City & Politics, Essay

The quick drop of video rental

Movie night at home in Winnipeg (or anywhere else, really) ain’t what it used to be.

In a lot of ways, in the last few years, getting a movie for the evening has gotten simpler (sort of) and more convenient (sort of), if you’re handy and have the right infrastructure in your neighbourhood and your home. And if you can afford the hookups.

But, in the autumn of 2011, as the video rental giants started to fall in Winnipeg, it was apparent that if you weren’t an early (or even mid-stream) adopter of Netflix or video-on-demand or whatever, you were in for a surprise and a period of adjustment.

Previously, there had been a ritual on movie night, mostly having to do with heading on down to the video store to see what was in stock. It’s a ritual that, through the new technological conveniences, is probably on its way out.

Last year, the rental giant Blockbuster shut down in Winnipeg, with the only evidence of their existence being the big yellow and blue ticket-shaped signs left behind. Just months later, it was announced that Rogers would be closing down their own red-and-black-and-white stores. The hipster crowd wasn’t immune to the culling, either, with the closing and moving of Movie Village, that cultural landmark of Osborne Village, so that Shoppers Drug Mart could sell more condoms and diapers.

When I was younger, I’d scope out every new neighbourhood I moved into for the best local video store. When I went to stay with my dad and stepmom in the summers as a teen, we checked out the Burnaby video stores on Hastings. One of my brother’s first jobs was at a video store in River Heights. I still think of the video store where I used to rent bad science fiction with high school friends; it was in a strip mall that’s still there, but hasn’t been a video store for awhile. I can’t remember its name. When I lived in Japan, to avoid late fees, I once walked a movie back to the video store at the start of a typhoon, with the tape wrapped in two plastic bags (mostly for the experience; it hadn’t really started blowing at that point, but the clerk was still shocked). But it’s all changing.

This all had been foretold to me. Back in the 1980s, when I was attending the U of W, I remember one of my professors in one of my introductory courses telling us that all those quirky little neighbourhood video places that we loved – each one was slightly different – were doomed. My professor’s theory followed some economic rule that an industry like video rental would initially start with smaller, privately owned outlets, then would eventually be overtaken by fewer, larger, and more central locations owned by corporate chains. (Of course, he used more technical terms than I just did.)

Of course, I didn’t believe him. Right around that time, at one of the places we patronized, you could pick up a hard copy, stapled printout of their catalogue; a typewritten list of every movie that they had.

But what the economics professor said is exactly what happened. The place with the typewritten list closed down within years and is now a restaurant. My professor’s prophecy eventually came true, and most of my memberships ended up being at corporate places.

Like video rental, the rest of the entertainment industry is rapidly changing. Bookstores are apparently on their way out, too, we’re told (though I believe I’ll see that mythical paperless office before I see a city without a bookstore). If HMV closes, I couldn’t tell you a where you could find a dedicated CD store. I like pointing out to my kids the places where individual, one-screen movie theatres used to be, as opposed to the multiplexes that they are used to.

We’re approaching a time where soon you may not be able to carry a movie in your hand, unless it’s stored on a USB drive. Netflix has come to Canada, offering a stream of movies that travel down the cables into your home, as light as an aerosol spray, and ether can’t be scratched or returned late. And those VOD services that you order through your remote control are another option, but strangely cost you as much as the old bricks-and-mortar places used to charge. The actual stores, though, had to rent out space and employ twenty-somethings. Sure, it’s supply and demand, but that doesn’t mean VOD isn’t wildly overpriced.

But if you don’t feel like patronizing Netflix, and you don’t want to pay the high fees for VOD, what options are left? There are these new kiosks at Safeway, which rent out DVDs for less than $2. Also, the public library has a great selection of DVDs to rent, though you may have to wait a while to get what you want, and they sometimes get lost or otherwise get pretty beat up on their way to your player. As well, library hours aren’t always that convenient, especially if you want to spontaneously rent something.

So, the other day, I went back in time. I realized that my professor never told us what happens after the industry coalesces, after all the big, centralized, corporate places close down. Apparently, some of the relics in the economic model were able to survive.

At the counter of one of the few neighbourhood video places remaining in the city, I asked what they needed for a membership. It cost a couple bucks, I needed three pieces of ID, and they had to take my picture. Turns out they charge about half the fee that Rogers used to charge for a new movie; I should have been patronizing the place all along. The joint is a little less slick and more crowded than Rogers or Blockbuster, but the place employs a few young guys and you can still ask them questions if you need help. There’s an element of fate about the place, too; if anything isn’t in the new movie section, it’s gathered on racks that are neither organized by genre nor alphabet. Good luck with finding something specific.

That first night, I rented Rango for the family. It came free with my membership. The next day, I returned Rango. Of course, I was late. But that, too, was always part of the ritual.


Jim Chliboyko is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him at: @jchliboyko

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