As I’ve been working on developing Cinema Femme as a non-profit organization, I heard a lot of buzz about an organization called Vidiots, which started as a video store in the 80s, and has now expanded to a theater with a large library of films in Los Angeles. I interview a lot of filmmakers, including many who are based out of LA, who said I should connect with Vidiots. So I did my research, and I was floored. First of all, their board and financial supporters are a star studded group! I couldn’t believe finding among them so many names of people I admire, including film critics (Claudia Puig), podcast hosts (Karina Longworth), directors (Rian Johnson, Mark Duplass), producers (Lela Meadow-Conner) and actors (Aubrey Plaza). And then to see that two women started it all blew me away. That’s when I found out about Maggie Mackay.
Maggie Mackay is the most modest and hardest working person I’ve ever met. Like me, she is driven by a passion for what she does, and she credits her drive to two women, Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber, the founders of Vidiots, the Santa Monica video store that began in 1985. This place was a hub in Los Angeles for filmmakers and film lovers, inclusive before inclusivity was a trend, and always a party for Los Angeles residents. The business became a non-profit around 2012, and as most video stores were going out of business in the last ten years, Vidiots stayed afloat.
In the past couple years, during the pandemic, the organization was at a make or break moment. That is when Maggie stepped in at a point when she was being disillusioned by the industry as streaming services were taking over and organizations that were supposed to be supporting the film community were missing their priorities. Maggie realized Vidiots was where she belonged, and the only place she could see herself working in the industry. In the past months, Vidiots has opened up a theater in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, and Maggie, traditionally a programmer (AFI, Sundance, Los Angeles Film Festival), stepped into fundraising, raising nearly three million dollars for the organization. Vidiots has started with a bang, but is still in need of support to be sustainable. I got to talk about all of these things with Maggie. If you are in Los Angeles, or not, this is an organization that would love your support.
Learn more about ways you can support Vidiots on their website: vidiotsfoundation.org/support-and-get-involved/
How did you meet Patty and Cathy, and what brought you to Vidiots? What makes you so passionate about this organization?
Do you have six hours (laughing)?
I’m from New York originally, but I’ve been living and working in Los Angeles since 1999. I’m basically a non-profit and arts organization person. Most of my previous professional life before Vidiots was spent as a festival programmer for the late and great Los Angeles Film Festival. I also worked at places like Sundance and AFI. My primary purpose professionally was connecting audiences with film and vice versa. I did that for a long time.
I’ve always been very vocal about the importance of video stores. I grew up in New York City, and it was really hard as a city latchkey kid to find safe spaces to hang out. I have wonderful and responsible parents, but it was also the 80s. As a generation, we were fairly on our own as teens and tweens, and when the video store opened up across from my house, it was there where I got on my path in life.
I also had very affordable movie theaters within walking distance, or a short ride on a subway or skateboard from my house. And so that’s really what got me into film. I did not really get it through a family connection. I got it thorough my own sort of exploration, because there were places I could explore.
More than ten years ago, as I started to see video stores go out of business while streaming headed in the direction of world domination, I began to be more and more vocal about how important my own personal connection was to video stores. By that time, Vidiots was on its own path as an incredibly successful small business, beloved not just in LA, but outside of LA in Southern California. I mean, everyone knew about Vidiots. Patty and Cathy were covered in the New York Times several times through the history of their small business. Around 2012, they smartly transitioned to a non-profit model, and by the time 2015 rolled around, when they were about to give up, Annapurna Pictures got involved as a major donor.
At the same time, I was also becoming deeply, deeply disenchanted with the state of non-profit existence in Los Angeles, and the film industry as a whole. All of the things that I wanted to do professionally I found increasingly difficult to do here in Los Angeles. So several people who knew me and knew how much I loved video stores knew that Vidiots was at a bit of a crisis point. Despite all of the “good juice” that Annapurna had brought in 2015 to save Vidiots, it was getting harder and harder for them to stay open in Santa Monica, through no fault of Patty and Cathy’s own.
