering point for people that are into film,” says Tom Michael, who has owned the store since it became Video Difference in 1982. “We particularly deal with cinephiles: people who are into not only cinema but good stories whether they’re film or television and people who have time that’s valuable and enjoy a premium viewing experience, so that’s our main focus.”
MacDonald and Kitty Aal, a fellow Carbon Arc volunteer who calls film an “enormous passion”, both say that they depend on Video Difference to find the rare film they’ll watch next.
Aal says she likes how the employees seem genuinely interested in film and in offering suggestions. She says the carpeting and the multiple floors sets it apart from “boxy” chain stores. She even compares going into a video rental store like Video Difference to going into a candy shop.
“It’s good that it’s [open] 24 hours too. I find that kind of random,” she says with a laugh. “It’s like devotion to the cause.”
That devotion and the sense of community is “the vibe of the thing,” says MacDonald who, in true cinephile form, adds that this is a reference to a 1997 Australian film called The Castle, which he’s quick to recommend.
He also says that Video Difference is vital to Halifax’s film watchers and makers. The store, MacDonald says, reminds people that films are important to think about and, through its “complex” organizational system, opens customers up to more rare and independent films.
But places like Video Difference are a dying breed, says Sujit Sur, an assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s School of Business Administration. Online video rental businesses like Netflix, which came to Canada in September 2010, allows the sort of online convenience that a place like Video Difference cannot offer. “You have to ensure you can provide something to your customers that makes your offering more attractive than just clicking and getting it on my computer,” Sur says.
Indeed, there has been a shift as businesses like Netflix and iTunes gain popularity. On Quinpool Road, which as recently as four years ago had three video rental stores, now only Video Difference and a franchise of the American video rental chain Blockbuster remain. And in September 2010, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy.
Sur cautions against Michael’s strategy of appealing to a niche community. “These people can also change very quickly. [Michael] also has to have a wider customer base or he has to increase his customer base,” he says. “If you focus only on, let’s say, those 100 people that you’re surviving on, sooner or later some of them will move away.”
And in fact, Aal and MacDonald both say they only get to Video Difference once or twice a month. While both cite the expense, which can be as high as $6.29 a movie, MacDonald also adds that he finds it can be more convenient to rent online.
But Michael says he sees online rental businesses and free filesharing websites as threats that are not insurmountable.
“These are variables, you’d have to be blind to say they’re not. But they’re not really game changers,” he says. “In other words, someone who was using Netflix today was probably going to the different computer sites already to watch their television, for the most part.”
And that niche community, which Michael estimates as closer to two to three thousand, remains the ace up his sleeve. MacDonald says that he’s ready to help defend his passion: “I hope and I sense, if they were getting in trouble, they would have a call to action and the community would rally and start renting again, even though they might not need to because everything’s available online now,” he says.
But it is clear that the niche needs to grow its membership, and whether or not this video store can continue to add to that community remains to be seen. Even Aal is unsure.
“I think we [cinephiles] are a dying breed. I don’t see a lot of younger people sort of getting bit by that bug. The bug’s dead,” she says. “That experience of renting has just become more and more rare, so people won’t even miss it because they’ve never experienced it to begin with.”