June 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Hollywood ending

By Leigh Sales
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

It's Saturday night and Steve Carroll sits behind the counter in his suburban video store watching the door and hoping for customers. Once, back in the "halcyon days", as Steve calls them, he needed two staff for the hectic Saturday shift. Now the action mostly comes from Heath Ledger's maniacal ranting on a wall-mounted TV playing The Dark Knight.

At 5.45 pm, a man and a woman in their twenties walk in. The man is carrying a basketball and he bounces it on the faded blue carpet a couple of times. The couple rents two movies: Turn it Up and Saw V. Steve notes this in his computer. "I just don't get why you want to watch people getting chopped up," he remarks after they leave. "I mean, if you've seen it once, why do you need to watch it through to part five?"

Steve is 60 but could easily pass for a decade younger with his brown hair and smooth, round face. He has owned Top Video in Sydney's northern suburbs for 13 years. Conventional wisdom says that during a recession, a business like Steve's should boom as people look for cheap alternatives to going out. But that's not the case here. February and March were "simply awful" for Steve, and April only marginally better. The economic downturn and new technology will probably close his business. "I don't see it lasting more than two or three years," he says. "At 60, it's gonna be pretty difficult. It's maybe not the way I would have hoped things would turn out."

At 5.50 pm, a young woman asks Steve what Burn After Reading is like. "It's a good show," he tells her. She chews her lip. "Should I get Burn After Reading or The Dark Knight?" she asks.

Steve advises the former and she gives him $7.50 for the overnight rental. "My husband's not going to be happy, he told me to bring home The Dark Knight," she says as she walks out. As Steve puts the cover of Burn After Reading back on display, another customer asks for Finding Nemo. Steve tells her it's out and she leaves without taking anything else.

Steve bought Top Video after a bout of odd jobs, including painting, labouring and shopfitting. At first, it was a solid business. "Videos were once a big novelty," Steve explains. "We were the only source of entertainment besides movies. The saying back then was that people would rent commercials from you, the quality of TV was so bad." But over time, the industry changed. The arrival of payTV, high-speed internet and home gaming systems such as PlayStation and Wii all eroded turnover. Then, when American networks began producing quality TV series such as The West Wing and The Sopranos, people starting buying DVDs instead of renting them. Steve estimates that for the past decade, his business has shrunk by a tenth each year.

The financial crisis is yet another body blow. In March, Paul Uniacke, the biggest franchiser of video stores in Australia through Blockbuster and Video Ezy, predicted that about two hundred such businesses would close this year. Steve is doing his best to avoid becoming one of them. He just spent $1200 on a letterbox drop to 10,000 local homes offering a bargain subscription package. After failing to elicit a single response, he persuaded his landlord to give him a 50% rent cut. Steve thinks the landlord agreed for fear he wouldn't find another tenant. The baker around the corner from Top Video has already folded and the shopfront sits empty months later, a dead cockroach visible on the floor through the window.

At 6.05 pm, a man wearing white sneakers and a gold chain around his neck strolls in with his girlfriend and takes all three Godfather films. He leans on the counter as Steve processes the rentals. "He's the greatest film character ever, Corleone," the customer declares. "I also heard that Marlon Brando was the greatest actor," Steve replies. The customer disagrees and launches into a ten-minute monologue covering Brando, the history of Citizen Kane, the genius of Clerks, the merits of French New Wave cinema and, finally, an endorsement of The Bicycle Thief. He leaves only when his girlfriend literally drags him out of the store.

"That happens all the time but you have to be convivial," Steve explains. "I'm like a mentor here, a therapist, people come in and tell me their life stories. This woman came in the other week and she started to cry over a couple of late rentals. You know it's not really about that. Then she goes, ‘Steve, I just got home and Ray's completely cleaned me out.'" As if to prove Steve's point, a teenage girl puts an Agatha Christie film on the counter. "Is that for your mum?" Steve asks. "No, it's for me," she says. "But I'm so sick of my parents, what a miserable couple of people!" She gives Steve a run-down of their faults and then flounces out.

At 6.25 pm, a man rents Australia. Five minutes later, a couple clearly waging the standard battle of the sexes rents both the action film Superhero Movie and the chick flick Nights in Rodanthe. At 6.35 pm, an elderly gentleman requests Death on the Nile. The hour until 7.30 pm is Steve's busiest period and he lends about 20 movies. After that, the customers are scarce. Steve admits he finds the sitting and waiting dreary and the wasted time troubles him. He doesn't even really like watching the movies he lends, with their dreams that always come true and their heroes who always emerge triumphant. "You pay the rent, you pay the bills, you think you might try something else, but you never do," Steve says. "People tell you that you can chase your dreams, that you can do anything, but you can't." Steve left high school after second year so he always felt his options were limited. He knows what he would be if he had his time over: "A journalist because I've always had a lot to say. And I like cooking. I could have done something with cooking."

The final rental of the evening comes at 7.55 pm. A man in his thirties takes In Bruges. After that, there's nobody. Steve puts some returned films back on display and then sits alone at his counter. He is supposed to close at 8.30 pm, but by 8.20 pm, when he has not seen a customer for half an hour, he decides he may as well go home. He turns off the lights and closes the door behind him. He's made no more than $200. Not much of a Hollywood ending, but he's had worse Saturday nights.

Leigh Sales

Leigh Sales anchors the ABC’s 7.30 program and has written two books.

@leighsales

Cover: June 2009
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