In the last year two of the nation’s largest home video rental retailers, Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery, have gone out of business and Blockbuster Video has filed for bankruptcy. Both of these not so surprising events have gotten me to thinking about the early days of the home video rental business. You see kids, there was a time before the internet and streaming video. And there was a time before dvd and even vhs. I know this is a radical concept but it’s true. Before the vcr became affordable (roughly $400) if you wanted to see a movie you had to wait until the studio decided to re-release it to theaters or one of the three (yes, only three) networks secured the rights to air a re-cut, sanitized version suitable for broadcast. This was both cool and maddening all at once.
I got to see a lot of classic movies in the theater. Some of them were first run (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and some of them were re-releases (all the classic Disney cartoons and seriously, I saw Stars Wars so many times in the theater it’s not funny). Once again, this was before the internet so finding out that these movies were coming back to theaters meant either seeing television spots or seeing the print ad in the movie section of the newspaper. Either of these finds would lead to massive discussion at the lunchroom table. The anticipation was intense. But then something happened. I started hearing about this new device called a vcr that would play movies on your television. This was the best news I had ever heard! Now I could watch Star Wars any time I wanted, kind of.
What the movie studios figured out was that a) they couldn’t make people pay to see their movies over and over and b) this meant they had to re-release these films one last time before finally releasing it to home video and possibly never seeing another dime of revenue due to this new technology allowing consumers to make illegal copies and distributing said copies to everyone in the world. Sound familiar? Through all this the accepted time frame for video release was about six months after its initial theater release. This model still exists.
The advent of the vcr also led to a lot of video stores opening and closing in a small amount of time. One other phenomenon was that grocery and convenience stores got into the home video business. I remember vividly the small convenience store at the end of my street having a modest rental section for a couple years. I also remember them always being out of the movies I wanted to see. Kroger also entered into the business and their video rental section lasted into the late nineties when dvds took control of the market.
As time wore on most of the smaller “mom & pop” stores closed or moved into the adult business. This was mainly due to the price of vhs tapes. The movie studios charged rental stores an ungodly amount of money for the movies. This coupled with the potential for someone to rent a movie the store paid upwards of $100 for and never returning the tape was a little too much risk for some retailers. The six months after release schedule was only for rental. To own a copy of your own there was usually another six month window before the price came down to a reasonable $19.99. It was several years before I finally had a copy of Star Wars for my own.
In the late nineties I worked for Movie Gallery. I never knew the movie Clerks was a documentary until I had that job. At that time the big two (Hollywood Video and Blockbuster) had an unbreakable hold on the industry. And it was a very popular and profitable industry. I remember having to work on Christmas day in 1998. I thought this was ludicrous. Little did I know that I would have a line waiting outside the door when we finally opened the doors at one o’clock in the afternoon. When I left that company in 1999 dvd was starting create a buzz. By the year 2000 dvd had established itself as the new media of choice. George Lucas saw a new way to make money.
Over the last decade the brick and mortar rental store has taken a massive hit and led to Movie Gallery buying Hollywood Video then both closing their doors forever. Blockbuster Video has also had many financial troubles and look to be on the verge of closing as well. With the current state of media flux the future of home video looks to be in the digital download. Although Blu-Ray is trying to keep a foothold on tangible media I think it is time to just accept Netflix as the future. But I do like to reminisce about those early days of the video store. I spent a lot of time browsing over the shelves in a store with walls covered in movie posters. And on those shelves I discovered a love of movies. A part of me feels like a piece of pop culture was suddenly silenced.