Edith Mahieux, Armitage, Aro video Wellington, Impolitikal

Q&A | Andrew Armitage on the little video store that could

Aro Video is a landmark in Wellington City. Known as a treasure trove for film lovers, the building that houses it can be spotted in Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) – a film you’ll find inside along with other Kiwi classics like Boy (2010), In My Father’s Den (2004) and Heavenly Creatures (1994). International pieces and brand new TV series’ also feature amongst the shop’s 22,000 titles.

Online streaming and piracy has led to hard times for many offline rental stores, but Aro has thus far escaped doom thanks to customer support for Andrew Armitage, the owner and creator of what has become an institution. Edith Mahieux spoke to Andrew about the hurdles to keeping his business alive, and why he can now look positively at the future.

E: Your shop is a witness of 26 years of the film distribution industry. What are the most important challenges you had to overcome?
A: During the DVD boom [in the early 2000s], when everybody wanted to get into it, there was a lot of pressure to buy everything you could. So, your expenses were very high because you were trying to build a DVD collection and to move away from old-fashioned VHS. The pressure to keep up has come off in the last five years: it’s a reality that we cannot be on the cutting edge anymore. You have to regroup and make the best of what you’ve got. It’s a period of consolidation, trying not to worry about not having everything you would like because people can get that stuff [elsewhere] if they want to.

And I think that this challenge was also tightened with the censorship problem that we had. Customers were expecting us to have material because of our reputation. But sometimes when they came to us we would have to say, I’m sorry, we can’t do this. The only way we could have done it was basically to take it from under the counter. I never wanted to do that because we tried to change the law, and if you start breaking the law while you’re changing it you can shoot yourself in the foot. But these days we do a little bit of this with regulars, because you have to! Even the lawmakers, they understand that people can just look at anything. There is no censorship on the Internet. The law is an ass, as they say.

E: You were the main voice behind the lobby group to make censorship in New Zealand more flexible. Are you still in dialogue with the system?
A: Not anymore, I’ve kind of given up. We did have some support but my main support came from my customers who have petitioned online. When you’re trying to change things by yourself, you’ve got limited resources – you’re trying to do your job and you don’t have so much time to dedicate to it. It takes lots of energy to do that. That’s been the least enjoyable part of what we’ve done, fighting that fight. Having said that, we largely live in a free country, by world standards. These are problems of luxury. But I’m a bit envious of my colleagues in the US or even places in the UK, which have strict censorship but more money, more people, and therefore more freedom – because it’s all about economics at the end. I’ve been free to rent and to trade in film culture and I have met lots of lovely people. The beauty of the retail experience is, for me, not just, Take the money, thank you, goodbye. It is engagement.

E: Online piracy and streaming are a big threat and we’re all aware that the object of the DVD will soon disappear. How do you cope with this?
A: I still make a living out of my shop but I have to pay my bills every month, and every month it’s hard to find the money. So you have to be creative around that. I’m not alone; it’s hard for every business that has been affected by the internet. It’s what I call ‘managed decline’. It’s a very different experience to be the manager of a growing business where everything is exciting, where you’re spending money, investing in new products, advertising with new logos and all of that, as opposed to dealing with a declining business where you’re thinking, What can I cut? Where can I save money?

You have computers that don’t have DVD players anymore. But DVDs will stay playable in 20 and 50 years time and they will still produce a good quality image. It’s preservable, as long as you don’t eat your breakfast off it! So, while people throw videotapes into the dumpster, DVD will be around and relevant. They just won’t be the cutting edge. They would be a niche, like vinyl.

People consume culture in different ways, with different mediums and different things. There is room to maintain the niche because if everybody is doing the same thing, like watching Netflix for example, somebody is likely to say, I actually like doing it the old way, and then others might say, Me too! And then, it could become cool again because people don’t like being sheep. When there is a mainstream there is always an alternative. I have faith in that. There‘ll always be a market, it’s just whether the market is big enough and sustainable to keep things the way I would like them to be, and I can’t answer that. We are vulnerable.

E: You received massive support from your customers when they learned in the newspapers last December that your business was in serious trouble. Gift vouchers and subscriptions have been sold like hot cakes! Talking about your customers, who are they?
A: I’m almost 50. I was 24 when I opened the store and my customers have aged with me. We don’t analyse it but I would say three-quarters of our customers are my generation and older. But it’s also people that haven’t grown up with the technology, and they’re digital immigrants as opposed to natives. It’s also been people that have always enjoyed being guided through things. They’re old-fashioned, because they like the one-on-one customer service.

E: You have the long-term prospect to donate your DVD collection to a cinema museum. Are you happy about this opportunity?
A: I will keep the business in its current form and location for as long as I can, but if it is not sustainable, then perhaps a living archive in a film museum would at least ensure that the collection stays together for the longer term.

As well as sharing other people’s moving images, Andrew sometimes makes them too. Watch his clip for ‘Monsters’ by Porcelaintoy:

Edith Mahieux is a freelance journalist and cinema critic. Read more about her cinematic experiences at www.whensallymetwelly.com.

Image by Lola Mandala Valentine.