For many of us, the weekend (and often the mid-week) used to bring the ritual of heading out to the video store to grab the latest releases for weekend viewings.
Row after row on shelf after shelf would be filled with the brightly colored boxes — once VHS, later DVDs and Blu-rays — of titles old and new available for rent. Often there would be the tables displaying used titles available for purchase at sometimes ridiculously low prices. But room had to be found for the purchased items; rentals offered the opportunity to watch, return and move on. And if you were lucky, there was a clerk who had some understanding of movies and TV, so you could talk about what you were renting and what else might be good.
Of course, I also remember the days when the remainder bins at Woolworth’s were full of discounted, mono copies of vinyl records that made their way onto other shelves in my home.
Now those records, though still cherished, are considered antiques. And when was the last time anyone saw a Woolworth’s?
Even though last week’s column was in part a lament over entertainment technologies outpacing many consumers, the pace does not slow. That was clear yet again this week with the announcement that Blockbuster owner Dish Network will close its last 300 video-rental stores by January 2014.
Some stores not owned by the company, but operating as Blockbuster franchises, will remain open for a time. But according to a Blockbuster spokesman, there are only about 50 franchised stores in the U.S. and none in Ohio.
The closings continue the decline of a company that used to be the place for video rentals, so dominant that it squeezed out many mom-and-pop stores that had been at the forefront of the video-rental game.
While there are still video-rental outlets to be found, notably the Family Video chain, the marketplace could no longer support big, bold Blockbuster. Not when there was a Redbox outlet outside seemingly every grocery-store and pharmacy entrance, as well as the likes of Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime offering digital downloads and streaming video of movies online to eager consumers.
In fact, it’s all that online business that Blockbuster blamed for its latest cuts, since it is also closing its DVD-by-mail business. In a statement announcing the shutdowns, Dish said Blockbuster’s streaming services would continue. And Dish President Joseph P. Clayton said, “Consumer demand is clearly moving to digital distribution of video entertainment.”
Once again, our viewing habits are changing. The idea of going out to rent a movie — not to mention all those rom-coms where a suitor brings over a movie for a quiet evening of watching and canoodling — is fading fast. Instead, a young couple is more likely to see what’s available online, not only from the services already mentioned but also from Hulu and its subscription version, Vudu or Redbox Instant (the online companion to those vending machines) — or sites set up specifically by individual programmers to showcase their wares.
In some respects, this is an advance for consumers. You don’t have to make that drive to a location to find a movie, And rental stores like Blockbuster were often a pain. If you didn’t get to the store on time, other renters had beaten you to every copy of the new releases. Late fees could prove exorbitant. The myth of indestructible DVDs could be shattered by a previous renter who had used a title as a coaster. For that matter, DVDs-by-mail could arrive with lovely, postal-inflicted cracks down the middle.
Streaming video and downloads seem, then, to look better. But here, too, there are issues and not only the esthetic, tactile shift from saying, “Look, honey, I brought you a video,” to “Here, honey, you hold the remote.”
I mentioned a while back that Netflix had been caught showing movies in aspect ratios that did not match that of the original film. Consumers may have to visit different sites to find movies in HD, or to find the movies at all.
At Halloween, I saw a child in a homemade Ghostbusters outfit; even though the two original movies date to 1984 and 1989, the kid had discovered them not from his folks’ DVD collection but because the first film was being featured on Netflix.
Only the first film, mind you. Try to get Ghostbusters 2 on Netflix, and you’re told it’s not available to stream but is “on Netflix DVD.” Hop over to Amazon.com, and it’s on Instant Video — but to buy, not to rent.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio,com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio,com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.