During a job interview last April, Darrell Hodges was asked a familiar canned question: “If you could do anything right now, what would you be doing?” Hodges’ answer was as swift as it was unexpected: “I’d be running a store that sells import Blu-rays.” The position he was applying for had nothing to do with movies, and the man on the other side of the desk seemed nonplussed by this response. Hodges got the job nevertheless, though within a month he found himself asking the usual “What am I doing here?” questions, all the while pondering how to make his pipe dream a reality.
Some context for the uninitiated. If you were to move to Europe, Asia or nearly anywhere else, you’d have to leave your DVD/Blu-ray collection behind or buy an all-region player. The vast majority of discs are region-locked, meaning your beloved copy of Milo and Otis won’t play on a French DVD player (and vice versa). This doesn't pose much of an issue for bigger movies — Avatar is readily available in every conceivable market on the planet — but for more obscure art-house titles, availability is a very real problem. American cinephiles lust after lesser-known films, sometimes paying as much in shipping as they do for the actual movie.
That process is now easier courtesy of Foreign Exchange Blu-ray Imports, which Hodges opened last month after finally going all in on his dream. Nestled in the middle of the Brazilian mall on Venice Boulevard, the tiny storefront benefits from the pleasing aroma of the pizzeria next door and a location near other cinematic hot spots. 4X is essentially a micro-store, its minimalist layout betraying both an ultra-niche market and a movie-centric sensibility. Perusing its offerings is a bit like poring over a movie-obsessed friend’s carefully curated home library, with the added bonus that everything is for sale.
As with Acropolis Cinema and the South Bay Film Society, 4X is part of a growing trend in which individual cinephiles are filling the holes in Los Angeles film culture. The long-term financial success of such ventures always seems fraught — “There’s no Daddy Warbucks behind the scenes,” Hodges notes with a laugh — but still they persist.
Hodges likens himself to a day-trader tracking the price of foreign discs and buying them when they’re low. He describes his aim as “creating a dialogue” between himself and his customers, many (if not all) of whom will know about obscure titles that have eluded him thus far. “Nobody’s seen everything,” he says, before mentioning that he’s as willing to stock Disney movies as he is the giallo classics of Mario Bava.
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Stocking his collection wasn’t without its difficulties — the fraud department at Hodges’ credit card company put his account on hold six or seven times (“I really am buying Blu-rays from Italy,” he had to tell them). Nevertheless, 4X launched in early December with just over 120 titles available. That number has risen closer to 150 in the month or so since, with new arrivals coming and sought-after selections being purchased in roughly equal measure. “As long as I’ve got more stuff on the way than things that are waiting to be reordered, that’s progress.”
I picked up two during my visit — a French Blu-ray of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and the Masters of Cinema edition of Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, neither of which is available on region 1 Blu-ray — and paid less than I would have buying them online. There were other benefits as well: 4X has a TV set up in-store for customers to test audio/visual quality, subtitles and the like with a reference copy. Considering the level of overlap between people who absolutely must own the new Aki Kaurismäki box set and those who really care about edge enhancement, this is a pretty good idea. Also available: a number of region-free players, which are often retrofitted versions of existing models.
In this way, Hodges is replicating the rapidly disappearing video-store experience — a conversational approach in which he shares his expertise and learns from those who come in as well. 4X may be even more niche than Vidiots or Cinefile Video, but it feels no less essential. “This is my attempt to giving something back," Hodges explains. "I just hope enough people receive it to make it commercially viable.”