It’s the night of the Academy Awards, and a group of about three dozen film lovers has packed the vintage theater seats at a screening room just off Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. The Oscars ceremony is being held just a few miles away — prompting watch parties all over the city — but the mostly 20- and 30-somethings gathered here, at the Whammy! Analog Media, have little interest in Hollywood’s biggest night. Instead, they’ve come to cheer for a movie so obscure and so low-budget that it was released directly to video in 1996.
“'Skyscraper’s' not a good movie, but it’s great,” says Jamie Patterson, the guest programmer of tonight’s screening. Patterson, who's sporting a white-blond wig and a long black halter dress — an homage to the late Anna Nicole Smith, the star of "Skyscraper" —pulls a shiny gold statuette out of a black plastic bag and waves it in the air. “I also got a special something for Whammy!” she says.
Whammy! Analog Media, a new video store — yes, a new video store — housed in an unmarked warehouse accessible through an alley behind an accounting office, has been open only since February. But in that time, it's become a beloved local cinema, helping to fill a void of community spaces in L.A.’s indie film scene. Dubbed WAM for short, the venue has built a following for showing the types of movies that rarely get wide theatrical releases and almost never win Oscars.
Screenings — many of which are proposed and curated by VHS collectors and customers of the shop, — have included the 1979 low-budget Spanish horror film "Arrebato," the 1993 Mexican slasher "Asesino de Media Noche" and the 1981 Taiwanese fantasy film "Thrilling Bloody Sword."
A video store by day — and event space by night, WAM also hosts stand-up comedy shows and live music sets in addition to film screenings. But its biggest draw, by far, are the VHS tapes themselves, which are experiencing something of a revival among nostalgia-hungry cinephiles, many of them millennials who grew up hunting for videos at Blockbuster and watching their favorite tapes over and over again as kids.
“Everyone calls VHS a dead medium. It’s literally the opposite. It’s literally alive compared to a digital file or a DVD,” says Jessica Gonzales, 33—who goes by the name Jessica GZ— who co-founded Whammy! — first as an e-commerce business — with her husband, Erik Varho, 32. “When you have a bloop at the point in a movie that’s [otherwise] way too perfect, or you have a scratch here or there, or it drops in frames, like, that is alive."
Gonzales and Varho have known each other since high school in Anaheim . They reconnected after college and began playing music together in Orange County punk and hardcore bands including No Side. When the pandemic hit, the then- couple found themselves sharing a tiny apartment made all the more cramped by Varho’s sprawling VHS collection of about 600 tapes.
“It was pretty rough. We were in a studio in Koreatown, and they were just lining the walls everywhere basically, tucked away in every nook and cranny,” says Varho, who has been collecting VHS tapes since he was a teenager — around the time movies stopped being released on the format, and DVD players overtook VCRs in popularity, in 2006. “I just realized what I like more about collecting VHS is finding them and watching them, and then setting them free and sharing them with other people.”
That realization led Varho and Gonzales to launch Whammy! Analog Media, first as an Instagram account, in May 2020. They’d temporarily moved in with Gonzales’ grandfather at his house in Santa Ana, , and the move gave them the space to spread out and take stock of their VHS inventory. Among the hundreds of tapes they began photographing, categorizing and listing for sale on Instagram: a concert video of Kate Bush performing live in London, a compilation of the 1990s horror series "Tales From the Crypt" and a 1988 “jazzthetics” workout video featuring the former adult actor Traci Lords.
The diversity of material recorded on videocassette and, in many cases, never digitized is part of what makes the format so appealing to longtime VHS collectors.
“There are so many films that are not available on any other format besides VHS. Not just films but also commercials or training videos, or the wackiest things that will never get carried over to DVD or Blu-ray,” says Conor Holt, a self-described amateur filmmaker and VHS hoarder who has since become a regular at Whammy! screenings. “They only exist on VHS — that's the only way to watch them, and it’s about preserving that history and that VHS culture.”
It didn’t take long for Varho and Gonzales to connect with Holt and many other VHS fans and collectors on Instagram. The platform is home to a niche yet thriving community , which uses it to buy, sell and trade videotapes with one another, as well as share memes and photos about their favorite tapes from the '80s and ‘90s. One such account, dubbed LunchmeatVHS — tagline: “VHS is happiness” — boasts more than 29,000 followers and sells T-shirts with the slogan “Rewind or die.”
“There’s definitely a revival. I do think the nostalgia for it is becoming more mainstream,” says Jonathan Brock, 31, who last year built a VHS lending library outside his Eagle Rock apartment with his roommate, Casey Burr, 30. They dubbed the free library Tapeheads, slang for VHS fanatics. “There are obsessives and there are collectors and there are so many different little subsets of different cliques of VHS collectors,” Brock says.
Whammy! tapped into many of those communities. By the fall of 2020, Varho and Gonzales were selling so many tapes on Instagram — using a back-end e-commerce tool called Shopify — that they built a website to list hundreds of tapes alphabetically, by genre and by distributor. Before long, they were shipping tapes all over the country, even designing their own media mail packaging out of paperboard. (After hearing early on that one of their tapes got squished in the mail, they refined their packaging, which has since become a point of pride: “We try to wrap them up super-duper nice,” says Varho. “We love when people tell us our packaging is good,” adds Gonzales.)
When they started to make a small profit, Gonzales and Varho took it as a sign to keep expanding: Varho quit his day job to work on Whammy! full time, and he and Gonzales, who works as a freelance video editor , began looking for retail spaces. “It was kind of always a goal in the back of my mind, like, ‘Wow, it would be great to start an actual physical store in Los Angeles that sells VHS tapes, because I don't think anyone is really doing that,’” Varho says.
