WAMG Interview: Kevin Toal – Owner of AstroFlix, St. Louis’ Only Cult Movie Store
AstroFlix is the only DVD sales and rental store in St. Louis that caters to the obsessive and elaborate subculture of fandom known as Cult Movies. Say you got an itch to watch Russ Meyer’s MONDO TOPLESS. Netflix doesn’t carry it and you sure won’t find it at the Red Box. You can buy it from the manufacturer, but that will set you back too much hard-earned scratch. You can wistfully recall the days when there were video stores all over St. Louis, shops carrying all manner of sleazy eurohorror, kung fu flicks, anime, and softcore sex romps, but you know these establishments are all long-shuttered. Stepping into AstroFlix at 7215 Manchester Road in Maplewood is like hopping into a time machine and going back to the heyday of the independent video store. Russ Meyer has his own section in AstroFlix! So do the crazies at Troma Studios, home to The Toxic Avenger and the Class of Nuke ‘Em High! The Kung-Fu selection, the horror selection, the vintage black cinema selection, anime, foreign films, AstroFlix has them all and is constantly adding to its inventory. They do carry the new releases but its broad selection, especially of hard-to-find and out-of-print movies, attracts customers who know they will be able to find even the most obscure films at AstroFlix.
Blockbuster’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2010 was characterized as the final nail in the coffin of the brick-and-mortar video rental business. While Netflix, Hulu and Redbox have done their best to render independent video rental stores a quaint anachronism, some Davids have survived where Goliaths typically rule. By practicing good customer service, finding a cult movie niche, and staying focused on what they do best, AstroFlix is succeeding in spite of the burgeoning online video business. AstroFlix will soon be offering online service, but for now what AstroFlix offers is an experience. Maybe it’s to acquire a new DVD for your collection or it’s cheap date night at home. At AstroFlix you’re able to see the movies, admire the box art, and debate about which movies to leave with. There’s no alternative to stopping in, hearing a knowledgeable employee’s recommendation, and having access to hard-to-get films. It’s an event so much more than scrolling through a Netflix queue. While technology has made Netflix and other live-streaming services a convenient choice for those seeking instant entertainment, not everyone has embraced the technology. Streaming video services provide limited selection, so customers settle and end up saying “I guess I’ll just watch that lame Adam Sandler movie again”. This has created an opportunity for a store like AstroFlix, one willing to take the road less traveled. People still like the personal touch AstroFlix offers.
We Are Movie Geeks: Tell me about the history of AstroFlix/Movies Unlimited
Kevin Toal: I’m passionate about movies. My staff is passionate about movies. I wanted to create a store for people like us. AstroFlix purchased Movies Unlimited (MU) in November of 2010. Prior to that, MU had been in continuous operation as an independent video store in Maplewood since 1981. MU had been at the current AstroFlix location, 7215 Manchester Rd., for over 25 years when we took over the lease. Genny Kuhlman, the Store Manager at AstroFlix, had worked at MU previously.
WAMG: Why has the Maplewood store thrived while the other Movies Unlimited stores shuttered?
KT: You would have to ask the previous owners of MU about the details of their stores, but I imagine the other locations suffered the same fate as Hollywood Video, Video Update, and the grocery store video departments, in addition to every other St. Louis neighborhood video store. Competition from the big rental chains like Blockbuster drove all the independent stores under first, then Netflix and Redbox eliminated nearly everyone but Family Video and AstroFlix. Blockbuster continues to close stores, with only 10 left in the metro area, with Family Video now at 10 as well. We bring a new approach I think to shopping for movies– we think of AstroFlix as a neighborhood video store that you also wouldn’t mind driving to come visit!
WAMG: How long has your store in Maplewood been in business?
KT: AstroFlix had its two-year anniversary two months ago, in November 2012.
WAMG: Describe the changes you’ve seen in the movie rental business throughout the years.
