A Long Tale
The signs of the collapse of the video rental industry are everywhere. Or at least they were in 2010 and 2011. Driving around Ann Arbor, Michigan, I watched as all the local stores closed for business, from the independently owned Liberty Street Video, down the street from my office, to the various Blockbuster and Hollywood Video locations (figure 2). At the time of this writing, the only places left in town to rent movies are a gas station, the public library, and the Redbox kiosks outside my grocery store and pharmacy. There is almost no indication that there were ever any video stores in Ann Arbor at all. Instead, there are new businesses in these locations or For Lease signs in the windows.
The disappearance of the video stores in Ann Arbor is a local instance of a national trend. But what is remarkable is that these closures appear so unremarkable to so many people. Aside from the occasional article in a newspaper or trade publication, or the odd blog post devoted to nostalgically celebrating rental stores, the waning of the video rental industry seems to have gone unnoticed by the everyday Americans who were once these stores' customers. It is likely that many of these people stopped using their video stores long before the businesses closed; their disinterest made them oblivious to the industrial change they engendered. If the video store was no longer a landmark in these people's minds, then it disappeared as a genuine landmark as well. Perhaps these places were never landmarks in the first place.
Whether they were seen as important or not, video stores were vital components of the mainstream media industry and everyday Americans' lives for nearly twenty-five years. The first video rental stores appeared in 1977, shortly after Hollywood films were first licensed for release on magnetic tape. By 1987, revenue from home video releases overtook the theatrical box office. Whereas there was no such thing as the video store in 1976, there were about 30,000 such places in 1989. As a point of comparison, there were around 22,000 theatrical movie screens in this same year, and many fewer theatrical locations. This represents a profound change in the landscape of movie culture in America over the course of the 1980s, one that would obtain through the 1990s until the rental industry began to fragment and dissipate in the early 2000s. Certainly people still went to theaters to see movies during this era, or watched them at home on broadcast and cable television, but these venues were now just two options among many for accessing movies. Video stores were a common part of the American media landscape. Yet most of these places have disappeared as suddenly as they appeared.
Whereas other chapters in this book look at the internal space of video stores and their place within specific communities, this chapter examines the place of video stores within American media culture at large. The home video industry facilitated and reacted to subtle but deep changes in the ways that Americans related to entertainment in general and to movies in particular. Video rental stores expanded, localized, and fragmented movie culture. In their rapid growth and geographic spread, video stores created a new abundance of venues in which people could engage with movies and movie culture. They gave people access to movies as tangible, portable objects, and Americans treated them as a new and proper venue for acquiring movies. Video stores were mainly located amid the habitually trafficked retail landscape; in this respect, they made movie culture casual and routine by expanding it into Americans' everyday public spaces. The fact that these locations appeared alongside and similar to bookstores, record shops, and other retail sites that encouraged habitual use meant that video stores were easily assimilated into the cultural geography of diverse locations across the country.
Further, video stores increased Americans' degree of access to movie culture. Both Joshua Greenberg and Frederick Wasser have discussed how a diverse population of numerous entrepreneurs opened video stores across the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Suddenly, a large number and wide variety of businesses and individuals participated in "the movie business." Just as importantly, video stores gave everyday shoppers a larger number of movie options to choose from. They fostered a conception of media abundance and catered to people's sense of entitlement to this abundance (even if the selection the stores offered was actually quite limited). They appealed to Americans' sense of individualism by appealing to their individualized tastes (even if most people watched a limited number of Hollywood films). Video stores dispersed and fragmented movie culture, turning Americans into media shoppers by catering to their individualized movie desires.
This chapter begins with an examination of the historical, technological, and cultural factors that shaped the development of the video rental business. Americans had long been accustomed to watching movies on television as well as shopping for cultural goods in public retail spaces. Following the technical invention of movies on video, the video store bridged these two activities, thereby conflating movie culture with consumer culture in a new way. Video store advertisements from the 1970s and 1980s illustrate how they catered to and capitalized on American's idiosyncratic tastes in movies, as well as their interest in engaging with movies as part of their habitual shopping routines. Toward the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the video rental industry self-consciously contended with issues of geography and taste, demonstrated by a regular feature in Video Store magazine that examined the video business in a specific region in the United States. In this respect, members of the video industry attempted to understand and capitalize on the dispersed and fractured geography of taste they helped create.
