The power of cinema has never been in dispute. But in an age of streaming and video on demand, the power of cinemas often is. Santa Monica stalwart Vidiots looks to change that with the ambitious community movie theater and video store they’re currently building in Eagle Rock’s 90-year-old historic Eagle Theater location. Earlier this year in what was something of a dream for me, I was lucky enough to visit the location and chat to Vidiots Executive Director—and lifelong film lover—Maggie Mackay.
Vidiots’ journey began in 1985 when Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber opened the alternative video store in Santa Monica. The female-founded and helmed shop was a community hub where filmmakers knew they could get their work spotlighted. “Patty and Cathy were so hugely supportive of the filmmaking community,” Mackay explained. “Everybody in LA knew if you made something and you didn’t know what to do with it, you would bring it to Vidiots. They would put a copy of it on their shelves and if we put something out on the floor then it would get rented even before we closed in 2017. Because there’s an investment in the space, there’s an understanding that a human being you trust is recommending something to you.”
The Vidiots team will bring that human touch and their massive collection of movies to the Eagle Rock theater, which will feature a video store with 50,000 DVD and Blu-ray titles. Though Vidiots no longer rents VHS they still have a huge archival collection of titles. As Mackay explains to me, it’s all about connecting the two spaces. “Making everything ADA accessible, making everything flow together, making everything in one space was hugely important.”
And Mackay was quick to explain that the Vidiots video store is no second player to the movie theater. In fact, it’s actually the driving factor behind the Eagle Rock location. “What we wanted was not just to have a nostalgic throwback or some cute thing next door that maybe someone would wander into next to this movie theater. What we really want to make people understand is that this [theater] exists so that we can maintain public access to the video store.”
Walking around the space—which was still under construction when I visited—it’s easy to believe in Mackay’s enthusiasm and vision. Next to the Vidiots store will be a micro cinema and community space with a “high end DCP projector” and removable wall that can hold up to 35 people. It’ll also act as a space for kids groups and educational activities. The team has gone to great lengths to make the space accessible for all residents, pouring concrete throughout to create a pathway for wheelchair users. Theater spaces forget that all too often but is clearly a source of pride and focus for the team at Vidiots.
One of the most exciting things about the space in Eagle Rock is—though the location hadn’t been a theater for 20 years before Vidiots took it over—it had been an operational cinema from 1929-2000. It’s a story that enchants Mackay and has locals excited for the theater to return. “You can imagine the history that’s in here and movies that played here. The neighborhood is so stoked for this project. The wild thing about this theater was that when it opened it was initially a 900 seat theater. I read that it dropped down to 800 in the 80s, but the lobby was basically a hallway. And if you were in a wheelchair or you couldn’t go up the stairs, you couldn’t use the bathroom.”
Running a 900 seat independent theater in 2022 wasn’t sustainable for the crew. But creating a smaller main screen meant they opened up something they’d been desperate for: a gathering space. The new open plan lobby will feature what Mackay describes as “a concession stand for pretty robust food, with a lot of partnerships with local restaurants and local vendors. A beer and wine bar and then three ADA accessible gender neutral bathrooms.”
During the construction they’ve found a ton of gems including an incredible zigzag poster wall. It’ll take on a new life as Vidiots donor wall. “Any donor that comes in 5k and above corporate or individual, they get their name on a VHS tape,” Mackay explains. “It goes into the wall and we’ll have a lot of cool neon work in there too!”
The main theater space is a perfect analog of Vidiots’ mission to keep classic film accessible. It’s a cavernous and beautiful theater which Mackay explains is pretty much identical to when they took ownership. But, of course, they repoured the floor, making it ADA accessible. They also uncovered more gems like a proscenium arch which no one has seen since the 1950s. So even people who grew up going to the theater have never seen that original feature before. The finished space will seat 250 and the team did major work to make it safe and up to date.