KT: The video industry has changed dramatically since the days of the $25 non-refundable membership fee that was commonplace in video stores in the early 1980s. Since that point, our industry has seen a shift from the hundreds of independent “mom-and-pop” video rental stores throughout the St. Louis area, to a “sell-through” dominated market in which movies are sold directly to consumers at discount prices at the big retail chains. In the eighties and nineties, very few movies were sold directly to the public to own. Everything was rented. Also, the rental component of the industry has been experimenting with different modes of getting rented movies to consumers, both in online formats (e.g., AT&T U-verse, Netflix) and in kiosks (e.g., Redbox). Now with AstroFlix, new release rental prices have dropped to as low as 99¢ a day for both DVD and Blu-ray. While the rental industry is still alive and well, the low retail cost of new movies, and the advent of discounted previously-viewed products, has encouraged people to develop a collector’s sense when it comes to movies, choosing to watch their favorites over and over again, with no late fees. Many of our customers have libraries of movies they maintain.
WAMG: When did you decide to target the cult movie niche, and what motivated you to do so?
KT: When I made the decision to start AstroFlix, the immediate focus of the store was two-fold: specialize in rare and collectible titles, and have the best prices and selection available within each movie genre. In my opinion, St. Louis deserves to have a video store that gives movie fans more options that what are currently available in the mega-chain stores. Cult movies, for example, are fun to carry at our store, because those titles often have strong followings among movie buffs, like Miyazaki anime and TROMA, to name two. We enjoy customers’ reactions when they see we carry various cult classics, such as the Shaw Brother’s, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (a.k.a. Master Killer) on Blu-ray, or a DVD copy of James Spader and Holly Hunter’s cult favorite, Crash. We want to be a place where movie fans can shop for movies– both for great prices, and our unique selection.
WAMG: What types of movies can be found at AstroFlix that can’t be found at Redbox or Blockbuster?
KT: We carry thousands of titles that Blockbuster and Redbox don’t have, and won’t carry. St. Louis should have a store that specializes in rare and hard-to-find movies at low prices. What a shame that retail chains now dominate the home video market. They have replaced the great selection that used to be available through independent stores to a smaller, less diverse, profit-driven inventory. Redbox carries less than 200 titles in their kiosks, and Blockbuster has always been very conservative with their selection of titles. AstroFlix is bringing selection back. We want to be the place where the movie fan can have fun looking for their favorite DVD and Blu-ray movies.
We carry foreign films on DVD and Blu-ray, and have nearly completed our goal of carrying the Top 100 foreign films of all time for customers to rent or purchase. We carry anime films and specialize in all of Hayao Miyazaki films, such as Spirited Away, as well as other popular series such as flcl, Cowboy Bebop, and Afro Samurai. Our Cult section is rather extensive, focusing on out-of-print titles and classics such as the original Re-Animator, Thursday, Battle Royale, Eraserhead, and the original Faces of Death series (Vols. 1-4), as well as what many critics have argued to be the #1 Cult Movie of All Time, Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! We also specialize in TROMA, carrying over 50 TROMA titles for sale and rent, which includes of course, Tromeo and Juliet, Terror Firmer, and Sgt. Kabukiman, NYPD, in addition to rare out-of-print TROMA box sets like Toxie’s Blood Bank. Our Horror section includes numerous rarities from George Romero, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and other classic cult directors, which include Dawn of the Dead, Kill Baby Kill!, and Suspiria. AstroFlix also focuses on maintaining a solid selection of zombie movies. If it has a zombie in it, AstroFlix probably carries it.
We have over 200 martial arts titles for sale, including close to 40 Shaw Brothers classics, including Master Killer and 5 Deadly Venoms (both on DVD and Blu-ray), Wu-Tang Clan series kung fu titles, Lone Wolf and Cub Series, “new school” martial arts like Donnie Yen’s Iron Monkey and more recently, his instant classic, Ip Man.
We are also very proud of our collection of African American cinema. We specialize in carrying all the classic titles, such as Imitation of Life, Pinky, Mahogany, Claudine, a full line of Sidney Poitier movies, and, of course, all the popular releases today such as House Party, Friday, and Akeelah and the Bee. We have over 150 titles that we display and sell for Black History Month, most of which cannot be found anywhere else in St. Louis.
WAMG: Who chooses the movies you stock on your shelves?
KT: Our customers choose. Any movie a customer mentions to us over the counter that we don’t carry, we always get if we can– and we try real hard. Our customers like the surprise when they see their movie the next time they come in. We do that a lot. And what an easy way to show our customers that we care about them. For the rest of it, I work closely with my manager, Genny Kuhlman, to make sure we have the right movie selection on the shelves.
