The Culture

The Suncoast Motion Picture Company’s Last Stand Is Happening in Southeast Texas

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

I used to buy VHS tapes at the mall. The shopping center’s heyday as the center of suburban life is well behind us, with thousands of shuttered “dead malls” becoming objects of morbid online fascination. VHS is similarly obsolete, not just as a technology but as a philosophy, as more and more people have made peace with never truly owning a movie. Streaming and online shopping—both conveniently offered through Amazon—have killed this once quintessential consumer experience. Unsurprisingly, it also took Suncoast Motion Picture Company with it.

Suncoast launched in 1986 as Paramount Pictures, a tentative alliance between the eponymous Hollywood film studio and Musicland, an erstwhile monolith of mall-based entertainment. Their arrangement would last only a couple of years, but the concept they tested proved to be slightly more enduring. At the time, everyone from grocery stores to U-Haul had experimented with renting videos, but no one had quite figured out how to sell them—primarily because VHS tapes were still insanely expensive, usually going for around $80-$100 a pop. But when Paramount released Raiders of the Lost Ark for just $39.95 in 1983, generating thousands of preorders, it proved there was a sell-through market for VHS that was only semi-ridiculously expensive. So dedicating an entire store to selling movies, much like Musicland had done for music, seemed like a logical gamble. And though it officially broke away from Paramount in 1988, the newly reborn Suncoast Motion Picture Company continued to thrive throughout the nineties, eventually commanding some four hundred locations in its prime.

Today, just a few of those Suncoasts are still in existence. One of them stands inside the Parkdale Mall in Beaumont, where it’s lingered for decades now. It’s the only Suncoast for many hundreds of miles in any direction, with its estranged sister locations all in states like New Jersey, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Ohio. Somehow it survives, even as the franchise, the industry that supports it, and the entire concept of a mall that surrounds it continue to falter.

Like a lot of mall chains, Suncoast seemed unstoppable until it wasn’t. After a successful decade of expansion, Suncoast and all the other Musicland offshoots were purchased by Best Buy in 2001. The electronics giant had hoped to lure young shoppers into buying stereos alongside their CDs—at the exact time people stopped going to malls and buying CDs. When it finally sold off The Musicland Group in 2003, taking an embarrassing loss, its new owners at Sun Capital then filed for bankruptcy, closing hundreds of Suncoast and Sam Goody stores in the process. Whatever was left was sold off to Trans World Entertainment in 2006, which transformed the whole of the venerable Sam Goody chain into its signature FYE stores. Although it kept around 170 Suncoast locations, most of those were killed off by 2009. The handful that remained, like the one in Beaumont, represent the final vestiges of the brand, their days seemingly as numbered as the physical media they sell.

Of course, if Suncoast had only sold movies, I wouldn’t remember it nearly as fondly, nor would it have inspired myriad YouTube eulogies. More than anything else, Suncoast sold the idea of film fandom, years before everyone started casually dropping “movie geek” in their Twitter bios. Suncoast stores began popping up in local malls in the late eighties and early nineties, and this dovetailed with a new, broader wave of appreciation for classic films that was jump-started by cable television. By 1990, American Movie Classics (now AMC) had become a part of most basic cable packages, while Ted Turner’s purchase of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film library had introduced the likes of Gone With the Wind to newer, younger audiences through his TNT and Turner Classic Movies networks. In 1989, MGM also partnered with Disney on its Disney-MGM Studios theme park, where animatronic robots acted out scenes from Casablanca and Alien along The Great Movie Ride (R.I.P.), and Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin impersonators capered among the Goofys and Mickeys. “Classic movies” had become a rich, minable commodity by the early nineties. Suncoast was right on time.

