Some arrive at the shop seeking rare films impossible to find elsewhere, while others come because they have grown disillusioned with the power of the streaming services and their algorithms. Regulars relish the good-humoured expertise of the movie-mad staff – and are keen to support the last of a dying breed.
Against the odds, 20th Century Flicks, a DVD and VHS rental store in Bristol, has reached a landmark – its 40th anniversary – and is marking the moment with a festival showing films from the year of its opening, 1982.
“It does feel like a milestone,” said one of the owners, Dave Taylor, who began working at the shop two decades ago when renting videos and DVDs was as routine as clicking on a Netflix or Amazon Prime film is now. “It’s changed a lot but there is still a demand for what we do. People who use our service really value it and Bristol really loves its film. There are enough people in the city wanting to watch the stuff that we have.”
The shopfront tells the story of what 20th Century Flicks is about. The sign features the iconic image of Béatrice Dalle from the poster of the French 1986 psychological drama Betty Blue and one of the walls is adorned with graffiti reading: “The Warriors”, a reference to the 1979 New York crime cult classic.
DVDs given prominence in the shop window range from new arthouse films such as Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman and Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round to the 1964 British comedy The Bargee starring Harry H Corbett as a canal boatman.
Videos include the 1953 Japanese classic Tokyo Story, On The Waterfront starring Marlon Brando, from the following year – and Eating Raoul, a dark satire about a married couple who go on a murder spree to fund their dream of buying a house and restaurant in the country. Neatly, the film was released in 1982, the year the shop opened its doors.
The most rented film is probably 1987’s Withnail and I. One of the stars, Paul McGann, once borrowed the movie from the shop. Other favourite directors include Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell and Joanna Hogg. “Bristol has an arthouse aesthetic,” said Taylor. “That’s our bread and butter.”
Among the regulars who arrived when the Guardian visited was Pixie Paine, a 39-year-old who works in social housing. The last film she rented was the 2012 psychedelic sci-fi Vanishing Waves from the Lithuanian director Kristina Buožytė. “They’re amazing here, so niche,” she said. She came to hire Empire Records, the 1995 coming-of-age movie that tells the story of a group of employees trying to stop their independent shop being sold to a corporate giant.
But the shop doesn’t cater only for fans of the esoteric. IT consultant Paul Triffitt, 55, was returning Die Hard, Die Hard 2 and The Last Boy Scout. “We’ve been having a Bruce Willis season,” he said. It follows Steven Spielberg and Luc Besson extravaganzas chez Triffitt. “I like what they do here, I try to support them,” he said.
The film has a library of more than 20,000 films so there is something for most tastes. If they don’t have a movie they will try to get it in, and even if it costs them a few hundred pounds, they will still rent it out for a few pounds. The aim is not to turn a profit but to break even and keep going.
Officially the shop has 92,000 members, and about 200 people regularly rent movies. The shop has diversified in recent years, opening two tiny screening rooms for eight and 10 people. They can be hired out and the shop puts on screenings.
Another new attraction is the second shop window, which features lovingly made dioramas showing moments or objects from films such as Beetlejuice, Seven, Blue Velvet and Back to the Future. Visitors pause at the shop on Christmas Steps and peer in, trying to work out what some of the more obscure models represent.
For the 40th anniversary, Forbidden Worlds (the name honours the 1982 sci-fi horror Forbidden World), the shop is reopening the mothballed Imax in Bristol and showing films over the weekend of 13-15 May. Films being screened include Blade Runner, Poltergeist and Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 – to mark the 100th anniversary of Christopher Lee’s birth.
And then the plan is to battle on. Taylor said: “We’ll just keep going, renting out films, putting on festivals, making the odd diorama. It’s a satisfying life.”