Chain reaction

The return of Video Maniacs makes cult, XXX and First Amendment fans breathe a sigh of relief

Photo by David Robert

Video Maniacs is at 900 W. Fifth St. Call 786-3444.

The first Video Maniacs, opened in 1991 in the Keystone Square, was itself a cult classic of video-rental joints. If you were looking for the strange or the foreign—Man Bites Dog, say, or a Wim Wenders film—its shelves were your best bet. And it had character. Beret-wearing college kids took the drive down the hill from the university to seek out its artsy films. Moms and dads could let kids entertain themselves in the play area while they scanned the titles. Teens brought in their Video Maniacs thermoses for free soda refills.

Video Maniacs expanded steadily over the next few years, opening a store in Carson City, then on Plumb Lane, then in Sparks, then Mt. Rose Highway, then Carson again. This concentration of stores in the Truckee Meadows earned the mom-'n'-pop chain national recognition, says owner Jared Sorensen. “Even with only six stores, we were ranked 35 in the top chains in the nation.”

Until up-and-coming chain Hollywood Video swallowed them up. Three years ago Reno witnessed a video-rental coup, with Hollywood, the nation’s No. 2 video rental chain, buying out Video Maniacs and Blockbuster, the No. 1 chain, taking over regional chain Major Video. Reno had held out longer than other markets; when it sold some of its California stores to Blockbuster, Major Video signed a contract with Blockbuster that kept the video giant out of the Reno area and guaranteed the smaller chain’s hegemony. But when that ended, and when Hollywood drove out Video Maniacs, Reno too had been bitten by the corporate bug.

But the little guy-big guy battle didn’t end there. Although Video Maniacs signed an agreement with Hollywood not to return to the market within three years time, that contract ended six months ago. Sorensen wasted no time setting up shop again—at a spot on Fifth Street virtually within earshot of the original Maniacs.

“We’re ahead of projections already,” Sorensen says. “We’ve only been open for six months, and it’s been going so good we’re already looking for additional sites.”

Customer Kevin is a tall, lanky guy with longish hair, steel-blue eyes and a look of gentlemanly quirkiness. It’s a drizzly Friday afternoon, and Kevin, a Maniacs regular who rents from the store about three times a week, has come in search of a “first-rate” adult film, the kind of stuff Blockbuster and Hollywood don’t carry.

“We live in a free country,” Kevin says. “[Video Maniacs] allows people to exercise their constitutional rights and freedoms.”

Neither Blockbuster nor Hollywood carries rentals with a rating racier than R. That means no X-rated cinema, but it also means that the big chains carry edited versions of films like Requiem for a Dream rather than the original director’s-cut versions. These director’s cuts usually aren’t rated, says Blockbuster spokesman Blake Lugash, but would receive NC-17 tags if they were.

“We try to have a family environment for our stores,” Lugash says. “These are policies that we’ve had since the first day of business. We’re not censoring. We are carrying the product the studios are releasing. We think we carry what our customers are asking for.”

But Sorensen, who carries only director’s-cut versions, also believes he carries what the customers are asking for.

“My philosophy is, whatever the customer wants to rent is what I’m going to stock and hold in the store,” Sorensen says. He competes with the big chains by stocking up his selection of unedited director’s cuts, cult classics, Japanimation, XXX and foreign films. “Most customers don’t want [stores] to make an editing decision for them.”

Sorensen adds that he sees chain corporate policy on NC-17 and X-rated movies not so much a matter of censorship as a symptom of the chains’ unwieldy size.

“To give them credit, it’d be hard for me to sit down and make a policy that would govern 5,000 stores,” he says. “When I make a buying decision, I only have to consider the local market and its needs.”

It’s no secret that the bigger you get, the more disconnected from your customer base you become. But the bigger you get, the greater the danger of becoming the bedfellow of the big Hollywood studios—Warner Bros., Universal, Buena Vista. “Forty percent of home video product is controlled by five studios,” Sorensen says.

The culprit: revenue sharing, a system that allowed the big chains to purchase VHS from the studios dirt cheap—seven to 10 dollars per tape versus the $60 to $100 per unit that VHS would otherwise cost. During an initial rental window, before videos have been priced to sell, Hollywood and Blockbuster rent the $7 to $10 videos and return a percentage of the profit to the studios. The Video Maniacs of the world aren’t in on the deal. In fact, Sorensen says that the revenue-sharing practice contributed to Video Maniacs’ demise three years ago. When Hollywood and Blockbuster were paying 10 bucks for a tape, he was paying $75.

“The studios were making an uneven playing field between the chains and the small guy.”

Then, along came DVD, a format that has just recently surpassed VHS in rental numbers. Sorensen says that the major Hollywood studios, in order to push DVDs onto the scene, artificially priced the new technology. Unlike videos, DVDs don’t have that “rental window"; DVDs are reasonably priced from day one. This means, according to Lugash, that Blockbuster is phasing out its revenue-sharing system. For Sorensen, and for other mom-'n'-pop owners, DVDs are good news, since DVDs cost the same for everyone.

“Five years ago, there was a lot of independent fallout. Now that the cost has been stabilized … the independents can beat the big chains on service.”

And Video Maniacs seems to be doing just that. Sorensen believes that store policy should be bendable—and sometimes breakable.

Peggy Daum, a café worker making her first visit to Video Maniacs since its reopening, finds this out firsthand. She’s a little late dropping off her rentals, and Sorensen agrees to waive the fee this time.

Daum is grateful, especially because she’s “had some problems over there"—across the street at Hollywood, where she wasn’t completely happy with the way a fee dispute was resolved. A neighbor told her about the return of Video Maniacs. She says she’s switching over.

“You just want to rent a movie without hassle,” she says.

Daum adds that high turnover rates at video stores seem to affect customer service.

Sorensen is quick to point out to her that his entire staff worked with him before Video Maniacs’ closure three years ago.

“I got 50 applications from former employees to come back and work for me again,” he says.

For customer Kevin, atmosphere—in addition to uncensored films and a nice selection of old westerns—is key.

“This is the only video store where you can come in here and it feels like a family. [Former Video Maniacs employees] have left other stores to come [back] here. You’ve got Dan, who opens up in the morning, calls you by name. He says, ‘Hey, Kevin.' … They know their customers."