Darlinghurst’s Film Club is no hero in a story about the death of film. Nor is this the story of one man’s fight to protect the only joy of his childhood or the business that his parents built from the ground up, or any other well-worn, sentimental plot line. Rather, Ben Kenny, Film Club’s owner-operator, is a guy who grew up in Byron Bay and who always wanted to work in a video store. In the debate around shifting viewing habits, downloads killing DVD chains and the whole future of film in general, Kenny still has customers who travel across several suburbs to come to Film Club. He puts it down to simple, solid service with a dash of discerning curation. “I want people to feel comfortable to just browse, with no heavy sales tactics, just very good service. If they want something they can find it,” he says.
Walk down Darlinghurst Road on almost any day of the week and you will see Kenny sitting in his shop, between The Royal Cafe and Black Eye Gallery, behind an old-school desk in a white-walled room. Along with local photographer Justine Varga, he will be there sourcing, recommending and chatting about films from 11am–9pm – as he has been for the past seven years. Locals will remember this shop when it was a few blocks up the road and called Darlo DVD. Die-hard Darlinghurst locals will remember when it was Metro Video and you could access it from the back of the Tropicana Café. Kenny remembers all of it. As a customer he talked his way into a job and stuck to it, before becoming the sole owner two years ago. It was then that Film Club moved up the street and got a name change, but for its members the only noteworthy difference was The Last Exit to Nowhere and Threadless T-shirts for sale in the shop front. “The idea was to keep it as a local neighbourhood video store, but to make it a little boutique-y, I suppose,” says Kenny.
Inside, one thing is clear – this is not Video Ezy. Kenny has made a pointed move to ignore the “Blockbuster Video model” that fills shelves with scores of new releases piled on top of each other. “People are still watching new movies, but they are the ones most likely to be downloaded – illegally or legally.” His modest new releases section focuses on art house, indie and foreign titles (along with Matt Damon’s latest action film) before giving way to a director’s selection section. This orderly line sports the names Altman, Scorcese, Kieslowski, Kubrick and then a bunch of names lifted straight from Sydney University’s Film Studies courses which was inspired, Kenny says, by “following what people were requesting and building on it.”
In that vein, his little pocket of Darlinghurst boasts a whole wall of queer films and one of this city’s (and perhaps the whole country’s) most comprehensive classics collections. “We have tried to branch out to get silent movies from the '20s, cult '60s films and to fill in all the blanks – like a centenary of film.” Peruse the shelves and you will find titles available nowhere else in Australia, like '60s thriller Seconds starring Rock Hudson, and the classic 1957 comment on celebrity and media A Face in the Crowd. “[We’re] really running with the boutique element, but the model would be Red Eye Records (Sydney’s boutique record store on York Street in the CBD). That store survives while bigger retailers drop off, because people know they’ve got quality stuff.”
“TV series have also been huge for us,” says Kenny. “Even with downloading, it’s much easier to just rent out the whole series of The Sopranos than spend days downloading it. So, we are still competitive in that respect.”
Kenny generally resists any grand statements about the future of the industry, or plans for the future of Film Club other than an eye to creating a film hub of sorts with screenings slated for the future, and to continue diversifying the DVD collection and stock. “I’ve thought about stocking vinyl soundtracks of old films, pins, little badges and other movie-themed stuff,” says Kenny. He is equally nonplussed by the idea of tempting his customers away from downloading and other retailers, admitting that he has never pushed marketing for Film Club. “I am simply providing the alternative, I suppose that’s our way of pushing ourselves. Most of our business comes from word of mouth. People tell their friends and suddenly we’re the famous Sydney video store.” Simple.