Local Arts

Classic local video store VisArt goes nonprofit, with a screening room and new twists

The VisArt screening room, dubbed the Video Cave.
The VisArt screening room, dubbed the Video Cave. Linda MacDonald

Over more than 30 years, VisArt Video developed a devoted following of Charlotte film lovers who came to rent and buy everything from the newest releases to hard-to-find indie, classic, documentary and foreign films. As most video stores, including giants like Blockbuster, withdrew from competition with streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, VisArt persisted.

Now, it’s evolving: It is relaunching as a nonprofit, dedicated to the appreciation of film and video as an art form.

A daylong party Sept. 22 at its site, 3104 Eastway Drive, will mark the change. Visitors can drop in anytime between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m. for live music, beer and wine, food from the nearby Portofino’s and EastSide Local Eatery, and screenings in VisArt’s newly built, surround-sound screening room, which can accommodate as many as 50 people.

VisArt will host two showings, at 3 and 8 p.m., of “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” a scene-by-scene remake of the famous Indiana Jones film made by three 12-year olds (Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala and Jayson Lamb) over the course of six years. VisArt will also show film shorts and music videos by independent filmmakers from Charlotte all day long.

The way general manager Gina Stewart describes it, VisArt will not change so much as expand – you will still be able to rent and buy movies. “For our regulars,” she says, “... everything can stay the same. But on top of that, we’re going to be offering a whole lot more.”

You can get a base membership for free; that allows you to rent DVDs, VHS and Blu-ray for $1.50 or $3.50 for five days and new releases for $4.50 for three days). Then there are tiered memberships: The Cast Member ($25-$49.99 per year) gets you every 10th rental free and a VisArt tote bag, with the titles and perks rising on up to Executive Producer ($5,000+), which gets you all the perks of the lower tiers (T-shirt, hoodie, screening room use, invitation to a VIP dinner, etc.) plus a permanent star in VisArt’s “Walk of Fame.”

Partnering with other arts nonprofits offers new vistas – such as a recently begun monthly series with Charlotte Film Society, which typically brings newly released, independent, art house and foreign films to Charlotte. In August, it screened “Summer of ’84,” a new independent film directed by Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, every night for six days at VisArt.

Jay Morong, program director of the Film Society and senior lecturer in the theater department at UNC Charlotte, says the idea of making VisArt a nonprofit is “brilliant”: “It will give them a lot of other opportunities to expand programming, to do a lot of things within the community that maybe they can’t do right now as a for-profit business.”

Stewart says VisArt is in talks with Carolina Film Community to screen the work of local independent filmmakers, and that group’s president, Juli Emmons, says VisArt could help her reach beyond industry people to those who “just love film and love the art of film.”

Also envisioned: programs for very young children, and working with assisted living centers to craft programs for seniors. Cupcakes and Cartoons for kids on Saturday mornings has already started.

VisArt’s screening room, says Stewart, is now open for use by film clubs; actors’ clubs who want to study the work of a particular actor; singer-songwriters; writers who want to give readings; educators; hosts of birthday parties; and anyone who wants to get together with friends to watch some films. Rent might be free or up to $25 an hour, depending on the event and/or membership level of the renter.

Current owner Mickey Aberman recalls being a customer for years, picking out movies with his wife on dates, and raising their kids with VisArt’s children’s collection. “There wasn’t anything like VisArt.”

Walk into the store, and you get that vintage feel, with movie posters and memorabilia (T-shirts, key chains, patches, wallets) that you can buy at the counter. Comfy chairs are arranged around a TV screen up front, where you can watch a film like “The Golden Bat,” a 1966 black-and-white Japanese sci-fi thriller directed by Hajime Sato that was playing on a recent afternoon.

But the main attraction, of course, is the collection of movies. Sections range from mainstream generalities to foreign (Japanese, Thai, Russian, German, Kurdish, Hebrew, Siberian and more) and LGBT Pride, groupings identified by director (Coen Brothers, Andy Warhol, Jim Jarmusch, Kim Jee-woon, Hitchcock) to Erotica, Cult and Troma. Aberman also gives a nod to staffers who can make recommendations more personalized than the algorithms of Amazon or Netflix.

“The problem with the algorithm is it’s based on what other people have watched,” he says. “And that’s usually going to be influenced by what is marketed and what is promoted and will obviously be confined by what they’ve got – which is less than what we have.”

Scarecrow Video in Seattle, which became a nonprofit in 2014, has been a major influence in this new transition, says Aberman, and its president, Kate Barr, has served as a mentor.

As a nonprofit, VisArt can fill a hole in the arts fabric here, he says. “Charlotte has organizations that promote static visual arts. It’s got organizations that promote music and dance and crafts. But the only organization I know of that promotes film and video arts is the [Charlotte] Film Society. And they’re great ... But they don’t really have a center, a physical center, and they don’t have a library, and we’ve got 40,000-something-odd titles.”