Closing credits: Can the Sneak Reviews faithful revive the dying film rental business?

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Sneak Reviews has been catering to area film enthusiasts since 1993. If it closes in 2013, the movie rental shop may need to disburse more than 32,000 titles. Image: John Robinson Sneak Reviews has been catering to area film enthusiasts since 1993. If it closes in 2013, the movie rental shop may need to disburse more than 32,000 titles. Image: John Robinson

“There was a time, 25 years ago, when there were video stores all over the place,” said Mark Tramontin. “Every time you turned around, there was another one.” When Tramontin, owner of Sneak Reviews, bought the business in 1993, “Everyone asked if we were worried about competition. There was another video store right down the street [in the Ivy Square Shopping Center]. But I told people, ‘Go to your regular video store and look at the selection there, we have everything they don’t have.’ A place like a Blockbuster, they carry 150 copies of the same title. I’d rather have one copy of 150 different ones.”

Sneak Reviews carries 32,000 titles, organized by country and director rather than genre, packed floor-to-ceiling on narrow shelves that have expanded to take up two floors of its Ivy Road location. And while current hits like The Hunger Games and “Downton Abbey” are easy enough to find, one of the joys of being a Sneak Reviews customer is the experience of getting lost among the store’s upstairs area, which boasts categories as specific as British Television Comedy, Additional Iranian Directors, and Godzilla. “It’s a little like a library,” said Tramontin. “We don’t ever get rid of any title. There’s people who have been with us for 20 years, who will happily spend an hour upstairs in the store, browsing for one or two things to rent for the weekend.”

The video market has undergone changes over the years, and Tramontin has had to constantly tweak his strategies to keep up. With the Blockbuster and Hollywood video chains closing, and Crozet’s mom-and-pop video store shuttering its doors last year, Sneak Reviews is now one of only three video stores in the area. With online streaming and downloading becoming more popular every year, the store is in a precarious position. Two weeks ago, Tramontin announced that if business didn’t improve over the holidays, Sneak Reviews may have to close in January.

The store’s first location was in a small shopping center near Emmet Street, but after two years they relocated to Ivy Road. Initially the store occupied only the top floor, forcing customers to climb the steep stone steps outside the building, and then another flight of stairs to reach the store. “Remember the basket?” Tramontin asked. “We had a basket on a pulley system, with a little bell on it, so people could return their videos without having to hike all the way upstairs.”

Many of the current releases are on Blu-Ray. But the store still carries thousands of titles on VHS tapes, many of which are films that are still unavailable on DVD. “We work on upgrading the catalog, but a lot of those older films still aren’t out on DVD,” Tramontin said. The store used to carry LaserDiscs. “We were starting to get some really beautiful stuff,” he said. “As soon as we bought a second shelf for them, they announced that DVDs were going to come out.”

Video advances in technology have meant that formats may become outdated in less than a decade. “It’s painful for ,” Tramontin said, “because you just have to keep buying the same product again and again, from Beta, to VHS, to Laser, to DVD.” Still, the allure of seeing a high-definition transfer of a film that you’ve only ever watched on grainy, warbly VHS does bring in a certain category of film enthusiast. “If you haven’t seen Casablanca on a Blu-Ray, you haven’t seen it,” said Tramontin. “For people who have the high-def T.V.s, there’s always going to be that interest.”

Another major shift in recent years has been the popularity of T.V. shows like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad.” Tramontin points out that it’s a tricky investment for the store—buying an entire series at wholesale price is a lot more expensive than a single DVD title.

For younger viewers, renting a video may seem like a thing of the past whereas watching a movie at home is synonymous with one word: Netflix. Initially launched as an Internet-based mail-order service, Netflix has led the industry in recent years with its streaming service, eliminating the need for a physical disc altogether.

“I never saw it coming,” Tramontin said. “Young people who watch everything on a 5×5 screen. For someone my age, it’s kind of a joke. That was the size T.V.s were in the ’50s, when we couldn’t wait to get something better. I don’t particularly want to watch Lawrence of Arabia on my phone.”

Sneak Reviews may be facing tough competition from Netflix, but Tramontin says news of its recent trouble has led to a significant upturn in rentals. “There’s not much of a budget for advertising,” he said, “so it’s mostly word-of-mouth. But we’re starting to find that…people have really met the challenge by telling their friends and co-workers.”

“There’s a photo of [Roger] Ebert, when he visited here,” said Tramontin. “He said he thought it was one of the most amazing places he had ever seen. He bought a tape from us, a copy of a film he had written, that he had never seen a copy of anywhere else.”

Sneak Reviews is located at 2244 Ivy Rd. Hours and catalog info can be found at sneak reviews.com.

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  • Jennifer

    Losing Sneak Reviews would be heartbreaking. And Netflix is no replacement. I often make selections after I browse the shelves or ask other customers and employees for recommendations. When I notice that a movie is always rented when I am in the store, I make a note of that — it means that it’s a great film. I sincerely hope SR can keep open. Perhaps Tramontin could offer annual subscriptions or another kind of membership programs that has perks for those who can pay a little extra? When people ask me what I love about living in C’ville, SR is ALWAYS one of the first things I name.

  • Lo

    Correction and FYI- Crozet’s mom-and-pop video store is open still. Maupin’s Music and Video is alive, owned by Rick and Pete Maupin – I can’t believe any article on video shops closing would exclude them.

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