The chapter continues with an examination of how video culture was standardized and professionalized in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the corporate video chains like Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video, and Movie Gallery dominated the industry. The success of these companies indicates how deeply embedded video rental had become in American movie culture. Just like the standardized and unremarkable décor within these corporate stores, the cultural practice of video rental was completely unexceptional in this period. Yet a number of practices and values that video stores helped normalize were intensified in the late 1990s and 2000s in such a way that the traditional, brick-and-mortar video rental industry was undermined. Video rental stores helped create a sense of media abundance, and they helped disseminate a fractured movie culture across America. But the video market itself was expanded and fractured by the growth of the video sell-through market, propelled conspicuously by the widespread adoption of DVD. Suddenly, an increasing number of different retail operations became de facto "video stores," which sold rather than rented movies. Among these many locations, the "big box" discount chains like Target and Wal-Mart became particularly important players in the home video industry.
The fracturing and dispersal of video intensified even more notably through the growth of "long tail" retailers, such as Amazon and Netflix, which offered Americans the ability to shop for media commodities over the Internet. These operations provided greater geographic convenience to people who were already accustomed to having an abundance of movie options to choose from. As these and similar companies began to offer movie streaming and "on demand" viewing services, they continued to disperse and fragment movie culture but in such a way as to bypass the need for the video store at all. The chapter closes with an examination of the video rental kiosks that have appeared across the country, with Redbox serving as the most notable example. Whereas long tail retailers extend the logic of personalized movie shopping into a mobile, digital environment, Redbox continues the place-based logic of the video store while eradicating its socially interactive component. As all these options for movie shopping proliferate and overlap, America now exists as a "videoland" where "the video store" appears in myriad forms and locations.
The Beginnings of Video Rental
The emergence of the videostore was a widespread, diffused, and haphazard event. Like any historical change, the invention of the video store did not happen in a vacuum; particular conditions facilitated the appearance of these stores and set the stage for their geographic spread and economic success. The historical prerequisites for the specific way in which video rental stores took off in the United States are (1) the normalization of domestic consumption of movies, particularly on television; (2) the advent of movies on a small portable medium, in this case magnetic tape; (3) the synergistic adoption of VCR technology throughout the country, thereby changing the technical infrastructure for movie exhibition on a mass scale; and (4) the normalization of retail stores devoted to cultural goods, like books and musical recordings. Additional factors prompted a rental business model rather than a direct sales one. The initial price point of Hollywood movies on magnetic tape, set around $50 to $70, made videotapes too expensive for general consumers. Further, the Hollywood studios and other early video distributors were often opposed to a rental business model. Yet the entrepreneurs who opened the first video stores maintained that their rental activities were protected by the "first sale doctrine." This component of U.S. copyright law provides that although a copyright holder maintains its rights over the work embedded in a cultural commodity, it does not have control over the commodity itself after it is sold. Ultimately, this did provide the legal basis for the rental model that, for a time, was the norm in the video industry. Moreover, because the Hollywood studios were ambivalent about the rental model, the entrants into this market were typically not people with previous experience in the movie industry; in this respect, the advent of the video rental store decentralized and democratized movie distribution. Rather than an emergence, the beginnings of the video rental industry represent a convergence of social, cultural, industrial, regulatory, and technological activities.
Americans had grown accustomed to watching movies in their homes long before Hollywood movies were made available on magnetic tape. Experiments with film consumption within the home occurred at the very beginnings of the cinema, although these early efforts never amounted to much. Likewise, numerous companies encouraged Americans to watch commercial entertainment in their "home theaters" following the advent of 16mm film in 1923; nevertheless, the use of 16mm film for consuming Hollywood films in the home never became universally popular. Rather, the primary mechanisms for the domestication of commercial entertainment were, first, the radio during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and, second, the television in the 1940s, 1950s, and after. Film historians traditionally cite television as contributing to the decline in theatrical movie attendance from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Yet it is just as important to note that many Americans used television to watch movies. Although the Hollywood studios initially resisted airing their films on television, a number of them began licensing their films to television networks and individual stations in the 1950s; the actual airing of feature films was inconsistent throughout the era. A turning point occurred in 1961, when NBC regularized the practice of airing major Hollywood movies in prime time with the series Saturday Night at the Movies. This experiment was successful enough that ABC began airing feature films in prime time in 1964, and CBS did the same in 1965. Over the course of the 1960s, "total prime-time programming hours devoted by the networks to features increased from 2 hours to over 16 with feature film accounting for over a quarter of all prime-time programming by the 1971-1972 season." Although different kinds of television programming remained popular throughout the 1960s and 1970s, television viewers had abundant access to Hollywood films, recent and old, throughout this period.
