Twenty years ago when Jon Francke became manager and buyer for the local video store chain Potomac Video, video rental stores seemed to be springing up in every direction.
"I didn't really know where this business was going to go," says Francke. But he did know one thing for certain. "I just really like movies. I think my first love of movies was the classic Universal Studios horror movie: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man. They were staples for Saturday afternoon. When I was growing up, there were no cable stations, but all the networks would have their own monster movies shows, with monster movie hosts."
At 13, Francke made Super 8 movies, "piecing together movies in the editing room. That was very satisfying." In college, he was part of the film program at Syracuse University. His interest in film continued, and years later, when he was offered the opportunity to manage the Potomac Video chain, he accepted it.
"It was kind of a pleasure to actually be able to work in a business where I got to pick whichever films I wanted to carry in my store." And Potomac Video's business flourished. The company grew from about a 20 x 40 foot space, with 5,000 titles in just a couple of stores, to 6,000 feet with about 60,000 titles, in 22 stores spread through five different states.
But the brick-and-mortar video store market peaked in the late '90s-early 2000s, according to Francke. Since the introduction of other delivery systems, like streaming and mail service, traditional video store businesses have been on a downward trend.
Today, Potomac Video has only one surviving store, located on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, D.C. Surprisingly, despite the popularity of companies like Netflix and Redbox, Francke has found that this particular store has always been and continues to be financially strong. Francke believes its success is due to a couple of reasons, beginning with movie selection.
"We offer a lot of titles that aren't available through streaming," he says. "Our selection of DVDs, VHS and Blue-ray numbers about 60,000 titles. Last time I checked, the Internet was streaming 20,000 titles on Netflix."
Another key to the store's success is location.
"It's a very international neighborhood, says Francke. "Very well educated. People are aware of what's playing in New York and small cinemas there, and the retrospectives going on in the various film worlds. Customers can't wait for films to open in the theaters around here. They ask for them on video, before they've even played in the States. And then there are just a lot of adventurous people — people who will look at a title that looks vaguely interesting and just try it. The foreign language section is probably our single largest section," along with British imports.
"British drama is our bread and butter," says Francke. "But the British mystery section rents like crazy. There are copies of Midsomer Murders that have rented 150, 200 times!"
Figuring out what sells is a quality that Francke probably learned during his days as a film student at Syracuse University. He and his classmates were in charge of film programming.
"We used to program seven movies a night, and actually had three different cinemas where we showed films," he recalls. "I was responsible for coming up with a schedule of films. We'd have cult film night, foreign film night, classic night, a night for science fiction. And then we'd have feature films, that were just out of the cinema."
The film program was very successful. Francke and his classmates ended up making around $10,000, and rather than giving the money back to the university, they financed all-night film festivals that were usually around 12 hours long.
If Potomac Video does eventually close, Francke doesn't know what's next career-wise. But he's already begun another business: selling and reselling his enormous movie collection.
He thinks returning to filmmaking might be a real possibility, too. "When I was at film school, it was very expensive even for a 15 minute film. Now on digital, you could edit it on your computer at home. It's something that I am looking into."
And Francke says those who have never visited a brick and mortar video store are really missing out on something great. "There are a lot of people, particularly young people who never really had the video store experience. They don't understand how much fun it can be, just to look at the titles and select from the titles."
Of course, there are always opportunities to get movie recommendations from Francke and the rest of the Potomac Video staff.
[Music: "U Street" by Jason Mendelson, from MetroSongs, Volume 3: Red Handed]