Film Programmer Aaron Hillis Buys Brooklyn Video Store

While in Cannes I bumped into critic and programmer Aaron Hillis, who told me about the new Brooklyn-based endeavor he’ll be starting upon returning home — running a video store. Hillis, who already programs reRun, the independent cinema and gastropub located in Filmmaker’s building in DUMBO (and currently playing Contributing Editor Brandon Harris’s debut feature, Redlegs), recently bought the established Cobble Hill business Video Free Brooklyn. At a time when the independent film world is obsessed with VOD, downloads and streaming, Hillis is time-traveling back to the world of plastic cases, late fees, and, on the more positive side, savvy clerks who know you, your tastes, and are vocal in their recommendations. I’ll let him fill you in on the rest.

Filmmaker: So, you bought a video store?

Aaron Hillis: I did buy a video store. I have this bad habit of getting into failing industries. I started in print journalism in 2002, got into DVD distribution with Andrew Grant in 2006, then theatrical exhibition in 2010 and, here we go, I’m buying a video store in 2012.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the store.

Hillis: It’s called Video Free Brooklyn, and it’s been a real staple, an institution in my neighborhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn for the last decade. The owner, Dan Wu, has lived in Kentucky for a few years and wants to pursue another endeavor. And, basically, the store has been sustainable. Like I said, it’s a neighborhood institution, it’s in a well-trafficked area, and it caters to a media-savvy [clientele] — a community that needs to be served with a well-curated video store. My favorite fun facts are that not only does Nick Flynn, who wrote Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, have an account, but so does Paul Dano, who plays him in the movie [Being Flynn]. And even though it’s 375 feet, about twice the size of my living room, there’s potential to make it something even cooler, like a boutique.

Filmmaker: What sort of reactions have you gotten from your colleagues in the independent film world?

Hillis: A lot of people have shaken their heads, or had question marks when I tell them I’ve bought a video store. I say, “Think vinyl store.” There’s an artisanal mayonnaise shop that opened in Brooklyn recently. I feel like this is much more pragmatic.

Filmmaker: Aren’t you worried that with streaming video audiences have permanently moved away from renting physical media?

Hillis: I’m not scared of things like Netflix, because that’s so impersonal, anyway. I’ve got 200 movies in my instant streaming queue, and I’m not watching any of them because I click on them and I feel that’s good enough. It’s like a Facebook friend – it doesn’t have the same perceived value. I’m going to start an Indiegogo campaign to help with renovations in late summer. And I’ve had so much interest from people within the film industry — critics, filmmakers, programmers — that it may end up like a co-op in that it will mainly be staffed by film-minded people, many of whom will have full-time jobs already and will be working their required monthly shifts. I want to reinvent the video store experience and make it fun again.

Filmmaker: Are you planning any kind of tie-in with reRun?

Hillis: Absolutely. It’s two F train stops away from the theater. They both serve the same function of trying to turn people on to new things and preserve independent film culture. But we’ll see how it goes. I own this business, but I’m just the curator of reRun.

Filmmaker: When will the store be up and running under your management?

Hillis: I get back from Cannes on the 28th, get handed the keys June 1 and I’ll be working behind the counter that day.