When Mike Clark left Hollywood to open Movie Madness in his native Portland in 1991, it seemed like a dubious bet. There were 50 other video stores in a five-mile radius of his SE Belmont Street shop. But he poured all his savings into the shop anyway—starting with just 2,000 VHS tapes in a tiny, 895-square-foot storefront. Today, a visit to the labyrinthine space is a trek through cinema history, from props from Citizen Kane and Fight Club to DVDs of the latest Captain America blockbuster, copies of Turkish “mock-off” action flicks, and rare cult Tromaville tapes. Clark stocks around 90,000 titles, organized by director, actor, or even monster type—the largest VHS and DVD rental collection in Oregon. Digital streaming has toppled every major rental chain, and not one of those 50 rivals from a quarter-century ago still exists. Somehow, though, the Madness lives on.
I was born in 1946 and my earliest memory—I was about 5—was mom and dad taking me to the St. Johns Theater to see The Greatest Show on Earth. My grandparents were circus performers. What intrigued me was the visualness of this incredible movie. It inspired me to study film.
I told a white lie [to get my first job in Hollywood]—I told 20th Century Fox I [had already worked on] a couple of army films. I was desperate, I told them anything they wanted. I didn’t think it was going to pay off. I got [hired] and the movie editor said to me, “I want you to break down dailies.” I didn’t know what he meant.... I [had to] tell the truth. He said, “I got one hour, I’m going to show you how. If you can’t catch on, I’ll let you go.” And it worked.
Back in the late ’80s, when I was working for MGM as a post-production coordinator, there were three different video stores around the studio. I had to go to all three to get what I wanted to watch. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to open up a video store somewhere, someday, that had everything you needed under one roof?” That was the birth of Movie Madness in my head.
I had never done a business before. [First] I leased half of this building. In ’93 I took over the other side ... then two years later I outgrew that. In 2003 I bought the building. In 2007 I decided to remodel [so] when you walk in its like you’re in the lobby of a theater.
The thing that keeps us going is an inventory that’s amazing. Anytime you see an out-of-print sticker on a VHS tape you know it’s worth money. I love film noir. That is my favorite area of the store. The other day I took home Impact [a lover-kills-the-husband classic from 1949].
I was in Las Vegas. There was an auction and for some reason I bid on this Diane Keaton dress from Godfather II. And as I am bidding, I’m going, “Mike, are you crazy? You’re up to $3,000!” I [paid a] little over $3,500. It came with the mannequin and everything—I put it on display. Before you knew it, [I had] Talia Shire’s dress from the same movie. Then I started doing the big auctions like Sotheby’s ... and I just started building my collection. One thing that slipped through my fingers was a jacket from The Warriors. Those things happen from time to time, but I am happy I got the stuff I did get.
Someone asked me, “Why don’t you charge admission?” I can’t. It’s my gift to Portland. Movie Madness is an institution. I don’t feel threatened by Netflix or the streaming and that stuff. I am in my own world.
I have only raised my prices twice in the whole history of my store. My original price for a new release was $2.50, and now it’s $3.75. I had a guy the other day who had returned a movie that had a huge amount of late fees. I told him: “You have been such a loyal customer; I am going to cut your late fees in half.” And the customer said, “By god, don’t you do that. Don’t argue with me. I support your store. And I support you. And I want you to know that I am particularly fine with it. You’re not going to lose me as a customer.”