I knew people at Annapurna who were on the board at Vidiots, and people who knew me there thought I could help. Long story short, I went to meet Patty and Cathy for the first time, and I was already very familiar with Vidiots. In Los Angeles in the 1990s and the early 2000s, Vidiots was a place that you “mecca’d out.” No matter where you were at, you went to go see Vidiots. When I sat down with Patty and Cathy for the first time, they were extremely transparent about how difficult it was going to be, and about how difficult it was, as well as where they were emotionally. I just thought, ‘This is too precious, this is too important. We are losing too much history here in LA. We’re losing too many brick-and-mortars.’ Patty and Cathy are two of the greatest human beings on earth, which you can read off of them after the first ten seconds being in a room with them. Vidiots has an amazing history, with their library of films, there was so much possibility here. That’s how it started.
I’d love to hear about the community that has been building around Vidiots and the people who’ve stepped up to elevate the organization by joining the board, and also hear about your fundraising process.
It’s really been a roller coaster. We’ve had some very low lows, and obviously now, we have some very high highs. In between, there was definitely a wind behind our backs. But sometimes it was like a little whisper of one. I’m not a career fundraiser. I don’t come from the development world. I really come from the programming world. But I am confident that the reason why it worked at Vidiots was because it was so beloved. I hate calling it a brand, but it was a very beloved entity in LA. It had the history. It wasn’t something that I had to convince people was important.
But I had to convince a lot of people early on about the value of physical media. I had so many people tell me that, ‘Nobody gives a shit about physical media, it’s a dead format, why are you investing in it?’ And those conversations really diminished as it became extremely apparent and so nationally recognized that a streaming-only world is extremely unhealthy for the art form, dangerous for the artists, and really debilitating for audiences. I think it will ultimately leave us without this art form as what it has been for more then a hundred years, which is the most populist art form.
And with the fundraising, the success of it was the combination of my unrelenting push and what Vidiots meant to Los Angeles. The reach that Vidiots had is truly immeasurable, because it was here for so long. Patty and Cathy established it as this extremely unique space that was so community-centric. But when I say “community,” I don’t mean it in the do-gooder way. I’m saying it was a party in there, it was fun, and it was a safe-space. Vidiots was a home for filmmakers, and it was a home for people who had no where else to go. You could go there on a Friday night and find a fun party culture. It was a party that everyone in LA was invited to. And I cannot say the same for 99.9% of the film spaces that have been in LA since I’ve lived here.
Once I got to Vidiots and saw what the potential was, and how deeply deeply important it was to film in Los Angeles, and to film culture globally, there was no where else for me to go. It wasn’t just because I was passionate about it, it was because without Vidiots, I didn’t want to do any of this anymore.
Right before we opened, I was feeling very low because I didn’t know how we were going to do all the really hard stuff to open. Our Director of Partnerships (Barbara Twist) and our Marketing Director (Saila Reyes), supported me through that. If there are three legs of a stool on our team, they are the other two legs, and both of them said that we have to keep going because we don’t want to live in an LA without Vidiots.
I think we were able to raise all of this money because there were enough people gathering around it, it’s brick-and-mortar, and it was a space that was so needed in our area. Without all of these essential pieces to our success, without us finding the theater in Eagle Rock, without the history in LA, without the love of the community that Patty and Cathy had built, and without me, it wouldn’t have been possible. Not during the pandemic. I mean, we’ve raised almost 3 million dollars.
That’s amazing and inspiring to me as I’ve been building the Cinema Femme community for five years. It’s important to have such a passionate group of people around you.
That’s what I think it’s about. It’s about having the people around you who need it and want it. I think a lot of organizations now have had to make a really hard course correction to make their organizations diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Patty and Cathy opened that way in 1985. That was what they were before those words were even being used. If there’s any proof that affordable equitable diverse spaces have longevity, it’s Vidiots. That’s why it has lasted as long as it has. And that’s why it has had this incredible phoenix rising moment because it was always that way, not because someone came in and said, ‘Oh shit, we need to be more representative, because if we don’t, we won’t get grants.’
