GREAT FALLS — Anyone who says video rental stores are obsolete in a world with services like Netflix and Amazon Prime clearly hasn’t seen the traffic streaming in the door at Mike’s Movies and More on new-release Tuesday.
“I could have two people in here helping me this morning,” owner Mike Clark said right before the phone rang with a customer calling to reserve a copy of “The Angry Birds Movie.” “I haven’t been able to relax for the last seven days.”
Clark welcomes most folks that walk in the door of this 1,350-square-foot store on the north side of town by name and recognizes the ones that dial in when their phone number pops up on Caller ID.
That kind of service, plus that he gets new releases like “Angry Birds” up to 30 days before the streaming services do, keeps his business thriving in an age when some don’t understand why anyone would drive across town to the video store to rent a movie when all it takes is a few clicks of the PlayStation remote to do the same thing without leaving the couch.
Some folks even come twice a day — to drop off their movies that are due over the lunch hour and rent new titles after work.
Clark opened his store six years ago. He’d been the manager of Movie Gallery for more than half a decade before it went out of business and he always knew he’d love to run his own video store.
He started with a $60,000 investment and a used inventory purchased from Hastings. He plans to pick up some new racks from that same Hastings this summer during the store’s liquidation sale. The soon-to-be-former player in the Montana video rental scene filed for bankruptcy in June and is closing stores in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula.
“Owning your own business is always a risk,” Clark said. “But I knew my store finances from my Movie Gallery days. You have to be knowledgeable in your business.”
Clark has movie and video game knowledge in excess. He watches 15 to 20 titles a week so he can give reviews to customers. It’s clear in how he always seems to be just on the edge of laughter that Clark is one of those people who found the job in life that fits him best.
In the store on a Tuesday, 9-year-old Quyn Reddick said he likes to rent "Life & Death" or "Call of Duty" games.
Clark is training Quyn’s sister, 6-year-old Morgan, how to check out videos and games herself.
“I joke it’ll save me time down the road,” Clark smiled.
Ashton Reddick, 13, said even though she has a Netflix account, she likes to rent from Mike’s Movies. “I get whatever's new that interests me, like horror and comedy,” she said. “I like to come in and walk the aisles and see what’s there.”
Loren Reddick, their dad, has been taking his kids to rent at Mike’s since it opened. He goes for the new releases and customer service. “Mike has the same taste for B-movies that I do,” Reddick said. “And if you’re late he works with you on fees,” he laughed.
Some of Clark’s most popular rentals are Netflix TV series, like “Orange is the New Black.”
“We have customers in here that have all three (most-used streaming services), but in here they’re getting this and this,” he said, pointing to new B movie releases and movies that hit his store before they're available in digital format.
Video rental giants toppled at the start of the decade. Movie Gallery, which owned the Hollywood Video chain, and Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010. Blockbuster’s website still lists about 50 franchise locations, but the last Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery stores closed more than five years ago.
The chains’ leaders cited consumers’ shift to digital delivery as a reason for their downfall. Netflix, which introduced streaming in 2007, went from 4.2 million subscribers in 2005 to 83 million members worldwide in 2016. It dominates the streaming services, eating up 35 percent of peak download traffic on the Internet in North America, according to a company report. YouTube is next at 18 percent and Amazon Video has 4 percent.
The next threat to stores like Clark's came from Redbox in the form of movie kiosks located outside grocery stores, gas stations and places people had to go anyway. But Clark doesn’t think the kiosks and streaming are what did in the corporations.
“Netflix and Redbox killed it for a bit, but it was corporate that killed itself,” he said. “Billionaires want to see 40-50 percent profit. Corporations are gone because of overhead. Keep it small and simple and you’ll be fine in this business.”
In the face of streaming, even Redbox is faltering. The company closed up shop in Canada last year, citing low demand. A quarterly report from Outerwall Inc., which owns Redbox, in July 2016 said kiosks saw a 10 percent decline in same-store rentals in compared to the same period of 2015. The report attributed the drop to streaming services, among other things.
The number of Redbox kiosks has dropped slowly but steadily since the end of 2014, down from 43,790 in October of that year to 39,970 this summer.
Redbox was a threat, although briefly, when a kiosk popped up years ago at the Albertsons in Malta, where Alice Anderson owns Central Video.
Unlike Clark, Anderson didn’t want to run a video rental store. She was a bartender, but after her husband stopped working for health reasons she took over the business.
“I’m 73 years old, and I’m going to keep going,” he said. “I’ve seen what retirement means, and I want no part of it.”
Anderson is the only video rental game in town after the Redbox disappeared not long after it showed up. Her biggest challenge isn’t finding enough customers to stay busy — Central Video can support four part-time employees — it’s battling late fees and finding enough time to watch all the new releases.
That’s where her good friend Judy Strobel comes in. Strobel likes dramas but doesn’t find a lot of newer comedies funny. She’ll binge-watch an entire TV series and says the rental store is much more than a place to get movies.
In the blue-walled interior of Central Video, newer movies are on wall racks to the right. “Miracle from Heaven” was a big hit in July. Kids movies are on the left, and “Tangled” is still hard to keep in stock. Anderson sells Hutterite eggs and homemade rolls, cookies, banana bread and chocolate cake.
“It’s a hub in here,” Strobel said. “And that’s important in a small town.”
Anderson is selling off old VHS tapes, which she stopped renting a few years back, in a box in the back of the store. She’s down from eight boxes to just one, including '90s favorites “Home Alone” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
“The trick is having a VCR that works,” Strobel joked.
Montana still has video rental stores across the state. Larger cities like Missoula, Kalispell and Bozeman all have rental stores, and so do small towns like Malta and Troy. And those stores are still around less because of the rural nature of the state and more because there’s still demand for what they offer.
“Something that’s great is they don’t get the new ones as quick as I do,” Anderson said, explaining she gets some titles a month before Netflix.
And Netflix can’t, for example, help out someone like Clark’s sister-in-law, who really wanted to watch “Sweet Home Alabama” one night.
“We looked on Amazon Prime and they wanted $4 for it and Netflix didn’t have it. I said ‘Mike’s Movies’ has it, and we came down and it was here,” Clark said.
Streaming services also couldn't help a dad who came in looking for a copy of “Unstoppable” for his train-obsessed son. Clark had a copy on DVD.
Anderson has been in the same location for years and has no plans to move or change anything. “It’s fun in here,” she said. “It really is.”
Someone one suggested getting an espresso machine in here. “I said why? You don’t cut into somebody else’s business. I don’t want to clean up the mess when they spill it.”
For Clark, business picks up in colder weather when people stay inside more. This spring brought early hot weather and a bit of a slowdown in normal business. “April was terrible, even I went fishing twice,” Clark said.
This summer has been better than average, but winter is his best season. “When snow first falls, you could take numbers at the door,” Clark said.
“It’s an outing for families,” he said. “We need more of that family stuff, family activities together.”