However abundant they were, televised movies obeyed the programming schedules of the individual stations and networks. Further, they were interrupted by advertisements and regularly edited to conform to the time constraints of the programming schedule. One way of making unedited movies viewable at the command of the domestic consumer was to place them on a portable, playable format. Yet the technical process of putting Hollywood movies onto a small, portable object was the outcome of a long and twisty period of trial and error on the part of electronics manufacturers, technophile communities, and small entrepreneurs. Numerous technical innovations in video recording technology through the 1950s and 1960s made it possible to record television broadcasts and, more important, eventually made VCRs accessible to a large number of potential customers. A plethora of formats for playing and/or recording video signals in the home were tested by numerous manufacturers across the globe, from Sony's reel-to-reel CV-2000 and their U-matic cassettes to CBS's electronic video recorder (EVR) to the Cartrivision system, developed by Avco and Playtape Inc., which has the distinction of being the first system to make Hollywood movies available for rent on video in North America. Yet none of these systems found a mass market. Rather, early video cameras, recorders, and players were initially taken up during the 1970s by technophiles who were more interested in tinkering with these machines than using them as movie-delivery vehicles.
When Sony initially put the Betamax VCR system on the North American market in 1976, they promoted it as a "time-shifting" device, as a means for Americans to record television programs and replay them at a later time, thus "shifting" the time of television viewing; VHS was promoted similarly when it entered the American market in 1977. Vitally, the VCR arrived in North America at nearly the same moment that the Home Box Office (HBO) cable channel began airing unedited movies and sporting events without commercial interruption via the Satcom 1 satellite. The simultaneous appearance of the VCR and HBO helped normalize and combine the ideas that movies could appear on TV without interruptions and that Americans could control the conditions of domestic viewing. HBO may have even served as an incentive for people to buy VCRs, with which they could record the unedited movies the station played.
In this context, other individuals quickly realized the capability of VCRs to play prerecorded content. Producers and distributors of adult movies had experimented extensively with using different video formats for exhibition; people working in adult cinema had even established a semiformal distribution network by the mid-1970s, thus presaging and in some ways informing the way the mainstream home video distribution business developed. Yet Andre Blay, of Magnetic Video in Farmington Hills, Michigan, was the first person to successfully acquire the rights to Hollywood films, put these movies on magnetic tape, and make them commercially available in 1977, making him largely responsible for the creation of the mainstream home video business.
Originally, Magnetic Video engaged in the commercial reproduction of 8-track tapes and audiocassettes. The company began producing corporate training videos in the mid-1970s, primarily for the auto companies in Detroit, and these tapes sold for as much as $750. From the start, then, in fact preceding the development of the mainstream home video market, Blay used video technologies for the commercial delivery of prerecorded content. Thus Blay saw the VCR and magnetic tape as vehicles for the commercial delivery of recorded content, not as a time-shifting device. After Betamax arrived in North America, Blay sent a letter to numerous Hollywood studios asking to license their films for distribution on magnetic tape. Only 20th Century Fox responded, agreeably, after having already licensed some of its films to RCA for a movie-on-disc format. The studio offered one hundred movie titles for $5,000 each, but Blay could not afford this amount, so the final deal was to license fifty films for $6,000 per title. Given a list of one hundred movies to choose from, Blay cross-checked them with Variety's list of the hundred top-grossing films and chose the top fifty. He writes, "I did not rely on any other criteria such as actors or even the director." Blay's selection had no artistic pretensions and actually reflected the logic of the video industry to come, namely, that it would largely expand on the success a film found in the theatrical window.
