"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
In Search of the Last Great Video Store
A few months back, I had a very specific movie craving — I wanted to watch FRESH HORSES, a 1988 romantic drama most notable for reteaming Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy after PRETTY IN PINK. It was a grey, chilly day in LA, and I was feeling nostalgic for spring in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio — FRESH HORSES was shot there. I was hoping I could capture some of the misty, late March vibes the movie evokes so well, and in doing so, take a cinematic field trip back home for a few hours.
So, I did what I usually do when looking for a movie in the year 2018: googled “FRESH HORSES streaming.” No results, not even for rental. So, I moved on to less legal methods, beginning with YouTube. After that failed, I pulled a maneuver I’ve been using for a decade: googling multiple variations of “watch FRESH HORSES online.” Even then, the best version of the movie I could find was a Polish dub.
FRESH HORSES isn’t a great movie, but that’s besides the point. Ben Stiller and Viggo Mortensen star alongside Ringwald and McCarthy, and the movie is only thirty years old — it should be available online with a few clicks. I definitely would’ve paid a few bucks to rent it via Amazon or Vudu, but those options weren’t available to me.
Why was it so difficult to stream or rent a thirty-year old movie with four major stars?
I remembered the last time I’d watched FRESH HORSES: I’d rented it from my local Blockbuster in Sharonville, Ohio as a teenager. Had there still been a Blockbuster (or any other video store) in my neighborhood, I would’ve jumped in the car, rented the movie, and been home in an hour. Instead, I had to settle for buying FRESH HORSES in a six-movie collection off of Amazon, which would come three days later.
But by then, the amorphous melancholy that inspired me to watch the movie in the first place had passed. Because I couldn’t access FRESH HORSES, I felt like I couldn’t fully process the restless nostalgia that spring always brings for me.
We all have our own FRESH HORSES: movies that transport us back to a specific location, time, and mood that only exists otherwise in the haziness of our own memories. When we can’t access these kinds of movies, it feels as if an essential pathway that connects us to our pasts — and our past selves — is lost too.
I think about the problems of how we watch movies now and “dead media” every day — and I have a house full of vinyl, VHS tapes, and Nintendo 64 games to prove it. I’ve been blessed (and cursed) by the collector gene — part of my drive to collect stems from an aesthetic appreciation, but there’s another more practical reason for my collecting too.
Whether it’s a twenty-five year old cassette of a WOXY radio broadcast or a permanently out-of-print Stephen King collection, I hold onto these physical objects because I know one day they just won’t be available elsewhere. Given the extremely fickle nature of online availability, I’m the rare person who’s doubled-down on physical media in the last few years: I sleep better at night knowing that my out-of-print DVD of GAS FOOD LODGING is tucked away on a shelf.
I’ve skipped out on a number of disc releases for films like POSSESSION (1981) and LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS in the last few years, and those editions now go for around fifty bucks each. Sure, I can rent STAINS or buy it for the cloud, but who can say how long those options will remain available to me? And POSSESSION isn’t currently available anywhere to stream or buy online — it can be rented from MUBI, but for how long?
We all like to assume that the movies and television shows we love will be available with a click whenever we want them — one can now buy an Amazon button for Doritos, after all — but the stability of what media is available online (and how long it stays there) is quite tenuous. “You are not in control of what you have access to — you are picking from a small library that’s always rotating,” says Maggie Mackay, Board Chair and Executive Director of Vidiots.
Streaming Killed the (Chain) Video Store
“Once a video store owns a title, they have it for years, regardless of if it goes out of print or if the film’s rights holder goes out of business or sells their catalogue to another studio or service.” — Eric Allen Hatch
At the company’s peak in 2004, there were 9,000 Blockbusters operating in North America — today, only three remain open in Alaska. When Movie Gallery began to see a slump in sales in 2007, they were operating more than 4,500 locations in North America (including Hollywood Video, which they acquired in 2005 after an attempt at a hostile takeover from Blockbuster.) Movie Gallery filed for bankruptcy in 2010 — like Blockbuster, only three independently franchised locations remain open in Arkansas.
Rentrak estimates that 19,000 video stores were open across America during the industry’s peak. In December 2017, 24/7 Wall St. reported that 86% of the 15,300 video stores that were open in 2007 had closed, and the industry had lost more than 89% of its workforce, making video tape and disc rental the “top dying industry” in America.
Global chains like Rogers Plus, Video Ezy ,and Xtra-vision have folded as well, though Video Ezy still operates rental kiosks like Redbox. Only a few international chains — Le SuperClub Videotron in Canada, Culture Convenience Club in Japan, Civic Video in New Zealand and Australia — remain open.
Over five billion rentals have come through 40,000 Redbox kiosks since the company’s launch in 2002 — they now control 51% of the physical rental market in the US. But even the biggest Redbox machine only holds around 600 discs, covering up to 200 titles — no match for even a tiny video store.
...The idea that beloved, superlative films like CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE can only be accessed with a subscription to an arthouse/classic focused streaming service is quite frankly insane. THE GODFATHER trilogy is now available on Netflix, but that’s only been the case since January of 2018. Even something as ubiquitous as STAR WARS is only available in its first, unedited iteration as a VHS box set from 1995 — and the original trilogy isn’t currently streaming anywhere.
And of course, most major streaming platforms are deep into the original content game. Netflix has released 25 original films and added 7.4 million new subscribers thus far in 2018 — that’s as many releases as the six major studios combined. They plan to release 80 films by the end of the year. The focus on new content creation over the preservation of and access to catalogue titles for most streaming services is quite clear.
...How will we create new movie lovers when we’ve taken away one of the easiest entry points to learning about and loving film? When so few classic films are available to stream? When no one offers them a guide of how to understand cinema’s history? How do we assure that most films, even something like FRESH HORSES, are available to anyone who wants to watch them? What happens to Hollywood history when films aren’t being protected, preserved, and well-presented as we jump to each new technological platform?
These questions keep me up at night, and keep me worried about what the future of home-viewing (and the next generation of film fans) looks like.
So for me, there’s only one solution: we have to go in search of the last great video store.