Above the theater is a mezzanine level which will feature a staff room, projectionist booth, and a large space to hold the ever-growing Vidiots VHS archive. “Our VHS collection is 11,000 tapes,” Mackay explains. “You can see boxes of tapes right here. They get donated all the time, which is so cool. When people are trying to offload their VHS it’s very hard for me to say no, especially when it’s rare or it’s from local filmmakers. So this gives us a lot of room to store the VHS safely so that we can pick up a digitizing project that we had started in Santa Monica.”
It’s a massively ambitious undertaking for the non-profit which has, like everyone else, struggled the past few years of the pandemic. “We took over this building in October 2019 as a nonprofit. It was really amazing timing. We’ve managed to stay on track, we’ve managed to raise a lot of money, but the impacts of everything from the material costs skyrocketing to shipping delays and shortages on materials, it’s been challenging.”
Despite those challenges, the support for Vidiots has been huge. Founding Members including Alex Winter, Rian Johnson, Karina Longworth, Aubrey Plaza, and Mark Duplass. None other than Jason Reitman donated the theater’s 35mm projector. Vidiots recently launched a 50k donation matching scheme. In order to “reach our overall $3,000,000 Capital Campaign goal (if you’ve been following along, you’ll notice the goalposts have changed) to finish construction, purchase outstanding equipment, expand our team, and start producing the best, most eclectic, inspiring, programming in all of L.A.” If you want to support Vidiots at a higher level and get your name on their wall, they are actively seeking Founding Members.
Once the theater opens, film fans will be able to gain a membership to support the theater and enjoy its offerings. And yes it will have a real tactile membership card to put in your wallet. It’s just a little part of the pushback that Vidiots represents against the “myth” that video stores no longer exist or aren’t in demand. “There are a lot of niche video stores left that are specific to a culture or language,” Mackay said. “Then across the country there are still video stores, there’s Movie Madness, there’s Scarecrow. A lot of them had been thriving since the pandemic once they could get their operations going on. Physical media is more alive than ever! People really pursued physical media during the pandemic.”
As not just a film lover but a mother, Mackay sees the Eagle Rock location as a way to engage a whole new generation. “My kid is a part of this community, he’s just a block and a half away. And these kids are not seriously considered as the generation that will carry this artform through another 50 years… Algorithms are designed to get their parents to spend money, not to get them to fall in love with the medium.”
That’s why as Mackay points out “a lot of people get dreamy about the nostalgia of the video store,” something she admits is “great,” but there’s more to the mission of Vidiots. It’s about engaging people with cinema and making a space for them to build community around that. “This is something that’s radically different. You’re taking two things that some people would like you to feel are antiquated because it’s better for their bottom line, so they say they’re out of fashion and out of date and not cool anymore. But really they’re two things that kept this industry going over the course of its 100 plus year history that added to it and created new generations of fans and consumers. And you’re making something completely new and different.”
Mackay’s outlook is at the core of Vidiots’ mission. Even though there’s a nostalgic aspect to a movie theater/video store combo, the reality is that cinema is “alive” and the community is desperate for a local theater. “When you put it in a neighborhood, a place that has been deprived, this neighborhood hasn’t had a theater in 20 years! I cannot tell you the number of people who come up to us everyday and ask when we’re opening. They want to come, that’s all you need to know about what we’re doing! It’s going to be alive and thriving.”
Creating a space for the community to encourage their love for movies is the driving factor. “I think this is a place that we really need!” Mackay enthused. “We always needed Vidiots. We needed to come back and the Eagle did too. The Eagle served 70 years of audiences. I think that audiences are the thing that the industry has pushed aside. They don’t matter in the equation. We talk constantly about representation behind the camera and representation in front of the camera, but we’ve made a completely unsustainable model for audiences. It’s difficult to navigate and it is grossly expensive. If you want to watch old movies and horror movies and you want to be able to discover them, you’re shelling out so much money.”
Challenging that current status quo and creating a truly accessible space for all cinema lovers is at the heart of Vidiots’ mission. “The whole point of all this fundraising and the non-profit is so we can serve our community in an affordable, equitable way. The way that Vidiots always did.”