If you were a burgeoning movie geek like me—the kind of kid who cajoled his family into going to Disney-MGM as soon as it opened—then Suncoast was your store. It was a little taste of Hollywood, even in the middle of suburban Texas. The neon marquee and metal palm trees of its entrance beckoned you into a space lined with black and white photos of John Wayne and of Michael Keaton as Batman, glowering down at a space absolutely crammed with movies and film memorabilia. Digging through its vast library of film titles, you could often come away with some classic or cult curio that furthered your movie education, like the Citizen Kane VHS I picked up at thirteen. Even better for an insecure adolescent, you could purchase various accoutrements that would give you the appearance of someone who had that education already. Suncoast was where I acquired the many movie posters and 8-by-10 stills that lined my bedroom walls, along with an exceptionally dorky clock shaped like an old film reel. It was where “being into film” became something you could buy. Without Suncoast to foster that identity, I’m not sure who I’d be today. 

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Left:

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

Right:

Photograph by Sean O'Neal

There are no black and white movie stars gazing down from Beaumont’s Suncoast store anymore, as I realized when I visited recently. The familiar neon marquee remains, though, and I spot it easily from its relatively narrow spot just inside the Parkdale Mall, tucked near the Dillard’s and a discount cellphone store. Racks of movies still line the inside. They’re on DVD and Blu-ray now, and they’re jostling for space with TV box sets, but they’re here. The clerk tells me they probably sell about one hundred of these every day—a number that seems surprisingly high. He admits they probably don’t move as many as they used to, especially compared with when he started working here. That was nearly a decade ago. Lately, he tells me, Suncoast is transitioning away from movies into more of a “trend-based” store. I confirm this with a quick glance around.

Suncoast may still sell movies, but the Beaumont store bases a lot of its business on Funkos, the tiny, pop-culture-inspired vinyl figurines that blanket the back wall from floor to ceiling. There are a few film characters mixed in there, of course, though these are far outnumbered by toys for Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead. What little movie memorabilia remains would make Martin Scorsese weep, most of it hailing from franchise juggernauts like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel. 

You won’t find any film reel clocks or Hitchcock stills here—there’s no acknowledgment, really, of any movie made before about 1975, in a store where Ghostbusters counts as an old-timey classic. I flip through a small, half-empty box of posters, which contains a couple of Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse one-sheets, a deeply discounted handful of Jared Leto’s Joker, and a random pile of plastic samurai swords. A picture of Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a guy famous for videos of himself playing Fortnite, lies outside the box

I suppose if there’s anything still tying the Suncoast of 2019 to the one I remember, it’s its continued celebration of anime. Years before the Flower Mound-based Funimation began dubbing Japanese cartoons like Dragon Ball Z for American broadcast, Suncoast was one of the few places you could find anime videos that weren’t mail-order bootlegs. Today, you’ll not only find anime DVDs and toys, you can peruse a wall sparkling with Japanese candy and snacks, and shelves laden with T-shirts screen-printed with Japanese versions of classic rock band logos. Mixed in with the usual merch for Rick and Morty and The Office, Suncoast’s anime selections have perhaps even helped some Beaumont kids broaden their horizons and find their own niches, the way the store once did for me.

That said, it’s hard to imagine this place inspiring the same sort of devotion, or holding the same sentimental place in anyone’s heart another thirty years from now. Suncoast’s commercials—which depicted a store staffed by excitable, deeply knowledgeable film nerds—were always a contrast to the reality I knew, where bored teens would answer most questions by sighing and gesturing vaguely toward the middle distance. Yet it was still a place that nurtured people who wanted to be those film nerds. 

Out here on the edge of Southeast Texas, this last remaining Suncoast Motion Picture Company store feels symbolically stranded, left behind by a seismic cultural shift whose ripples have yet to reach it. Who knows how long it has before it succumbs to being just another FYE outpost? Or disappears completely, joining so many other felled chains in heaven’s directory? Like with VHS and the mall itself, death will surely come quietly, and perhaps only a few nostalgic fools like me will even miss it. For now, it’s a living monument to a small yet significant piece of film history—for whatever that’s still worth.

 

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Tags: Business, Film, Beaumont, Suncoast Motion Picture Company, VHS tapes

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