Blay broadened movie culture by catering to Americans' divergent tastes and by conflating movies and retail. He initially marketed his tapes to electronics retailers, who Blay required to buy a large batch of tapes, as well as to individual consumers, for whom he devised the mail-order Video Club of America. He promoted the breadth of his selection to both these groups, appealing to a desire for diversity. In describing his decision to release all fifty tapes at once and to highlight the breadth of the selection in early marketing materials, Blay writes, "I wanted to wow them with variety." Blay nurtured the idea that his product would cater to people's individualized tastes in movies, not merely their ability to watch them at home on their own schedules. He made an appeal to taste-popular tastes but divergent. Although his list was limited, Blay offered more choices than the limited selection of films playing at the local theater or on a nightly broadcast. In this respect, he anticipated and facilitated the personalization of movie consumption. Further, by establishing contracts with electronics retailers, he connected movie culture to delivery technologies. He also created a connection between movies and retail practices that had not existed before. People paid for theatrical movie tickets just before the time of consumption; Blay made it possible for people to survey and contemplate their movie options long before consumption would actually occur. He made movies shop-able. Further, through the Video Club of America, Blay created a new and individualized geography for movies. Although people had watched movies on television for years, now they could own movies as material commodities and view them whenever they chose.
As much as Blay's business activities coordinated with Americans' appetite for Hollywood films and their desire for control, he based his business on sales rather than rental. In fact, he made retailers sign an agreement that they would not rent the tapes, as he feared that they would then stop reordering tapes from him. Instead, the rental model was developed in an almost grassroots, populist manner. Many different people from across the country began buying movies on video and renting them to paying customers, greatly diffusing movie distribution. These entrepreneurs' activities depended crucially on the first sale doctrine, which allowed anyone who bought a movie on a VHS tape or laser disc to do whatever he wanted with this object, as long as he did not copy its contents. In this respect, Andre Blay's transmutation of movies into material, portable objects is precisely what made movies rentable and resalable, even if Blay did not foresee or even condone this activity.
George Atkinson is commonly cited as perhaps the first person to begin renting movies on tape; yet the owners of Thomas Video, located at the time in Royal Oak, Michigan, remember driving across town in 1977 to pick up the first fifty movies available on tape directly from the Magnetic Video duplication center and then renting them. Whoever was first is less important than the fact that the practice of renting movies on tape quickly proliferated. As Magnetic and other companies released more movies on tape, all manner of people and businesses bought videos of Hollywood films and other prerecorded content and subsequently rented them to a general public. Thousands of video rental stores appeared rapidly across the country, greatly increasing the number of venues for people to access movies. Further, these stores changed the way people treated movies. Rather than theatrical or televisual experiences, movies were now objects that people could survey, consider, touch, rent, and watch at home at a time of their choosing.
The growth of the video store significantly decentralized movie distribution, allowing for a number of new entrants into the movie business. In general, there were two types of video stores in the late 1970s and early 1980s: those that added video to an existing retail business, including Fotomats, record shops, and U-Haul stores; and those that opened up for the purpose of video rental but sometimes engaged in other activities, like VCR rental and repair. This latter group would come to be known within the industry as "video specialty stores," indicating that this was their primary function and source of revenue. Greenberg indicates that these stores were opened by an immensely diverse population of people who often had no experience with retail but rather an interest in movie culture. In this moment, American entrepreneurs from a wide variety of backgrounds suddenly had a powerful role in the distribution of Hollywood movies. These "moms" and "pops" attained a new level of access to Hollywood movies, decentralizing the control over media distribution. Their stores altered the space of movie culture, shifting it out of the theater and into adaptable retail spaces. As movie culture entered the space of everyday retail, it did so in a highly disorganized way, clearly indicated by the visual and tactile diversity one could find among the stores themselves. The early video stores were as spatially idiosyncratic as the people who ran them. Some were clean and orderly, while many were quirky, jerry-rigged, and even junky. Often fitted into strip malls, most of these stores had their own style of organization and collection of titles.
Many of the locations that initially incorporated video rental were originally involved in hardware sales. These operations had some difficulty knowing how to market, sell, or rent movies, particularly because movies have overt cultural significance and appeal to people's individual tastes. This is not to say that people who buy television sets, VCRs, or even refrigerators do not make cultural associations with these commodities or that taste has no bearing on their shopping and final selection. All commodities are cultural. Yet it was the video specialty stores that treated videos as movies, as entertainment options. Indeed, while the electronics firms and similar hybrids retreated from the video market in the early 1980s, the independently owned specialty stores found increasing economic success, indicating that the way they framed videos-as portable, controllable movies-aligned with the sensibilities of contemporary American consumers. Although the independently owned, mom-and-pop video specialty stores that proliferated throughout the early 1980s may have been idiosyncratic in their look, organization, and selection of titles, they all capitalized on a similar practice. They encouraged shopping for movies as a habitual behavior among Americans. They normalized the idea that movies were more than just visual experiences to be had at home or in the theater. Movies were now objects in their own right, and Americans could now contemplate and survey them as such.