I love how you, Patty, and Cathy are the real deal. You’re doing it.
That is what Vidiots was born out of, and that is why Patty and Cathy opened their own business. They weren’t using those words, they weren’t saying, ‘We need more women to make movies.’ That’s not what they were doing. What they were saying was, ‘We want to open a business together. We don’t want to work for men anymore.’ That was a big driving factor for them in opening Vidiots. They had careers, they had jobs, but they were very ungratified with the environments they were working in.
Patty and Cathy have been best friends since they were three years old, and they wanted to do something together that was gratifying for both of them. They both liked movies. They are not self-described cinephiles, nor am I. We just liked movies. They looked around and said, ‘All of these video stores are just doing this one thing, and we can’t get access to the movies we want to watch.’
They had read an article about a video store in New York that was stocking international titles, experimental films, and all of these diverse film that no one in LA was focusing on. That was really when they got the idea to open Vidiots. It came from their own desire for something that didn’t exist. That want, and the thing that didn’t exist happened to include work by women, people of color, and very importantly, the LGBTQ+ community. Part of what was so important at that time was the fact that so many people had been excluded from the art form because they couldn’t get the resources to shoot on film.
So when video came along, that just cracked open the possibilities for filmmakers and artists who had been excluded from the art form. Suddenly, these filmmakers had a format where they could make their art and they had a place in LA, Vidiots, where they could bring their film and know that it would have a way to connect with an audience. That is so squarely Patty and Cathy. No one else was doing that in Los Angeles, no one. There were other wonderful video stores as well, but as far as a place where filmmakers knew they could take their tape and connect it to an audience, that was Vidiots.
How can people support you that are not in LA?
Well, that’s a beautiful question. The most obvious answer is that we are still raising money. Like just $5 would truly help us. Any donation amount helps, especially when you get to the point where we’re at. There is an assumption that when you’ve opened doors on a brick-and-mortar like Vidiots, you are good to go. And that could not be further from the truth. These are really delicate ecosystems. Yes, we’ve been doing well, people are coming and renting a lot of movies in the video store. We are getting sold-out screenings multiple times a week. But these spaces are very expensive to run, and we don’t have single donors who are underwriting things. We’ve always just barely had enough money to do the next step, and then the next. The reality is that people make the assumption that you are good to go and they do not need to continue their support, and that is what could make Vidiots go away.
So we’re trying to enjoy the opening weeks and months and not freak out, but the reality is that we still absolutely need to continue to raise money. Thought Vidiots is unique to LA, what is not unique to LA is the desperately need for places like it in communities across the country, especially in the many states where they are banning books, and more movies are going back into hiding. We have been taking so many steps backward, and film has always been a way for people to survive backward existence in this country and across the world. Our very long-term goal would be to get Vidiots to a point of true sustainability and permanence. And then we will try to work with other people around the country who have the same passion that we have, who might have some point of connection, whether they have a video store, or a movie theater, or a brick-and-mortar space. We will always rest in those three spaces. Physical media will always be a driving force for us.
I hope that we will get beyond our four walls and really be able to live up to that commitment, including creating a fund that would seek out projects like Vidiots. That has been the hardest thing for us through this whole process. Getting money from the city, or the state, or from existing grant organizations was totally impossible. We had only two grant organizations supporting us, HFPA and National Association of Theatre Owners California/Nevada, because everybody said you have to do an audit, or you have to have a data arts management bank. I’m like, ‘I’m a team of one, and we are in a pandemic and we’re just trying to survive.’ We couldn’t get PPP, or any of the pandemic relief because we weren’t open yet. We were so shut out of that. Had I been able to go to someone like me and say ‘How did you do this, and will you help me?’, it would have changed everything. We were able to get it done, but honestly, at a great cost to my mental and emotional state. And it should have been supported by these organizations. It wasn’t and it still isn’t, because like I said, only two grant organizations were willing to support.
Learn more about ways you can support Vidiots on their website: vidiotsfoundation.org/support-and-get-involved/