Tom Butts / From the Editor
11.14.2013 07:55 PM
End of An Era
So long, physical media
Tom Butts
When I moved to the Northern Virginia area 20 years ago, I discovered a small shop called the “Video Vault.” Nestled among the tony townhouses of Old Town, Alexandria, the Vault was a film buffs’ paradise—a three-story home converted into a video rental store with small rooms stuffed with everything from current releases to the cultest of cult classics. Variety and diversity was the name of the game at the Video Vault and I would spend hours perusing the racks for just the right hard-to- find movie or TV show.

About 10 years ago, after leaving the area, I returned to the store to find it had closed down—who knows why. Maybe it was the high rent, maybe the owners decided to leave the area (the store actually took its rental business online). But it also coincided with the beginning of the end of what had been predicted for years—the demise of the neighborhood video rental store.

I thought about the Video Vault the other day after hearing that Blockbuster was closing its approximately 300 remaining U.S.-based retail stores, as well as its distribution centers, and shuttering its DVD-by-mail service. The company, which at its peak in 2004, had more than 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees, was a very public victim of advancing compression and broadband technologies, as well as the good ‘ole U.S. Postal Service. Blockbuster, and its rival service Hollywood Video, had a tough time fighting off various competitors, whether it was Netflix, which exploded onto the scene in the early part of the last decade with its DVD-by-mail rental service; Redbox, whose kiosks are ever-present in just about every grocery store in the country, or video-on-demand through pay-TV, as well as, you guessed it, Netflix and Redbox streaming services. By the time Blockbuster launched its own DVD-by-mail rental service, it was too late.

For those of us who came of age when the VCR became almost as important as the living room TV set, video rental stores were a neighborhood staple and, for many, a favorite gathering spot for film buffs. Even Blockbuster had a decent variety of titles that satisfied my thirst for discovering a hidden gem. I consider myself a fairly “early adopter,” and welcomed Netflix’s fledgling streaming service with an open wallet when it entered the scene five to six years ago. I found myself visiting my local rental store less and less frequently.

But lest one get too wistful about the demise of such enterprises, there were a lot of negatives with the video rental experience, from late fees to surly clerks. And for the environmentally conscious among us, streaming is a lot more “green” than using physical media. Like so many technology transitions today, my initial response to Blockbuster’s announcement was a brief wave of nostalgia, followed by a realization that overall, the negatives outweighed the positives, resulting in a shoulder shrug of resignation. Its time has come and gone, but I won’t miss it.

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Posted by: Tim Stoffel
Mon, 12-02-2013 07:06 PM Report Comment
I remember the independent video stores, including the Beta(max)-only rental stores in northeast Wisconsin long after they had disappeared elsewhere. I won't miss Blockbuster, though. One of the original owners of Blockbuster got interested in big cats at a Texas facility. Then, he used his considerable resources to wrest it from its owner, leaving the owner with the shirt on her back and little else. That sort of greed is reprehensible, and I consider Blockbuster's demise due in part to punishment for that act. They were also known for apparently censoring movies, another thing that kept me from doing business with them. As far as physical media goes, I like to hold the media in my hand. Its mine. No one is likely to take it from me. I can watch it whenever I want. I can own as much of it as I have room to store it. I am not limited to what a DVR can hold. And the lowly DVD still gives a better image than most streaming services. If physical media disappears entirely, I will simply stop consuming media, rather than pay, pay, pay for inferior (non)copies thereof. The greedy, control-freak DRM people are winning. We are all as consumers, losing.

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