The return of Vidiots could alter L.A.’s moviegoing map for good
When the Santa Monica video store Vidiots, which had become a local cultural institution, closed in February 2017, founders Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber had their doubts as to whether the store would ever rebound. Opened in 1985, the beloved rental shop had a collection of more than 50,000 titles on various media formats that was put into storage, potentially never to be publicly available again.
“I didn’t really think it would,” said Tauber, reflecting on whether the store could bounce back after years of financial struggle with the rise of emerging streaming services. “I know that was the plan from the beginning, but I think by the time we shut down, I was so worn out and exhausted from trying to keep the business going and all the negativity and struggle. It was really hard to imagine this was really going to happen. Of course I hoped it would, but we were just way burnt out by the time we were closing down.”
Tauber sat recently with Polinger in the comfy and inviting theater space of the revived Vidiots, which just reopened. Besides a video store, the newly renovated complex at the Eagle Theatre in Eagle Rock includes a 271-seat movie theater, a beer and wine bar, and a smaller micro-cinema space that can also be used for community and educational programs.
“It has been such a transformation and such a huge endeavor, with so many obstacles along the way,” said Polinger. “It’s really a miracle that we’re here.”
Both Tauber and Polinger acknowledge that the new beginning would not be possible without Maggie Mackay, executive director of the Vidiots Foundation since 2016 and main initiator of the reopening plan. For two years after the Santa Monica store‘s closure, Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures paid for storage of the collection and supported the foundation while new plans were put in place. Mackay has led an ongoing capital campaign that has raised more than $2 million, much of the fundraising done during the pandemic.
The ambitious new Vidiots space, with programming planned for seven days a week, is looking to insert itself into the already lively repertory screening scene around Los Angeles, serving audiences in a radius around Eagle Rock that includes Highland Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Atwater Village, Pasadena and other nearby neighborhoods that have a deficit of screening options.
With the combined theater space and video store — now with over 60,000 titles thanks to the acquisition of other collections — Vidiots is hoping to become a hub for a community that it is both newly rejoining and in a sense creating on its own.
“We want to cross cultures and cross age ranges and get butts back in seats,” Mackay said. “And there’s a way to do it and make it affordable and equitable and not just for one small segment of a community.”
“This is a space to build the next generation of people who will love movies,” she added. “And they shouldn’t just come from households where movies are a thing. They should come from the households where people don’t think about movies. That’s how you get the next generation. It can’t just be handed down. It has to be something that’s open. It has to be a party that everybody’s invited to.”
Vidiots’ reopening coincides with a moment when audiences for repertory screenings around the city have been trending younger, belying doubts about the future of theatrical moviegoing in the era of streaming. And a number of venues have already been pulling audiences eastward, away from the Westside and Hollywood.
The American Cinematheque has been programming at the Los Feliz 3 while the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood undergoes renovations. Screenings at the 2220 Arts + Archives space have been drawing sellout crowds. There is much anticipation as to when the Vista Theater, now owned by Quentin Tarantino, will reopen.
Each local venue — including the Cinematheque, the Academy Museum, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the New Beverly Cinema, as well as the Laemmle art-house chain and independent theaters such as the Lumiere Cinema — draws unique audiences. Vidiots is looking to slip into a slot of its own, a family-friendly, teen-and-tween-welcoming environment for movie lovers of all stripes.
The first day of programming began with Disney’s 1973 animated “Robin Hood,” at which some young attendees were seeing their first movie in a theater. An afternoon event with filmmaker Fox Maxy was presented in conjunction with a UCLA Film and Television Archive program celebrating Indigenous cinema. The day wrapped up with a sold-out show of the L.A.-set, cautionary AI classic “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
Other films screening in June include “Selena,” “The Harder They Come,” “RRR,” “Love & Basketball,” “The Slumber Party Massacre,” “In the Mood for Love,” “The Last Dragon” and “Desperately Seeking Susan,” as well as an evening of the unedited concert footage of punk bands the Cramps and the Mutants playing at a California psychiatric facility in 1978 along with a documentary short on the notorious show. A celebration of June weddings will feature a cheeky range of nuptial fare, including “Monsoon Wedding,” “The Wedding Banquet” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” A July program presented by the Museum of Home Video will feature an eerie selection of doorbell-cam footage. Other screenings in July include the documentary “Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)” with subjects They Might Be Giants in attendance, the documentary “Crumb” with director Terry Zwigoff and the Sun Ra documentary “Space Is the Place,” part of a series on Afrofuturism presented with Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions.
Among those supporting the Vidiots project as founding members are a number of local creative couples, including actor-directors Katie Aselton and Mark Duplass, producer Mette-Marie Kongsved and Elijah Wood, and podcaster Karina Longworth and filmmaker Rian Johnson.
Individual supporters include actor and director Lake Bell, Oscar-winning animators Phil Lord and Chris Miller, producer Nate Moore, “White Lotus” star Aubrey Plaza and musician Sharon Van Etten.