The spread and normalization of video rental stores coincided with the spread of VCR technologies through the 1980s. Whereas there were only 1.9 million American households with a VCR in 1980, there were 64.5 million ten years later; this represents a shift from about 2 percent of the population to over 70 percent. Thus the increasing presence and use of video rental stores occurred in tandem with the increasing use of the VCR, particularly for watching movies and other prerecorded content. Further, the adoption of the VCR and the practice of video rental were propelled by the changing economics of video technologies and rental. Whereas Betamax and VHS VCRs were initially priced above $1,000, many stores advertised VCRs for anywhere between $400 and $700 by the Christmas shopping season of 1982. By 1986, one could commonly find VCRs for sale between $200 and $300. Along with the decreasing costs of VCRs, the costs of video rental declined. In the late 1970s, video store club memberships often cost as much as $50, and individual movie rentals could be as high as $10 per night. Yet by the early 1980s, many stores had reduced their membership rates to $20 or eliminated them altogether, and some stores offered video rentals for as little as $2 per night. By 1989, the national average to rent a new release movie was a mere $2.46. These numbers indicate that VCRs and the practice of renting movies were initially situated as luxury items and experiences. They appealed to wealthier consumers who wished to have a greater level of control over their media viewing. Yet the downward trajectory of prices made these commodities and practices increasingly available to everyday Americans, so that shopping at the video store was a common experience for people from a wide variety of social classes and backgrounds.
As a space wherein people shopped for movies, video stores resembled other retailers of commodities that hold analogously powerful cultural significance and associations with taste, like books and musical recordings. Yet the retailing of books and recordings had a longer, if haphazard, historical development than videos. Through the 1800s, many types of dry goods stores sold books, and an increasing number of shops specialized in bookselling by the second half of the nineteenth century. By the 1920s, the "bookstore" was a common feature in most American cities, divided between "big city chains" like Doubleday Duran and small-scale "personal bookshops." These locations were supplemented by the many newsstands, department stores, and drugstores that sold books, along with various mail-order booksellers. Mass-merchant bookstore chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, underwent dramatic growth beginning in the 1960s and culminating in the 1980s and 1990s. Primarily located in suburban malls or shopping centers, these stores offered large, clean, standardized spaces that enticed shoppers to browse unimpeded. Similarly, the market in recorded music began immediately upon the invention of the phonograph, and although "distribution of both recordings and phonographs was initially handled by mail order and outlet chains . . . soon they could be purchased anywhere, from bicycle shops to department stores." By the middle of the twentieth century, one could buy records at chain stores, supermarkets, and appliance stores and through a growing number of mail-order clubs. In the 1980s, the music retail business underwent significant consolidation and became "controlled by chains like Tower Records and Record Bar." Such record "superstores" were large, with 18,000 square feet or more, and offered a huge number and wide variety of cheaply priced recordings.
Thus by the time the first video rental stores came into existence, there were strong precedents for shopping in public places for cultural commodities. Whereas the hardware and electronics retailers typically positioned videotape as an extension of the VCR, the thousands of "moms and pops" who opened video specialty stores positioned videotape more directly as a movie-a cultural good like a book or record. Yet just as much as video stores resituated movies as material commodities to be shopped for, they also participated in a historical shift in the selling of cultural goods more generally, as indicated by the growth of the large, abundantly stocked, rationalized book- and record store chains during this same period. All manner of leisure activities-reading, listening, viewing-were now made available in a huge number of public retail locations. Video stores were simply the way movie culture conformed to the historical practice of cultural shopping.
The New Geography of Taste
The rapid spread of video rental locations throughout the country in the 1980s significantly altered the geography of movie culture. This is partly true because of the way in which video stores aligned movies with retail practices but also because of the way in which they provided a new abundance of viewing options to local moviegoers. Early advertisements for a variety of video stores indicate the way that the industry moved from emphasizing VCR technologies to selling movies and, moreover, that the new abundance and variety of movies on tape would enable individuals to satisfy their individual desires. Video stores did not just create greater levels of access to movies in an attempt to satisfy multiple movie tastes. They actively cultivated this fracturing movie culture by situating Americans as individuals with different tastes.
