There are a lot of reasons why 2010, in future years, will be looked on as a major turning point in home entertainment, but the collapse of Blockbuster and its descent into bankruptcy symbolizes how new distribution platforms have irreparably altered the way we consume entertainment. Rental revenue has dropped from a peak high of $8.37 billion in 2001 to $3.65 billion in 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal – a shakeout that’s affected not just the behemoths, but smaller operations.
But a few days before Christmas this year, I was walking around my neighborhood when I saw something I didn’t quite expect: A giant “STORE CLOSING” sign on the West Hollywood 20/20 Video, one branch of a now-defunct rental chain so tiny that I can’t even find an official website for it.
Given how much reporting we do on things like industry execs dismissing physical media and the impressive rise of Netflix, 20/20’s shutdown wasn’t shocking news. However, as I’d had an account at this store for almost a decade, I was kind of sad to see it go, and thus went inside to buy one of its clearance DVDs. You know, just for old times’ sake.
The DVD I ended up purchasing right off the rental rack was the unedited edition of Crackle’s Angel of Death, which I haven’t seen all the way through since 2008, and is only sometimes online — unlike so many of the films available for $4.99 or less that day. (I didn’t realize the irony of the purchase until I walked out the door.)
Oddly, while there’s little more depressing than a going-out-of-business sale, the clerk who rang me up was surprisingly calm about the whole thing. “Can’t blame it on the economy,” he said. “We just got trumped by technology.”
As DVD sales drop and streaming services rise, it’s an inevitable part of the future that video stores will be reduced to curiosities our kids might ask about. Antiquities.
I’ve always had a fond spot in my heart for the video rental store: When I was growing up, going to Blockbuster was a very special Friday night treat — one I looked forward to — and I also spent a combined three years as a teenager and post-college graduate behind the counter of independent video stores, renting and returning titles for minimum wage and all the free movies a girl could ask for.
Video stores were never going to win when it came to convenience. Late fees were a pain; new releases would get checked out fast; and classic titles would be understocked. But there’s a lot about the physical rental experience that we as a culture are going to miss.
No matter how good Netflix’s algorithms get, they’re never going to be as good as the well-versed movie geek behind the counter, reading your body language and knowing just what movie you need to watch that night. Being able to physically engage with the merchandise, to hold a title in your hands and gauge whether you want to see it, is another lost experience. In terms of supplying information, a full-scale DVD case beats a thumbnail image and brief summary every time.
I’m fully aware this is all very “vinyl sounds better!” But the impact stretches further than just nostalgia. As watching a movie at home becomes so much easier, the effect is that it becomes much less of an event. With tens of thousands of titles available through Netflix, the act of throwing on a movie becomes background noise while multitasking .
As inconvenient as it might have been to rush to the video store on Sunday afternoon to make sure you got your two-day rental back on time, the odds were good that you made sure to watch that movie Friday night or Saturday night. You sat down with it. You paid attention to it.
In general, we’re so much more casual in how we engage with media today, which is the flip side of convenience, and the video store’s decline is only one symptom of that.
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