When I was a teenager in the mid-to-late 1990s, there was a small, family-owned video store a block away called Home Video which I went to nearly every day. There was a Blockbuster Video a few blocks past that, but the Vietnamese family at Home Video didn’t ask for ID with R-rated releases and were friendlier people; they didn’t know a damn thing about movies other than the fact that people spent money to watch them. Occasionally, when renting some obscure film such as Pieces or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for the fourth or fifth time, the kind Vietnamese lady would say “You only one who watch movie. You own movie now.”
That kind of experience does not exist anymore, and I’m fine with that. Netflix, Hulu, streaming services, and the future have long since closed down Home Video – but that friendly Vietnamese family opened a donut shop in its place, they’re doing fine. The theory with the internet is that if something can exist in a digital format, you can easily get it “on demand.” The selection of movies to watch is infinite, giving one a greater chance at discovering new films and styles than a brick and mortar video store ever offered. Streaming services offer far more reliability than physical media; for instance how many times did you ever rent a DVD that ended up being scratched and unwatchable? The internet has created far more accessible circles of conversation for people to discuss movies outside the confines of a local few at a video store. As the industry moves towards a model of internet distribution and streaming – production companies are becoming far more creative in making money from their product. Physical Media such as DVDs are gone, the video store is never coming back. Don’t even get me started on VHS – those are long dead and nobody should ever want them back. VHS went the way of slavery, and we should be thankful.
I was inspired to address this topic for a variety of reasons. Primarily, there were two articles I came across today from VOX (I Worked in a Video Store for 25 Years…. http://www.vox.com/2015/11/20/9757186/netflix-video-rental-store and Streaming Will Never Live Up to Home Video http://www.vox.com/culture/2015/11/12/9724306/streaming-problems-netflix-hulu); this is in addition to the surprising amount of posts I see in my feed of overly nostalgic people mourning the loss of physical media. It frequently puzzles me as to why people feel that those were such better times, that the memory of a local video store will always be superior to streaming or on demand services. I grew up with a love for the video store too, I had a vast collection of VHS and later DVDs; I still think streaming is the greatest progress made for people who love movies. Let me address the “cons” of streaming as phrased by these articles and shared by the Luddites I see every day.
There’s a lot of great movies and television shows that Netflix has streaming right now. They also have a lot of crap and there’s a LOT of great movies they don’t have streaming at all. The same can be said about Amazon Prime, Hulu, or any of the dozen of streaming services available online or through a cable provider. There’s the argument about the necessity of having to pay monthly fees to all of these services in order to have a more complete library of available films, but even then there will be large gaps. No matter how much you spend, you can’t watch EVERY movie ever made the very instant you want to.
Do you know how difficult it would have been to marathon watch a television series in the 90s? My mother and I were fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation and video stores had a few random episodes available to rent. Different channels would broadcast reruns in no particular sequence and new episodes still aired once a week. We eventually watched every single episode, after many years, complete confusion about continuity, and many, MANY commercial breaks. Not having episodes readily available to experience was frustrating. For instance, no channel would really re-run the first season but the show would frequently bring back the character of Tasha Yar, who’s relevance only relied upon first season episodes. With streaming one can catch up on television shows both new and old at the click of a button. Shows are able to tell much more dramatic stories and develop stronger over-arching narratives because it’s much simpler for audiences to keep up with shows they like. You can utilize your monthly fee and take a few weeks to go through the entire run of a television show – or you can buy each season individually for $75-$100 apiece (even the shitty seasons which you still have to slog through because plot information is used in later, better seasons), and have DVDs that will take up space and collect dust once you’ve watched them.
Maybe you just heard about a great movie but it’s not available to stream on Netflix. Well there’s this site called Google, you might have heard of it. Piracy may always be an option (though not recommended), EVERY movie is available to you ethically.
Part of the nostalgia for the local video store was meeting people and the chance to discover a great movie you might not have seen otherwise. Well if the ONLY human being you ever talked to was the guy at the video store counter then your life was pretty pathetic before streaming services came along. If you confined yourself to the selection at a handful of video stores, then you didn’t really discover a whole lot of things. What, really, are people missing from then that they can’t get now?
If your local store didn’t have a movie then you had to go out and search in a myriad of different ways. The search was often fun, and there was a sense of accomplishment in FINALLY locating a copy of that film. I’m going to give you an example. In 1993, I came across a list on an online bulletin board (remember those?) of the “15 Most Shocking Movies Ever.” I printed off the list (with my loud-as-hell dot matrix printer) and kept it for a long time because it took me more than two decades to finally find every movie on that list.