WAMG: So many rare movies can be found on the internet quickly. How does this affect people’s curiosity to come out to a store like yours and search?
For customers who don’t want to use the internet, we have our Maplewood store. Online shoppers will soon be able to shop AstroFlix on our new website at astroflix.com. We will have the same selection of DVD and Blu-ray movies online that we have in our store. On the other hand, people may search using the internet, but in our experience many often do not purchase online. Credit card interest, security issues, shipping costs, delivery time, all plague the online industry right now, often making it inconvenient for customers to get what they want when they want it. We take this burden off the customer by ordering for them, many times at lower prices than they could find on their own.
You can buy a car on the internet, but there are brick-and-mortar car dealerships everywhere. We want to be the brick-and-mortar video store where customers come to find their favorite movies, or where you take a chance on a brand new horror movie you’ve never heard of for only $2.99. Also, a movie may be available online, but many people, especially serious movie collectors, feel it’s nice to have the movie “in-hand” rather than streaming. As movie fans know, DVD and Blu-ray movies come in different versions with different release dates. Star Wars IV (1977) is a good example of this. The original 2004 DVD release is out-of-print, and is highly sought after by collectors. Online, it is very easy to get a purchase like this incorrect, where what you think is one version is actually subtly another. We have a store policy that if we don’t have the movie in stock, we will find it for you (as long as it has been released– many movies still have not been released on DVD from VHS yet). If we cannot find it, then you can rest assured that it probably does not exist. Movie hunting is something we take very seriously at AstroFlix. We surprise people all the time with what we are able to find, even when they looked themselves online.
WAMG: What is your take on what Netflix and Redbox means? Talk about the changes to your business or the business in general since it started, specifically now that coming to a store is a choice for movies, instead of the choice.
KT: I started AstroFlix, in part, because, as a movie fan, I didn’t like the options provided by Netflix and Redbox. Netflix and Redbox limits selection in favor of profit. That’s not what movie fans want. People are starting to miss the selection that they had in the independent video store. They also want a different shopping experience when it comes to buying and renting movies.
Now the independent video store is the rarity, and things that are rare tend to be valuable. As I mentioned, there are only two chains of video rental stores left– Blockbuster and Family Video, both of which, like Netflix and Redbox, only cater to the new release customer. We carry new releases, but all movie genres in our store get equal weight. We don’t think Mark Wahlberg’s Ted has any greater justification for shelf space than Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor’s classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
A lot of people come to AstroFlix because we do things differently. We focus on two things, price and selection. Our goal is to carry movies at the lowest prices possible with the largest selection available for ALL types of movies. If we don’t carry it, we will special order it for you. We provide a full-service face-to-face interaction to our customers and people really seem to like that. Pick up the phone and try to call somebody at Netflix or Redbox. People want their questions answered, and that’s what we’re here for. We like talking to our customers, and we like providing them what they want to watch. Everybody gets a tour of the store when they come in. Movies are fun, and we want our customers to have a fun experience with us.
AstroFlix is “old-school”, we’re retro. We brought back the classic mom-and-pop “Movie Club” idea, where you can reserve movies, get a free movie on your birthday, rent three get the fourth one free, etc. But we are also edgy and new. We’ve got things others don’t.
WAMG: What exactly is your rental and sales policy now?
KT: Our sales policy is straightforward– all movies are for sale, and most of the inventory is 50-70% off retail price, with new condition movies as low as $2.99. Rental requires a membership, which is free. A valid driver’s license and a valid credit card are required for initial sign-up. Rentals are 99¢ a day. We accept cash, credit cards, and debit cards for payment.
WAMG: What are some of your future plans for AstroFlix?
KT: We are planning to have astroflix.com completed and available for online shopping by June of this year. I think with gas prices as high as they are, shopping online from home will save our customers both time and money. If you live in St. Louis, soon you will click online and have the option to have your movies delivered right to your door. Our customers will also be able to see if a movie is in stock online, and then call us or email us and we will hold it for them until they arrive to pick it up.
We are going to greatly expand our $2.99 movie selection and we will introduce $1.99 movies as well- these are new, not used titles. We plan to have close to 1000 new titles added to these price categories by the end of the year. In addition, we will be completing our foreign film section, and will begin work on a new music/concerts section on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Visit AstroFlix’s Facebook page HERE