A few weeks before the opening of the new Vidiots complex, things were still coming together. A small crew was shooting an introduction video that will play before every screening and will be periodically swapped out. This first one will feature founding members Ify Nwadiwe and Noah Segan, as well as one of Mackay’s children and a few young friends.
In between shots, Nwadiwe, a comedian, actor and writer, spoke about how he became involved with Vidiots. He has helped in putting together a program for this month to celebrate Juneteenth.
“What is very important to me is the fact that it’s a community,” said Nwadiwe, who lives nearby and is looking forward to bringing his 7-year-old daughter. “I could have thrown a check and let them do their thing. But one of the beautiful things about a space like this is being involved and really making this a hub for not only movie lovers but also filmmakers and creators where we can also meet and commune. Who knows what can come out of just having so many great minds in one place?”
An actor and filmmaker who recently made his feature directing debut with “Blood Relatives,” Segan lives with his wife, writer and producer Alison Bennett, and their two young children in the neighborhood. Segan was among those who first noticed when the for-lease sign appeared on the Eagle, which opened in 1929 as the Yosemite Theater and has been through many incarnations through the years, including phases as an adult theater and a church (not at the same time).
“We moved to Eagle Rock because we loved that this is a historic and diverse and artistic and friendly place in Los Angeles,” said Segan, who regularly went to the original Vidiots when he lived in Venice. “And it represents a lot of the things that we love about the city as a whole.”
The ethos of bold curiosity and discovery at the original video store has been transferred to the new store and theater space, engendering what Segan called “a safe place to figure it out.”
“It really does feel like this total misfit thing has grown into an incredibly wholesome, positive, productive space,” said Segan. “That’s I think what everybody kind of wants. And if that’s what the legacy is, we’re all going to feel really good at the end of the day.”
More than anyone, Mackay has held the flame for Vidiots during the long process of finding, renovating and opening the new space. She had a long career in various film jobs around Los Angeles, including programming for the Los Angeles Film Festival and working behind-the-scenes on the Spirit Awards. But she had no prior experience with fundraising before signing on with Vidiots, driven by a commitment to the mission behind the old store.
“I will be truthful and say I’m not sure that I would or could have any inclination to raise money for something other than Vidiots,” Mackay said. “It’s the thing that I can believe in so much that I can ask people to go down that rabbit hole with me. And it’s not just about asking for money, it’s about asking for hours and time and expertise and artwork and help and emotional support, especially through the pandemic.”
She added, “I’m not really this ambitious. I mostly want to go to the beach.”
Though Polinger and Tauber won’t be pulling shifts in the video store like in the old days, they are on the board of the Vidiots Foundation and remain involved in the project. Mackay said they provided an essential beacon as the project to open the new space moved along.
“I wouldn’t have kept going had Patty and Cathy not been really involved,” Mackay said. “Their involvement is as much emotional as it is anything else. Every time I started to totally lose faith in this and just think, like, ‘What have I done?’ I call Patty and Cathy and am instantly reminded why we’re doing this and instantly reminded of who I was as a kid when I needed a space like Vidiots. And so every time I start to lose hope, they are my center.”
As Tauber and Polinger walked through the new video store shortly before opening, Mackay pulled out a portfolio full of ads from the original store, highlighting the availability of films such as “El Topo,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “The Long Good Friday” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock.” One ad read, “If you have called your video store looking for Fellini and their reply was ‘the Italian restaurant moved,’ then Vidiots is for you.”
Technical director Boris Ibañez was upstairs in the theater’s projection booth overseeing installation of the digital projection system. An old-school 35-millimeter system, provided by filmmaker Jason Reitman, is also being installed, with a goal of being up and running by August.
Ibañez left a job as a technician and operations analyst with AMC Theatres to work for Vidiots and, like many involved in the project, felt himself drawn to it by the sense of commitment, community and legacy.
“Am I really going to leave my corporate 10-year job for this?” Ibañez recalled asking himself. “I believe in the vision, so I decided to do it.
Ever since Vidiots signed the lease for the Eagle Rock space in late 2019 — their new landlords happen to be former Vidiots customers — there has been a growing sense that the old space in Santa Monica was more than just a video store. The ambitious new project looks to further fulfill on the promise of bringing people together via a shared love of the movies.
“It feels really good that our previous goodwill somehow created this. It’s amazing seeing our legacy propelled forward,” Polinger said. “The collection is so important and the mission is so important.
“I want access to films that people can’t see via streaming,” said Polinger. “And I want conversation around film, and I want young people to be excited about film and be able to converse and discuss and turn other people onto it.”
“We had this community in Santa Monica, and that’s what I miss most,” Tauber said. “And that this is just on a way larger scale is really overwhelming.”
For the revitalized Vidiots, anything seems possible.
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