Here’s that list (keep in mind, it was written in 1993)
– Found it for rent at a store in Staten Island, NY in 1999
- Last House on the Left
– Was available at my local store, watched in 1994
- Pink Flamingoes
– A box-set of John Waters films was released and made widely available in 1997
- Sweet Movie
– The last one on this list I finally watched – the first DVD I ordered from Netflix in 2010.
- The Wicker Man
– Found for sale at a Hastings in Colorado in 2000.
- Meet the Feebles
– Found for rent at a store several miles from my own in 1998
– Programmed my VCR to record as Turner Classic Movies aired this once at 3 in the morning in 1996.
- Men Behind the Sun
– Found for sale at a porn shop in 1998
- I Spit on Your Grave
– Found for sale at a video store while visiting Colorado in 1996
- Sleepaway Camp
– Found for sale at a Target in 1996
- Cannibal Holocaust
– Found for sale in New York in 1999
- Blood Feast
– A friend owned this on VHS and made me a copy in 1996.
– Found the rated version at a Blockbuster Video in 1995, found the “real” version of the movie at a store in New York in 1999.
- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
– Found for sale at a video store that was clearing inventory (bought along with ALL the Friday the 13th movies) in 1996
– Found for sale on e-bay in 2008
Today, if I came across a list like that (and there are thousands of lists like that out there), I could get through all the movies in a week. There would be forums where I could discuss them. They may not all be streaming with what I pay for a monthly fee, but I could easily order a digital copy from one site or another. There is also piracy but let’s keep this ethical.
While tracking down all those movies over the years I discovered plenty of others along the way, I met interesting people who shared a love for the same type of cinema and made some friends. I was introduced to a lot of other great movies – the human as an equivalent to a website’s ‘You Might Also Like…” algorithm. It was a great experience, however it’s not gone. The internet has allowed us to have conversations and become friends with strangers all the way around the world. It took me 5 years to find someone who’d even heard of Salo, more or less get a copy of the film. Today it would take mere moments to find a forum thread not just about Salo, discuss the movie with others and get plenty of recommendations from people of similar films. With resources such as imdb.com and even Wikipedia I can find out information about the director; what other films they’ve made and what other works inspired them.
The local video store limited you to their selection and the knowledge of the few people that worked there. The internet has replaced that with something much better.
Changes to the Industry
One may argue that streaming has had an extraordinarily negative impact on the film industry. There have been a lot of companies that once relied on home video and DVD sales that are now only making a fraction of that kind of money with streaming services. Hollywood companies have been taking far less risks on newer films because ticket sales have been dropping drastically over the past decade. Indeed, most of Hollywood now is centered around “event” films such The Hunger Games or The Avengers. Is this bad? No – it forces companies to be more creative in the development and distribution of their product. The mark of a healthy industry is it’s ever-evolving structures. No industry that has remained stagnant and not kept up with the times has ever succeeded. The film industry is no different, the changes made to it over the years have given us plenty of wonderful things – and they should continue to.
Film companies panicked when television came along, fearing it was the end of movie theaters. In the end, we got new aspect ratios, beautiful widescreen productions that rivaled what television had to offer. 16:9 is pretty much the norm – televisions and computer monitors are primarily sold in this “widescreen” format, and we have the competition of theaters vs television to thank for that.
When home video became easily affordable by consumers, the film and television industries once again panicked. In 1983 (http://cryptome.org/hrcw-hear.htm), according to Jack Valenti, the then head of the Motion Picture Association of America: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” But it was the testimony of Mr. Rogers, in favor of home video, that made the court rule in its favor:
“I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the ‘Neighborhood’ off-the-air … they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ … I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”
As a result we had VCRs and later DVDs in every home. We had the rise of the independent video producer, making features for direct-to-home distribution. No one was confined to the selection of films at their local theater – they now had a library of films available to them. Smaller production companies who would not have been able to afford wide distribution now had a way for their movies to be seen. These were major, positive changes that resulted from what people once felt was the death of the film industry. Production companies discovered how to make the most money for the anticipated home video release of their theatrical films.
Now we have streaming, and there are the usual doomsayers preaching their gospel of destruction – streaming will be the death of the film industry. People will always love movies, companies will adapt. Innovative entrepreneurs will find new ways to make the most from what is now the primary means of film distribution. A decade from now there will be something else, and a new generation of Luddites will say “Remember how great streaming was and all the great changes it brought? I miss that.”