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Aro Video’s Andrew Armitage talks to Sarah Lang about facing the future of film and potential closure.
If you’re a big film fan, or have lived nearby, you’ve probably stopped into the Aro St Video Shop (at least until you got Netflix). Since opening the doors in 1989, proprietor Andrew Armitage has amassed a whopping 27,000 titles. The shop, and the similarly-sized Alice DVD Library in Christchurch, have the largest movie collections in the country, with many titles unavailable elsewhere in New Zealand or even via the internet.
Andrew is a little hard to read. When asked questions, he looks upward thoughtfully. “I’m taking long pauses so I don’t waffle too much, and give succinct answers.” He is a self-confessed “terrible punner”, and signs off an email with “Merci Beaucool”. He can come over as intense – particularly regarding films – but is also frank, friendly, and charming.
When I walk into the shop, he’s chatting with a customer who has an annual subscription ($420). The various other options include 10-trip concession cards, and a triple-disc TV series for $8. The “adopt-a-movie” scheme allows someone to donate a favourite DVD, give Aro Video $35 to buy the DVD, or adopt a film that the shop already has (which includes “naming rights” on both the physical case and the online listing). Aro Video Online (established 1997), the business’s website, offers nationwide home-delivery rentals and sales.
These services and promotions have helped keep the doors open, but fewer and fewer customers are coming in. “More and more content isn’t available on DVD,” Andrew says matter-of-factly. He totally gets why we succumb to the pull of Netflix, Apple TV, or Amazon Prime from the comfort of our couches. “It’s so easy.” But not so easy for him.
“In March, having to cut back staff hours again, I was pretty despondent and pretty much out of ideas.” He’d earlier been approached by Shift72, an internationally-connected New Zealand streaming service company, which suggested setting up a site to stream his films. He initially said no, balking at the cost. “But I had to try something.” He had one last-ditch idea: holding a DVD fair to raise funds for a movie-streaming site.
Andrew called for people to donate unwanted DVDs, and the fair was held in the Aro Valley Community Centre on 15 May. Thousands of DVDs were donated, and many were bought. “We exceeded expectations by raising $18,000 – and it showed that DVDs and the store are still valued.”
“Then, pursuing the streaming offer became a no-brainer. I didn’t really have a choice if I was to stay in business. The idea has been met with unanimous enthusiasm. When your customer base has been eroding, it’s gratifying to hear people, especially former customers, say ‘This is a really good idea’ or ‘Sign me up’.”
Launched in July this year, Aro Vision (aka Aro Video On Demand), is a pay-per-view streaming service, so customers pay for a movie, not a subscription.
It streams Andrew’s selection of 1000-plus titles “including Hollywood classics, foreign films from the 1960s, plus new releases that aren’t on DVD here”. It has 2000 members. This way, people who don’t want the bother of picking up a DVD can benefit from the value of Andrew’s curation, while also supporting a local business.
Andrew for years thought of himself as yesterday’s man. “Now, I feel that a boutique, niche streaming service is the lifeline that can sustain the physical store.” He doesn’t want to cannibalise it. The idea is that regulars and other customers will still come in – particularly for recommendations, and the more obscure films unavailable elsewhere – while people who live further away stream the movies.
“The philosophy of the store has been a focus on film-festival fare, high-quality films, and some obscure films, but not completely shutting off things that many people are interested in: action films, commercial comedies, more mainstream fare. But I’ve turned down tons of terrible movies. We don’t need every Adam Sandler movie ever made.”
He got his own rom-com. About two years ago, he met graphic artist/author Sarah Laing [Ed’s note: not this article’s author] when she “adopted” the movie Pretty in Pink. “That was the inciting incident!” Andrew says. Sarah designed the Aro Vision logo and illustrations for the website and social media.
Andrew lived in central Wellington for 30 years – 16 of them on Aro Street – but moved to Paekākāriki in late 2019, after his marriage broke up. He has three adult children. He’s in the shop three days a week, and works two days from home. “I moved to Paekāk to reset and try to put some distance between myself and the store after three decades of intense dedication, with not much time off.” He calls himself, “a bit of a control freak. I’m not terribly good at delegating”.
Andrew has made 20 podcasts about people who adopted movies, runs the annual Paekākāriki Film Festival, and does a monthly “film/music” radio show, Cinema Without Pictures, at Paekākāriki 88.2 FM. He has quite the radio voice.
He’s also a burgeoning singer-songwriter. “I love the craft of song-writing.” He has done open-mic nights and a little public performance and would like to do more. “Sarah plays the cello, so we’ve been working on a double act, and as a trio with a friend. It’s not an alternate career option, but it’s very good for the soul.”
Would he leave the store to pursue music or do something quite different? “Well, this job is draining, but it’s something I still enjoy.” He can’t see himself closing up shop. “But I’m 56, so once I hit the big Six-O, who knows? I’ve never properly travelled, and have an awful lot of books to catch up on.”
Andrew grew up the eldest of three boys in Manor Park, at the bottom of Haywards Hill in Lower Hutt, where his parents settled as newlyweds.
His mother looked after the boys, while his British father worked in admin, and ran the Lower Hutt City football club. “Dad was a football nut who kept game scorecards and stats, so organising and cataloguing is in my blood.”
From age nine, Andrew kept log-books of records owned, books read, football matches played, and movies seen. “I also kept ‘pop-charts’, listing the week’s best-selling singles on an old typewriter, and making up pop-charts from my preferences. Mum influenced my love of pop culture.”
Music and movies were always dual passions. For five years, from age 19, Andrew was a record-store manager, starting at the EMI shop in Upper Hutt. The UK parent company HMV paid for him to study retail management for a month in England. He brought back videos of films unlikely to be found in New Zealand, for his personal use. “I thought, ‘why not open a video store?’”
In 1989, he rented the street-front room of the building at 79 Aro St, later moving to number 97. No, he never renamed it the Aro St DVD Shop. He describes having to re-buy everything on DVD as “a pain in the butt”.
Does he feel a responsibility for looking after the films and keeping them circulating? “I do. I feel a civic responsibility for their availability to Wellingtonians, and perhaps more widely for New Zealanders. It’s a guardianship. When I let go of this business either by death, or by choice, I want to make sure the films are looked after and preserved as a collection. As new releases come out exclusively online, and are scarcely printed onto physical media like DVDs, this collection – this archive – will be a shrine to the past.” In the meantime, it’s stream time.