MADILL — In a land that time forgot, the hunt is on. Past a hallway of tanning beds, a smattering of posters and a ‘$30,000’ bronzing gadget, customers mill about, transported to a simpler time when be-kind-rewind was a true test of character. Inside, a lady with high-powered readers and high-rise jeans squints as she grazes in between the colorful plastic cases that line each aisle. She plucks one from the shelf, holding the box in her hands as she scans the cover, adding a third title to her lot. She likes the scary stuff. Across the room, another man lingers and hums the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “You Make Me Feel So Young” playing through the store’s speakers. He’s looking at the new releases, but more so, he's looking for conversation to kill time before work. He finds it. At the counter, a young man brings back last week’s haul and returns for another. He leaves with the Death Cure, a film in the Maze Runner series. It’s one of his favorites.
It’s just another Friday at Video Magic, a place that’s part video rental store, part tanning salon, and part time machine.
Here, customers find their weekend entertainment by strolling instead of scrolling.
The video store has been around for 31 years. Its seen titans of the video industry rise and fall.
Once unsinkable ships, Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, Planet Video, Movie Gallery and most recently Hastings have all gone extinct. Built on the video rental chains’ graves – online streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and video vending machines like Redbox have emerged.
But after 31 years, through shifts from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray, streaming and 4K, the little video store that could finds a way to survive.
It’s owned by Mickel Owens, a man who said he doesn’t really watch movies, not anymore at least.
For what he lacks in first-hand expertise about current releases, he makes up for at the rental return, getting his customer's thoughts on each title.
There are no algorithms here, just a man working long hours, picking up on customers likes and dislikes by the minute.
“It’s like a neighborhood bar,” he said. “I like to get to know my customers."
He knows his customers by name. And for the names and faces that have slipped his mind, he keeps a cheat sheet under his register just in case.But times aren’t easy in the video rental business, Owens said. If not for his wife, who also works, he would have had to kill the video side of Video Magic long ago.
“There’s no money in it, not anymore,” Owens. “I don’t do it because I have to, I do it because I love it. I work seven days a week. A half day for me is eight hours, a full day is 16. I make it work.”Video rental shops are a family business for Owens. He’s the youngest of three brothers who’ve each owned stores in southern Oklahoma. From Marietta to Ardmore to Durant, the Owens' brothers owned and operated a slew video rental stores in the area.
In the late 1980s, the oldest Owens brother and ‘real film guru’ started Magic VIdeo in Madill, where the brothers were born. Now just Sulphur’s Bulldog Video and Video Magic in Madill remain.
For almost 20 years, the video rental business boomed. But the biggest threat was always chains like Blockbuster, who often muscled out little family-owned shops like Video Magic, Owens said.
Back in 1985, Blockbuster came on the scene, opening its first location in Dallas. Within 19 years the company added 9,093 stores, becoming a company worth $2.5 billion and a staple of street corners across the country.
But in 2011, after a series of missed opportunities like turning down an offer to purchase Netflix for $50 million in the early 2000’s, Blockbuster filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Netflix is now valued at over $100 billion.“You’d think we’d be happy to see Blockbuster go,” Owens said. “But no. That was a big blow to the industry.” Now, video rental stores sit somewhere near the bottom of the film distribution food chain. Owens said they’re often ignored.
“I can’t get a Disney poster anymore,” he said. “I still have a Tangled poster up. The movie is eight years old. But to this day it’s still one of our most rented titles.”
Thus is life for brick and mortar video rental stores in the digital age.
Mickel, after his older brothers showed him the ropes, became a business owner when he was 23 years old. After getting married, he opened his first store in Marietta.
Years later, when Movie Gallery came to town, the oldest Owens brother washed his hands of the video rental business and sold the original store to Mickel.
“He was like, ‘I’m out,' he’d seen what happens to these stores when Blockbuster and other big chains come to town,” Owens said.
In the years that have passed, Owens has had to shut down the Marietta store.
He said working the two faltering shops was unhealthy. It was fast-food, work, fast-food, sleep, rinse and repeat.
Since closing up shop, Owens said he’s lost 40 pounds.
Now the video sector of Video Magic serves mostly tourists and customers from rural areas.
“A typical Friday we’d have 300 customers easy,” he said. “Now, we’d be lucky to get 100.”
Owens said his regulars are usually lower income, those who can’t afford internet, but can afford to rent a few movies every once in a while.
“I don’t make money from renting videos,” he said. “Midway through the year we look great [financially]. By the end of the year it’s all gone. Video sucks it out.”
The costs are high, but Video Magic has adapted over time.
He’s added tanning beds, and later state-of-the-art spray tanning booths, one costing nearly $30,000. He said the closest one to rival it is in MckInney, Texas.
“People come from all over to tan,” he said. “It’s where we get most of our business.”
Owens said there’s something to renting a video compared to Netflix. Seeing and touching the titles, wandering a store, surrounded by the choices and making a selection to plan your weekend around.
He said he’d like to see the industry make a comeback, whether it be through a wave of hipster nostalgia or otherwise.
“You have to find your niche,” he said. “You have to adapt.”
Owens isn't too stubborn to adapt. He sells movies through the online retailer Amazon now. He said this month's revenue through the giant online retailer eclipsed his in-store sales.He’s not afraid to admit that he watches Netflix, too.
“I have Netflix, I watch shows mostly” he said “I love to watch the Irish Pub. It’s a bunch of old guys, and they’re talking. They’re having a conversation in person. We don’t do that much anymore.”
Owens said he’s not sure how much longer he can keep his store open. In the meantime he said he’ll keep having conversations, talking about life and movies at his shop until it’s no longer an option.