Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Bristol’s 20th Century Flicks is now considered the oldest video rental store in the world.
In fact, co-owner Dave Taylor thinks it’s one of the few left in the UK now that the big video rental chains like Blockbuster are gone. Former film student Dave has worked for 20th Century Flicks for 20 years and now owns a majority share of the company alongside co-owners Paul Green, Tara Judah and Dave White.
What started in 1982 as a small operation in Redland with a stockpile of just 100 VHS videos has grown into something quite different. Now based in Christmas Steps after several years in Clifton, 20th Century Flicks has two small movie theaters as well as the DVD rental side of the business.
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The shop is a cramped but orderly Aladdin’s cavern of films spanning generations and many different genres. Ask Dave how many movies are available to rent and he’ll know the precise number, as each new DVD follows the consecutive numbering system that began with the first movie 40 years ago.
“We’ve got 20,836 movies here – the latest is the Spencer movie about Princess Diana,” smiles Dave, before showing me the other new customer-favorite DVDs. “One of our most popular rentals at the moment is Limbo, a film about Syrian refugees on a remote Scottish island, and also Pig starring Nicholas Cage is doing very well – he’s a truffle hunter with a stolen pig.”
In these days of online streaming and Netflix, 20th century movies might seem like a slightly antiquated operation. But at just £3 to hire a DVD for the week, it’s still far cheaper than a trip to the cinema and the pandemic has seen a spike in activity.
Dave says, “We seem to draw a certain crowd and it’s often people who missed things at the Watershed or other local cinemas. Sometimes we receive films less than a month after their cinema release but the Covid also had an effect because people could not go to the cinema at all.
“Also a lot of people have stopped going to the cinemas despite the lifting of restrictions and many of them still don’t feel safe enough to go, so they rent them here instead.” The shop stocks a wide range of films, from arthouse to classics, and the collection is a fascinating insight into what Bristol moviegoers have watched and enjoyed over the past 40 years.
“It’s a bit like cutting through sedimentary rock,” laughs Dave. “Because the films were numbered consecutively over 40 years, people can trace their lives through the different sections – from films they watched as kids or in college, to today. It’s a real timeline.
“There is an interesting anthropological element and a real Bristol flavor to the collection, as it is the staff and customers who have shaped the collection over the years.” The peak period for 20th century films was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the store was still near Bristol University Students’ Union in Clifton.
Dave says: “I joined the business in 2002 and it got busier – we employed around 30 people at one point because customers were literally queuing out of the store and onto the sidewalk.
“At that time DVDs had only been released for a few years and many people were reluctant to switch from videos to DVDs, so we partnered with Richer Sounds on Whiteladies Road just to promote DVD players to people. When I started out, all the stock was VHS videos, but within three years it completely flipped, which was great for us because DVDs are a lot thinner than videos, so we could store a lot more.
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At the time, Clifton also had a slightly more bohemian side, so the clientele was much more mixed. “When we were in Clifton, it was quite interesting because it was still ‘chunky’ and punky bohemian at the time.
“The staff and owners were old crouching punks who loved European arthouse films, but Clifton became the place to live if you had the money. There was an interesting tension between us and the neighbors as we were quite counter cultural and basically a load of Gen X slackers who still smoked in the store until the day they banned it.
“Suddenly we had all these people from huge million pound houses coming in to rent the latest Richard Curtis movie!” Interestingly, 20th Century Flicks was launched the same year as the Watershed Cinema and both became Bristol institutions.
To mark its 40th anniversary, 20th Century Flicks is hosting a short film festival of 1982 films and Dave and his team have found the perfect venue. The Anchor Road IMAX cinema has been closed for 15 years but will reopen for this special anniversary.
The return of the “mothballed” IMAX
Dave says: “We just thought it would be fun to ask Bristol Aquarium if the IMAX next door was still available. It’s been mothballed since 2007 and is only used for storage but, surprisingly enough, they let us take a look.
“I then managed to find the old technician who worked there and he found the old key to turn on the sound system. We couldn’t get the projector to work – it’s actually the size of a car – so we had people size it up and see what was the highest resolution film we could fill with a high quality image so movies are better quality than Blue-ray.
“We’re going to show movies from 1982 that were video rental standards like Bladerunner, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and some weird horror movies. If all goes well, I’d also like to do more at IMAX – maybe turn it into a community theater so locals can rent it out for events or have their own film festivals.
The 20th Century Flicks IMAX film festival is scheduled for May 13-15 and tickets will go on sale soon. In the meantime, 20th Century Flicks continues to rent DVDs to regulars (as well as throughout the UK by post), but it’s the two cinemas that keep it financially afloat.
Dave says, “We used to depend on students, but they were early adopters of streaming and sharing on digital platforms, so they’re not our target audience. To be honest, we wouldn’t be solvent without the two cinemas, which are mostly reserved for film clubs and parties.
“We’ve always been a bit of a social hub, because there are a lot of people living alone who want to discuss movies with others. We have long-time clients who have become friends over the years – you can’t work here without letting your guard down, so I’ve had real heart-to-heart conversations with people, often ending in tears !
And what about the future? In this increasingly digital world, is there still a place for 20th century films? Dave says: “As niche as it is, it has become a real part of Bristol and if it closed it would be very sad. I also tell people that when the internet goes down, we’re the ‘real world’ replacement for Bristol moviegoers.
“People thought digitization would save a lot of movies, but a lot of those great movies have disappeared because they weren’t streamed. Many are out of print now, so only on DVD or VHS.
And after working there “temporarily” after leaving college 20 years ago, Dave is as much part of the furniture as he is of the 20,000 DVDs. “I thought I was going the Tarantino route until I was 30 because I was a film student working in a video store – I thought I’d be making movies in my 30s. I’m 42 now , so maybe there is still a chance!
But who would take over if Dave decided to become the next Tarantino? “Well, it’s kind of like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…I can’t leave until I find a Charlie to take over!”
“But I have no plans to go there yet – I’m really grateful to have a job that I still love doing.”
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