About Me

My photo
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Friday, June 3, 2011

RIP The Video Store 1977-2012

May 29, 2011. A crappy rainy Sunday.

I show up at my local Blockbuster to return a couple of Blu-rays I had rented last week. The rain and the wind are drizzling in my face so I keep my head down until I am well into the store.

As I walk in, I'm debating whether I should look around for something else to rent or just take a quick look at the sales in the "previously enjoyed"  section.

Just as I drop my movies into the return slot, I realize something is up. I have not heard the mandatory happy "Bonjour! Hi!" greeting from even one Blockbuster employee. 

I look around the store. Holy crap. There's lots of people here. 

I think about that for a second. Well, it is raining and often the video stores do get busy when it rains. No. No. Wait a sec. What is this? 1983?

As I look at the multitude of unusually empty shelves, the situation becomes glaringly obvious. The rumors of imminent Blockbuster store closings have come to pass. The giant that had stumbled and fallen some time ago is now breathing his last breathe.

Suddenly, the obsessive compulsive movie collector part of my brain takes control. I immediately head to the Blu-ray section. 

How long has this liquidation sale been going on? Will any decent movies still be left?

At the same time, in the back of my mind, the historical significance of the moment is not lost on me. The video store, as we know it, is facing its Armageddon (oh, I got plenty more metaphors like that coming, my friends).

We're not just talking the dying Blockbuster giant either. Another smaller independent video store near my home has not stocked a new release in like three months. Another one nearby simply does not stock Blu-ray discs. Another is continually liquidating a large part of their inventory.

The video store will soon join vinyl records, Steinberg's, a divided Germany, the slide ruler, Miracle Mart and the Soviet Union as established institutions that I have seen disappear in my lifetime. However, unlike all those other things, I have also witnessed the birth of the video store.
Check out the channel dials on this baby

First hand.

My first job ever  was in a video store (well, if you don't count delivering papers for The Montreal Star for a week before they shut down forever). I worked in the very first video store on the suburban West Island of Montreal, in fact. 

I started working there in 1981. The place could not have been open more than a year. The entire concept of the video store was not even five years old at the time.

The first commercially available video recorders dated back as far as 1963. However, the first truly commercially viable VCR's and accompanying tapes, first appeared around 1976. I remember there was this big article in Playboy magazine (see? even back then I was reading it for the articles) with a picture of one those big clunky 70's VCR's in front of the 70's version of King Kong with the banner title of "Johnny Carson Watch Your Ass". The article predicted that these new cool video machines were going to put an irreversible dent into conventional TV viewing.

Uh-huh. Yeah. Right. Got any other brilliant predictions there, guys?

The original idea of the VCR was that it would be used pretty much exclusively for what we now in the PVR age call "timeshifting". You'd be able to record TV shows that you weren't actually able to watch on TV  when they aired. Speaking as a kid who, on account of his bed time, was only able to watch the first half of every James Bond movie, believe me, this was a truly revolutionary concept.

The idea of watching prerecorded tapes of previously theatrically released movies was not on anybody's radar. What a ridiculous waste of state of the art tech that would be! Besides the concept had already been tried and failed, miserably, back in 1972 (along with an equally unsuccessful early VCR).

This a Sony VCR commercial from 1977. Note the only feature they're pushing is recording.

I remember seeing this ad on TV when it first aired. The reaction of those cab drivers is really not that out there.

Circa 1976, there was this small company known as Magnetic Video who had been in business-doing something or other- since 1968. These guys went to 20th Century Fox studios and asked for a licensing deal to put one or more of the studio's films on a videocassette and sell it. The reported response from Fox was "Um, yeah. whatever. Here we'll give you...um...I dunno...umm...how about the movie version of M*A*S*H...for...ah...I dunno...just give us...like...$10,000 for the rights, okay?".

By 1977, Magnetic Video had 50 different movie titles available for sale on Betamax cassette as well as on the much lesser upstart video format known as VHS. A Los Angeles based entrepreneur named George Atkinson opened up the first store front video rental outlet in December of that year. Having blown all his capital buying 100 movies on video (reportedly about 25 bucks a pop in 1977), Atkinson hit on the idea of an annual "membership fee" of $50 in addition to the cassette rental fee of $10 a day. This video stuff was still just for the rich folk.

In a response not unlike the industry's response to the recent issue of video downloads, Atkinson was threatened with a major lawsuit for renting the videos. The lawsuit lasted until one of the high priced lawyers working for the big Hollywood studios discovered that, yes, in fact, actually, renting the tapes is completely legal under US copyright laws.

Thus the way was paved for my first job.

So 4 years later I'm working at one of the first video rental stores in the city, possibly the country. Videologue is the name of the store. It was the the one and only store of its kind for for miles and miles around.

The place was tiny. The store's first location did not even have a proper store front. We were located in rented office space in and amongst a bunch of actual business offices upstairs from an itsy bitsy mall. That did not slow down business in any way.

The news of the store spread far and wide. Early technology adapters came from all over. Such luminaries as the host of the CTV game show, The Mad Dash, Pierre Lalonde, and the lead singer of Canadian 70's arena rock back, April Wine, Miles Goodwyn, frequented the store. It was the video store to see and be seen in.

We were in on the ground floor of the 80's video boom. By 1982, there were any number of other video stores in the neighborhood. Some of them even had store fronts.

Once Videologue did finally moved to a store front location, it was not uncommon to have people (especially older folk), walk in off the street and ask, "What kind of a store is this?".

And, yes, back then, the store would get very busy every time it rained.

In my time working at Videologue, I experienced many of the significant milestones in the history of the video rental industry. For instance, I remember listening to all our techno geek customers complaining endlessly about how the crappy VHS cassettes completely took over the video market from the clearly far superior Betamax system.

