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CineFile Video: Preserving Human Connection in Film

Sean Bello – BelloCinema

In the era of streaming services and digital downloads, the charm of independent video stores is gradually fading. But for cinephiles like me, the memories of browsing through the shelves of unique stores now defunct like Video Archives in Manhattan Beach (which once employed Quentin Tarantino) and Rocket Video is still etched in my mind.

I recall the bygone days when video store clerks were the gatekeepers to a world of cinematic treasures. Their recommendations opened doors to independent films that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In 1994, a clerk at an indie store introduced me to Shallow Grave, a film that left a lasting impression. Little did I know, months later, I would meet the director, Danny Boyle, in a chance encounter at an event in Beverly Hills, realizing the impact of that personal recommendation.

In today’s landscape dominated by digital platforms, CineFile Video stands as one of the last bastions of the traditional movie retail experience in Los Angeles. Nestled at Sawtelle Ave and Santa Monica Blvd, this haven for movie enthusiasts boasts a diverse collection of over 50,000 DVDs, blu-rays, vinyl, VHS, and laserdiscs. The store is not just a repository of films; it’s a community where passionate staff and patrons come together to celebrate their shared love for cinema.

During a visit to drop off promotional materials for a film (The Peasants) I was promoting, I observed a customer seeking an obscure French film found not only the movie but ended up engaging in a lively discussion with the clerk about French cinema. This encounter exemplified the unique connections that blossom within the walls of CineFile Video.

Returning weeks later to promote another project, They Shot The Piano Player, I found myself drawn into a conversation about the classic film Sunset Boulevard. Afterwards, I left CineFile thinking it may not be the place where everyone knows your name, but they certainly know and appreciate the art of film.

As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of film consumption, CineFile Video stands as a testament to the enduring power of human connection in the world of cinema. In an age where algorithms recommend our viewing choices, CineFile keeps alive the spirit of those serendipitous moments, reminiscent of the times when a suggestion could lead to an unexpected encounter with a future filmmaking legend and provide hours of inspiration.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with CineFile Video’s owner, Sebastian Mathews, about not only the store, but also its customers and vast inventory.  

How long has CineFile Video been in Business?

The shop opened in 1999. I purchased it from the original owner in 2013 when he told me he’d be shuttering the shop for good. I just couldn’t bear the idea of a institution like CineFile disappearing from the LA landscape. Community hubs and cultural centers like our shop are crucial to coolness of Los Angeles!

What makes the store so special?

The size and scope of our library – 50,000 titles. More than all the streaming services combined with many titles that will never be licensed to show online. Add in the value of special features that exist exclusively on discs, and it’s clear what makes us so special.

I remember when Amoeba Music opened up in LA back in 2000, and how amazed the store’s buyers were at the music collections people were bringing in to sell. Do the Cinefile buyers have similar similar experiences? If so, any amazing collections you want to tell us about?

We have received vintage movie poster collections from defunct theaters, VHS donations from the Playboy Mansion, Laserdiscs from the personal collection of Mel Brooks. Most collections have a few titles that I would call amazing!

Your staff is quite knowledgeable. Do you personally screen and quiz potential new staff members?  What are you looking for in an employee?

Our employees are hired from our intern ranks. After interns show a dedicated interest in the shop and demonstrate their own special areas of expertise and knowledge, we can be sure they will make great employees. 

What’s it like working in Cinefile Video? Any comparisons to the record store featured in the film, High Fidelity?

If we were like the folks in High Fidelity, we would have a 2 star google review average instead of 4.8! Customer service and kindness is everything to me. If people don’t enjoy their time in the store talking to our staff, then they will hit the streamers. Our staff is well loved, patient and collaborative. And yes, like the folks in High Fidelity, they have impeccable taste.

What type of customer walks through your doors?

Everyone from working screenwriters and directors, to programmers at Biograph theaters, to students and physical media lovers. We cater to all, and there are film lovers of every type in our member ranks.

I’m  impressed with the CineFile streaming page on your website.  I love Gary Davis’s 1980 USC epic Super 8 film, My Los Angeles. Can you tell us more about this section?  How did it come about? 

We love hosting the short films of customers on our site. It has been a great way for filmmakers to find life for their short film beyond festival runs. To me, it’s a great loss to not have short films immortalized somehow for viewing, especially in an age where attention spans have gotten shorter. We will continue to host films for free for our customers.

CineFile Video is right next store to the Landmark Nuart Theatre. Does CineFile Video have any sort of working relationship with the theatre? The manager, Jim Nicola, has been there for a couple of decades now.  

We do. Jim is a great guy and sends Nuart patrons our way all the time. I don’t know that CineFile could succeed without the amazing fans of the films that play next door. 

In addition to CineFile’s vast inventory, you must get some interesting people coming into your store before or after seeing a film. Any particular filmmaker(s), who have come in that really impressed you?

We have had visits and conversations with tons of filmmakers including Werner Herzog, Sean Baker, Barry Jenkins and Nicolas Winding Refn. They all have great stories and great love for our mission.

I sense a revival in the Sawtelle Ave./Santa Monica Blvd area with CineFile Video, unique restaurants, the Nuart Theatre and the Laemmle Royal just down the street from your location. They form a delightful triangle. 

Yes, in fact, our block was once called Analog Alley by the LA Weekly. In 2012, there was a record shop, two bookstores, CineFile and the Nuart. Intelligentsia, philosophers, collectors – all used to gather here. Some still do. If you want to learn more about that time and the amazing power of small business in conjunction with local community, please check out the short documentary hosted on our site entitled ‘Turn Left On Sawtelle.’ 

CineFile Video is located at 11280 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Phone:  310.312.8836. Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 12PM-8PM. Friday and Saturday – 12PM-12AM. For more information about CineFile Video and its rental memberships, visit CineFileVideo.com.

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