Beloved video store Vidiots is set to reopen. How Rian Johnson and others are helping
When Vidiots, the long-running video store in Santa Monica that had become a cultural cornerstone for the city, closed in 2017, it seemed the end of an era.
Now, on a corner in northeast Los Angeles, Vidiots is on the verge of a new beginning.
Construction is underway at the Eagle Theatre in Eagle Rock for it to become a combination 250-seat movie theater and video store, home to Vidiots’ collection of more than 50,000 titles on DVD, Blu-ray and VHS along with new programming. The project is expected to be completed and the new Vidiots is anticipated to open its doors in spring 2022.
“Even before the pandemic and lockdowns, I think that it is abundantly clear that the need for human interaction around the arts and particularly around film is really paramount to our culture and our sense of health and well-being,” said Maggie Mackay, executive director of the nonprofit Vidiots Foundation.
“Yes, you could say that in the age of streaming it’s counterintuitive to do something like this, but I would say that it’s obligatory to do something like this,” Mackay added, “because as convenient as streaming services are, they’re problematic only when they begin to obliterate other points of access to this entire art form. And when you have multiple points of access to an art form, you just invite so many more people in and you have such a better chance of encouraging new generations of people to fall in love with that art form, and then to support it for another hundred years.”
Even as the renovation project is now ongoing, Vidiots has raised only $1 million of its $2.5 million goal. To that end, Rian Johnson and Karina Longworth have pledged a campaign to match all donations to Vidiots through Sept. 17 dollar for dollar up to $100,000.
Johnson is the Oscar-nominated writer-director behind such films as “Knives Out” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” while Longworth is the author of numerous books on film and the creator of the popular Hollywood history podcast “You Must Remember This.”
Via email from Greece, where Johnson is in production on a sequel to “Knives Out,” Longworth explained why the couple specifically wanted to make a public matching gift, noting, “I want Vidiots to remain independent of corporate control, but that means that instead of relying on one large sum, they need a lot of people to help out any way that they can. It feels like the more people we can inspire to give whatever they can give, the more invested those literal shareholders will be in keeping this space alive and thriving.”
Johnson and Longworth are founding members of the Vidiots project, a list that also includes actors Mackenzie Davis, Patton Oswalt and Aubrey Plaza, filmmakers Mark Duplass and Phil Lord, musician Sharon Van Etten and producers Keith and Jess Wu Calder, Nate Moore and Amy Pascal, among others. A 35 mm projection system has been donated by filmmaker Jason Reitman.
“I keep saying these are the people who care most about film in the world,” said Mackay. “These are the people who don’t just want film for themselves. They want it for generations of people who are yet to exist.
“And I feel very strongly that this isn’t just about our four walls and our existence,” Mackay continued. “If we can do this here, if we can make this project live here, this can be done in other places. And especially in places around the country that have even less access to the film arts than we have.”
Mackay also noted that recently two Eagle Rock sixth-graders put up a lemonade stand and raised some $300 for the venue.
Vidiots was founded in 1985 by native Angelenos and childhood friends Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber. The duo had long seen their store as much as a community hub as a simple transactional place of business. Over the years they hosted events such as a birthday party for filmmaker Russ Meyer, a polka party for documentarian Les Blank, a symposium for director Charles Burnett and a book signing for musician John Doe.
The pair were standing amid the construction debris of their new venue on a recent afternoon, with seats from the theater stacked high in a corner of what will soon be the video store. Another part of the space will be used for receptions, educational programs and other events.
“We felt the community at Santa Monica changing while we were there,” said Polinger. “And it was sort of sad because we could tell that our audience was getting less diverse, older, that younger families and younger people were getting priced out of the neighborhood. People would drive long distances to get stuff for special occasions, but that core energy of young people who were just discovering things was sort of dissipating. And so it’s really exciting to be in a place now where you see that phoenix kind of rising up from the ashes here.”
“It does feel like Santa Monica, 1985,” said Tauber. “It does have that feeling. And it seems like the perfect spot.”
Mackay called the location at the Eagle “a really happy miracle.” As they initially formulated their plans to relaunch Vidiots, they assumed they would be taking over a warehouse or large empty space to transform into a theater, rather than retrofitting a preexisting theater to meet their needs.
Initially opened in 1929 as the Yosemite Theatre for silent film and vaudeville, the venue transitioned to sound in 1930 and was renamed the Eagle Theatre in 1940. It functioned as a movie theater until 2000, when it became home to a church.
Vidiots will enter the local exhibition scene at a time of increased uncertainty, as movie theaters are still finding their footing after being closed for more than a year due to the pandemic. The Cinerama Dome and ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood remain closed for now, though other ArcLight venues have been taken over by major chains. Both the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz and the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood are currently closed and undergoing renovations.
The repertory scene in Los Angeles has long been focused on the Westside at UCLA and the Aero or in midcity at the Egyptian and New Beverly Cinema. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will soon be opening a theater along with its new museum. A venue like Vidiots, planning to combine screenings of older titles with new films and special events, promises to redraw the cinema-going map in Los Angeles.
“I’m really worried about the long-term ramifications to film culture of a year-plus without movie theaters,” said Longworth. “There needs to be places where people, especially young people, can go and have their minds blown by movies, and if there aren’t places to go that feel cool — where you want to show up wearing a good outfit and hoping to meet people who are into the same stuff you’re into, or who can challenge your ideas of what you should be into, people you can argue with and connect with — kids are just going to do something else instead.
“When I think about the places that I went to when I was a young person,” Longworth added, “the places that helped me become who I am, they were places like Vidiots.”
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