We also sold VCR's. The place went nuts when we started stocking the first ever VCR to fall below $800...in 1982 dollars.

Walmart now sells a DVD player for $20
In 1983, Paramount Home Video sent us an endless amount of promotional posters for the upcoming home video release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The studio was using one of their hottest properties to take the "massive gamble" (as all the fairly new home video trades at the time called it) of marketing movies on VHS at the consumer friendly price of just $19.95. Up till then movies on video cassette were priced primarily for video rental stores and not for general retail sale. Some movies cost as much as $110 a tape. Only the super rich uber movie geeks actually bought movies in those days. We sold more big screen projection TV's than we did movies.

So Paramount Home Video was banking on the fact that, in addition of rental revenues, even more money could be made off of movie sales, as long as the the price was right. Anyone who buys videos today, knows which way their "massive gamble" went (come to think of it, given the nature of Trek fandom, it wasn't really that big a gamble at all).

The big VHS marketing experiment as it appeared in 1983

Industry milestone, yes. Good movie,not really.
Another seminal 80's movie was Conan the Barbarian. Sorry, Arnie fans (those of you that are still left) I'm only talkin' industry terms here. I remember the trades being all a buzz about how this Conan movie had the unique virtue of being the first film to make more money on video than in its intial theatrical release. It was not long till there was suddenly movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster, Barbarian Queen and other low budget muscles, babes and bad dialogue epics filled our shelves.

Then there were the movies.

Just like today in video stores, movies play on TV's in the store. They play, ostensibly to promote the store's product, but, in practice those movies are more to keep the employees from getting bored when things are slow.

Bingo for me too!

I got to see so many movies while working at Videologue. Well, when it wasn't raining, anyway.

At the time of the initial home video release of the original Star Wars, for instance, the movie played in our store on a seemingly constant endless loop for the entire summer of '82. Almost all of the Star Wars lines and references I know today were picked up during those screenings (BTW, it did say "Episode IV: A New Hope" on the screen even then....but Han Solo still fired first).

In addition to Star Wars, I got to catch up with many other movies. I'd watch films that I liked the first time around in the theatre, had not seen yet, missed, didn't get around to or just wasn't all that interested in to begin with. The ones that stick out in my mind are are Flashdance, Forbidden Planet, An Officer and a GentlemanFantastic Voyage, Ragtime, Flash Gordon, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Body HeatThe Longest Day, Annie Hall, The Great Muppet Caper, Alien,The African Queen, Airplane!, The Thing [Blu-ray] and (my boss's fave,sadly) Porky's .

Most importantly, though, I finally saw the final half of all those James Bond movies.

It was year before I got to see how Bond took this guy out.

I worked at Videologue until 1984. I was laid off when business started getting just a little bit too slow. By then, chain video stores were muscling out most of the small mom and pop outfits like ours (though, the chains then were still mostly regional then). Videologue was struggling. A license to print money transformed into a tough and highly competitive business in just three years. The store was just not able to keep up with the growing competition from chains with much more resources at their disposal. Videologue went out of business not long after I left.

Fgiggin' amazing job while it lasted, though.

After that, I moved off the West Island and into the Montreal borough known as NDG (my hood ever since).

My first week in the 'DG, I landed a job at Avenue Video on Monkland ave. That store is still there. If there is anyone from Avenue Video reading this, I would just like to point out that your sign is wrong. It reads "Avenue Video. Since 1986". I worked there in 1984.

That job did not last long. Turns out they didn't actually need to hire another employee when they hired me (huh?) so I was let go after three weeks.

From there on in, I was a purely a spectator and customer of the video industry.

The industry continued to boom. The gap between video release and theatrical release and video release got shorter. It went from what was often years to matter of months. That was largely thanks to these guys....

The giant US and Canadian corporate Blockbuster video chain moved in the 90's.  Many of the smaller stores and chains still held in there, nonetheless.

Around the year 2000, the first nail hit the coffin of the video rental industry.  The home video digital format had been a long time coming. The public immediately embraced the medium of the DVD.  So much so that many DVD sales of catalog films (as they say in the biz) would often out-gross the theatrical box office revenues of current movies.

Video stores had to keep up. In the space of just five years, almost all their inventory had to repurchased in the DVD format. Some of those stores had thousands of titles. Even with the popularity of the format, that still must have meant some serious financial demands on the stores. Then the whole process started happening again a few years later with the Blu-ray format.

Then the good ol' Internet mucked everything up. Just as the VCR put an irreversible dent in conventional TV watching 25 years earlier, the Internet put an irreversible dent in conventional video viewing in the first decade of the 21st century. Zip.ca, Netflix, both legal and illegal digital downloads presented competition that the video rental store could just not match. Blockbuster attempted their own version of Zip and Netflix but, alas, it was far too late.

The video store industry is now on life support. It just lost a major organ with the demise of Blockbuster. Some higher brain functions may still stay in place for some time to come. For instance, stores like Montreal's own Boit Noire, that cater to a clientele of niche cinephiles, could still last a few years longer.

Overall, though, I predict the video rental store will last until next year, 2012. I only say that so that the industry's dates, 1977-2012, make a nice even 35 years.

In these days of slow work in my chosen field, I often find myself toying with the idea of getting a job in a video store once again. It would be fascinating to be in on the death of the industry just as I was in on its birth.

And, oh, yeah, for those of you still keeping track, last Sunday I picked up the Blu-ray disc editions of Casino Royale , I Am Legend The Terminator and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull  for a combined total of about 21 bucks.

The death of the video store industry is bittersweet indeed.

I got this disc home and watched the first half of the movie before going to bed, just for old time's sake

No comments:

Post a Comment