“There was an electricity in West Asheville during the ’90s and early 2000s,” says Marc McCloud. “Many people like us — young families — were buying homes at this time, and everything felt like a blank slate. Anything was possible.”
Within that realm of possibility was the prospect of opening a video rental store. After years of wanting to be his own boss, McCloud committed to the idea in 2002, a few years after he and his family relocated from Alexander to West Asheville. He says it was seeing his new neighbors’ loyalty to small businesses that inspired him to make the leap from managing a Blockbuster Video to launching his own business.
Also propelling his decision to quit the chain was that McCloud had no say in what the store offered.
“I’d see the frustration from the customers because [Blockbuster] refused to carry a lot of the indie films and documentaries,” he says. “Those stores are meant to be Plain Jane. It’s the way corporations work.”
On Oct. 13, 2003, Orbit DVD opened in a 1,000-square-foot space on the corner of Haywood Road and Mildred Avenue, next door to In Your Ear Music Emporium. In 2006, the record store vacated its side, and McCloud took over its lease, knocking down the separating wall to form Orbit’s current 2,400-square-foot space. Four years later, he purchased the spot.
Today, McCloud is celebrating 20 years in business. Achieving this milestone, he says, has involved overcoming everything from Netflix and its instant-gratification ilk to a global health crisis.
Building the base
Key to the business’s enduring appeal is the sense of trust that McCloud and his staff have fostered with much of their clientele. Aiding those relationships early on were what McCloud now calls “Orbit Classics” — films that developed a cultlike following among customers. Such titles that caught fire include Stranger than Fiction, Let the Right One In and Everything Is Illuminated. The early 2000s were also when animated Studio Ghibli titles were attracting more widespread attention. They proved popular with Orbit customers, as did early Wes Anderson films, which McCloud notes weren’t nearly as globally popular then as they are today.
“What happened was we really pushed the film on a group of people, and they, of course, raved to their friends about it,” he says. “These were absolutely humongous rentals for us — huge! People kept coming in, coming in, coming in and renting the stuff.”
Such loyalty was essential once rent and home sales in West Asheville went up and many nearby customers moved away. The area’s newcomers, says McCloud, were “not as invested in the community as the previous residents.” Nevertheless, he and his co-workers started to see an increasing number of people make regular pilgrimages to Orbit.
Mike Rangel, co-owner of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co., was among these early customers and credits McCloud with introducing him to some of his favorite TV shows, such as “The Shield” and “The Wire.” And Orbit’s selection of comic books also kept him coming back to see what he could find.
“I bought two full sets of Ultraman here, which I’d been looking for for 30 years,” Rangel recalls. “Especially pre-Amazon, just seeing things like that was special.”
Granted, Rangel and McCloud had already bonded over their love of quirky movies before the latter launched Orbit. In 1999, Asheville Pizza & Brewing’s movie theater hosted a McCloud-programmed late-night screening of a 35 mm print of Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles.
“It’s still one of the highlights of my life because actually 100 people showed up, which is a decent crowd for the ’90s in Asheville,” McCloud says. “There’s times where you just feel the electricity, and you go, ‘OK! This is something. We’re on to something here.’”
McCloud felt a similar energy early this October when he and Rangel collaborated for a screening of the 1988 supernatural horror film Pumpkinhead, complete with live commentary from star Brian Bremer, at the theater.
Staying afloat for 20 years hasn’t been without its challenges. But McCloud’s credo of “Adapt or die” has helped the business weather many a storm.
Orbit DVD’s launch coincided with the rise of Netflix when it was solely a DVD mail-delivery service. Its model prompted McCloud to offer a subscription plan that proved popular with customers.
“I’d never thought about it until people came in and started asking about it,” he says. “I was friends with people online that owned video stores, and they said, ‘What are you doing wasting money doing that?’ I outlasted all of them.”
In 2007, McCloud opened a second location, TV Eye Video Emporium, on Lexington Avenue. The bulk of the store’s customers were service industry workers — many of them women — who would rent movies on their way home from a shift. Rises in crime rates and housing rental prices resulted in that customer base leaving, and McCloud closed TV Eye in 2012. Nevertheless, he says he thinks about that shop every day.
“Downtown is great. You can quote me at risk of being divorced, but I would not mind being downtown again,” McCloud says with a laugh. “Also, having more than one thing is good.”
The pivot of Netflix and other services to on-demand, at-home streaming models in 2007 offered another challenge for Orbit DVD. While many of his customers added various popular digital subscriptions to their viewing palettes, the bulk maintained the old-school, person-to-person activity of visiting a brick-and-mortar movie rental store.
“There are people who just want to watch TV or whatever new movie pops up on Netflix,” McCloud says. “And then there are people who want to come in, browse physical media, talk to a staff member and then make an informed choice.”
But McCloud notes that Rotten Tomatoes proved an even greater obstacle than streaming, particularly in convincing millennials to take risks on films that Orbit carried. Rather than ask a staffer’s opinion on the title, younger customers frequently looked up its aggregate score on the popular movie review site and based their decision on whether the film was deemed “Fresh” (60% or above) or “Rotten” (less than 60%).
“So many people would look up the rating and go, ‘Oh, it’s only at 40%.’ And I’m like, ‘That means 40% of people like it. That’s not a small number,’” McCloud says. “But [the younger generation] didn’t really have the video store experience as an adult where you talk to someone and just take a chance. I used to rent stuff just because of the cover — I had no idea what [the movie] was about.”
Last of a dying breed
These challenges weren’t as kind to other Asheville movie rental businesses. Rosebud Video on Charlotte Street closed in 2016 and Flick Video Leicester shut in 2018. Other than Redbox kiosks, which specialize in new releases, and public libraries, Orbit DVD was suddenly one of the only places in town to rent movies — and that too was about to change.
In 2020, restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered nonessential businesses. Unable to attract sufficient rental numbers, McCloud bet big on the rise in boutique DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K distributors (e.g., Arrow and The Criterion Collection), pivoted to a 100% sales model and started an online store. Physical media consumers in Asheville and around the world began expanding their collections and saved his business. McCloud says 2023 has been Orbit’s best year yet for sales.
“People think that physical media is dying — and it is if you look at the grand scope of things,” he says. “It’s like what happened with vinyl [records] in the ’90s. The major record companies stopped making vinyl, and like smaller companies took it upon themselves to keep pushing the format forward. That’s what’s happening with movies right now.”
Though McCloud notes that the rise in collecting began before the pandemic, the reliability of physical media has become increasingly attractive as streaming services have become anything but reliable — including with their own original content. In the past year, Max (formerly HBO) removed all four seasons of its Emmy-winning series “Westworld” and such self-produced films as Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches from its online offerings.
While both titles are available in disc form, Disney’s acclaimed limited series version of “Willow” — which was removed from Disney+ in May — has yet to be given a physical media release. Such actions give McCloud pause, and he thinks more such limitations could be on the horizon.
“Are they just going to bury [certain titles] and just not make them available? You just don’t know,” he says.
Doubling down on physical media and other prescient decisions have helped keep this purveyor of streaming alternatives around this long — to the point that McCloud is starting to see customers introduce their children to the movies they loved in their youths. He’s also looking into bringing back rentals on a small scale and, at least as long as Rangel owns Asheville Pizza & Brewing (which went on the market in October), continuing their occasional partnerships — potentially with an “Orbit Classics” series.
“If Marc had gone into ladies’ shoes and I’d opened a wine store, we would not have been where we are because it’s not a passion,” Rangel says. “I think Asheville appreciates that like nobody else. You have to be genuine about what you’re doing.”