“When we started looking for that little spot where we could just run our e-commerce simultaneously in the store, it just quickly dawned on us that all the other things we dreamed of doing just suddenly felt really possible, and necessary, really, to do,” says Gonzales, whose biggest, “wildest goal” was to open her own theater.
But opening a video store — already a questionable financial venture — in 2022, with real estate prices skyrocketing, was easier said than done. “We had our eyes on anything we could afford, basically,” says Gonzales. Which, it turns out, wasn’t much: Even the smallest of spaces, scouted over the course of six months, were out of their budget, she says. Until, that is, they stumbled upon a former boxing gym for lease by the family that owns the accounting business above it. The rent may have been more affordable than other places because it’s not a storefront and it’s only accessible via an unmarked alley, which lends the store a speakeasy vibe: If you know, you know.
“I love everything about it: How you enter through the back and it has that little atrium, and you know, the old theater seats, many of them are ours that we’ve passed onto them,” says Paolo Davanzo, a filmmaker who co-founded the Echo Park Film Center, a community theater and educational nonprofit, in 2002. When the theater closed in January — the nonprofit continues to operate through satellite programs — Davanzo gifted some of its theater seating to Whammy!, symbolically passing the torch for the film community in Echo Park.
“I think they’re hitting it at a good time. I feel like two years ago if they would’ve tried a venture like this, it was a dark place, and we’re still emerging from the darkness,” Davanzo says. “But now, hopefully as we start to get a little more healthier as a world and emerge from this pandemic, I think people will feel comfortable being inside and going to these events.”
Opening a theater in a pandemic is one thing. But opening a video store simultaneously is entirely another. Mom-and-pop video stores have overwhelmingly disappeared over the last two decades, much like former behemoths such as Blockbuster. Many stores that stayed afloat amid competition from streaming services couldn’t survive the economic challenges of the last two years. Among the pandemic’s casualties: Illinois-based Family Video, widely considered the last chain of video stores in the country, and Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, which had been in operation for five decades, more than two of them on Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood.
But Whammy! isn’t the only video store to crop up in the U.S. this year. Last month, Alamo Drafthouse in Lower Manhattan unveiled a video rental store inside its theater, with thousands of VHS tapes sourced from the legendary, and long-shuttered New York City rental store Mondo Kim’s. The Texas-based chain of movie theaters is planning to revive six other video stores — including San Francisco’s Le Video and Austin’s Vulcan Video, another pandemic casualty — by incorporating them into Alamo Drafthouse theaters in their respective cities, according to the New York Times.
And later this year, another video-store-slash-movie-theater is slated to open in Los Angeles: Vidiots, which was founded in 1985 in Santa Monica and shuttered in 2017. The nonprofit is renovating a nearly century-old, 11,000-square-foot theater in Eagle Rock, with fundraising help from the likes of Rian Johnson, Karina Longworth, Patton Oswalt, Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass.
To hardcore tapeheads, the renewed interest in videos — and thus, video stores — actually makes a lot of sense for this current moment. It’s a time when any movie is available to stream online in theory, and yet any of those movies could suddenly vanish — assuming they’ve been digitized and licensed by a streamer at all. “I think people are realizing whenever a film disappears off of Netflix, or a Disney+ version has been edited for content, they realize the importance of owning a physical copy,” says Holt, who runs accounts on Twitter and Instagram that chronicle (and eulogize) video stores. “With VHS, there’s the nostalgia there, but there’s also ownership. You feel like you actually have something. You don’t own it on Netflix, you’re just borrowing their catalog.”
In L.A. County, a handful of longstanding video stores persist, though none exclusively dedicated to the VHS format. There’s Cinefile Video, founded in 1999 in West Los Angeles; Videotheque, open since 2003 in South Pasadena; and Broadway Video, serving Long Beach since 1998. Record stores too have begun stocking used VHS tapes, including those donated or sold on a consignment basis. Rubycon Records and Tapes in East Hollywood, for example, stocks a shelf of VHS tapes curated by Patterson under the name Hightower Video.
Robert Lane, Rubycon’s owner, says he’s seen an uptick in demand for VHS tapes and that customers now ask if he sells VCR players on a weekly basis. Whammy! restores and sells VCR players as well, and Gonzales dreams of setting up in-house VHS repair and maintenance services.
Still, even some of the most dedicated tapeheads never dreamed a new VHS store could survive in L.A. When Armando Hernandez, 31, heard that Whammy!, the brand he followed on Instagram, was opening a bricks-and-mortar location, he was confused. “I was like, ‘Oh, is this for real?’” says Hernandez, who lives in Pomona and runs a blog called Trash Mex, where he reviews Mexican movies that are primarily only available on video. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool, somewhere where people can just look for VHS.' Nowadays, you can’t find them anywhere. Even thrift stores don’t carry them anymore. You have to go online.”
In March, Hernandez hosted the screening of "Asesino de Media Noche," a low-budget, shot-on-video Mexican slasher from his personal collection, at Whammy! He believes it may have been the first time the movie, which was shown in Spanish and without subtitles, was screened for a public audience in the United States.
To Gonzales and Varho, it was exactly the kind of screening that embodies the spirit of Whammy! And in a weird way, it was not unlike the Oscar-night screening of "Skyscraper." Both films were previously rarely seen and filled with the kind of action scenes, car chases, sex and gore that can be thrilling to watch in a group setting. The movies were not new releases, and they hadn’t been chosen by an algorithm or promoted by a distributor. Instead, they’d been scavenged, and then curated by fans. More than that, they were screened on a format that bounced and shuttered with scratches and dropped frames and other signs of life.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.