A 1980 advertisement for the Video Station in West Covina, California, is characteristic of the ways in which video rental was initially conceived and promoted to the public (figure 3). The ad boldly highlights the fact that the store is in the movie business and appeals to readers' individual desires by promoting choice and selection. It lists a handful of specific movie titles, most of which had been theatrical successes and which represent a range of genres. By highlighting the breadth of its selection, the store indicates in its ad that it aims to satisfy a diverse population of renters whose tastes in movies could be quite different: Alien (1979) for adult horror film fans, Muppet Movie (1979) for kids, Superman (1978) for everybody, "and 1000's of others" for all manner of individualized movie tastes. Nevertheless, the ad emphasizes video technologies more than it does movies, with the logos for a number of different hardware manufacturers appearing larger and more boldly than the movie titles. In addition, the ad shows that the store is engaged in technology-oriented activities, including selling blank tapes for TV recording, video equipment rentals for those people without a VCR, and video production of family events.
Alternatively, a Fotomat advertisement from the same year highlights the movies more than the technology. It states, "You can rent our most recent releases (like the ones you see here) for just $9.95. And we have a lot more to choose from . . . Comedies, love stories, sports films, concerts, and even educational films." The visual display of specific movies highlights recent hit films in a manner that recalls a theatrical movie advertisement from a newspaper. Although the ad showcases these hit films, it also emphasizes the breadth of its selection in the text: "over 200 great films." Rather than list all the available options, which would be cumbersome for a single advertisement, the ad lists generic categories, appealing to readers' general tastes. Yet even here, the ad stresses the range of genres available, suggesting that the store can satisfy many different tastes. Similarly, the Musicland chain of record stores advertised its movie rental business by visually highlighting a handful of specific movie titles, each of a different genre, including Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Coming Home (1978), and The Boogeyman (1980). "Rent your favorite movies . . . Hundreds of titles to choose from," the ad states. Both of these ads situate video rental as a movie delivery system and make movies the primary draw. Just as importantly, they position readers as potential shoppers by emphasizing the breadth of the selection.
At the same time that video stores appealed to Americans' sense of individuality by offering multiple viewing options, they also appealed to American shoppers' desire for convenience. In addition to highlighting economic affordability as well as the ability to control the time of viewing, video store ads promoted convenience by highlighting geographic proximity. The Fotomat advertisement discussed above details the relatively intricate rental process at Fotomat stores, where customers had to call ahead and place their orders. Nevertheless, the ad says, "pick up your cassette, usually the next day, at your nearby Fotomat store. Keep it for five days and as many plays as you like." On the one hand, this indicates that one of the appeals of the VCR was that it allowed for repeat viewing, even allowing different household members to watch the same movie at different times. On the other hand, and just as importantly, the ad suggests that moviegoers will not have to go far to get what they desire and that they will not be troubled by going out soon thereafter to return the tape. Somewhat similarly, there are many occasions when a movie or video distributor would appeal to shoppers' desire for geographic convenience when advertising specific movies. An advertisement for Disney's video release of Sword in the Stone (1963) from 1986, for instance, lists a number of stores across the state of Michigan. A 1981 advertisement from Warner Home Video states, "Rent Superman on Friday, Return him Monday!," and then tells readers to call a toll-free number to find the nearest "official Warner Home Video store." The opposite page lists the names, addresses, and phone numbers for over thirty video stores throughout southeastern Michigan.
Even this limited sample of advertisements suggests the ways in which video stores created a new geography for movie culture. Video stores provided a new abundance of movie viewing options for domestic consumers. The stores appealed to a desire for options, even if in actuality people rented a select number of mainstream hits. Further, they localized this supposedly diverse range of tastes by providing access to movies in a more geographically convenient way than movie theaters. By 1985, there were around 21,000 video specialty stores in the United States. More important, they saturated the local retail landscape. In a report from 1985, more than half of video store owners stated that their nearest competitor was less than a quarter of a mile away, and this level of saturation held steady through the rest of the decade. In 1989, there was an average of 4.6 video stores operating within three miles of any other store throughout the country. Video stores were part of everyday Americans' habitually used public space; and their advertisements indicate that they promoted this characteristic as a selling point. They became the material and spatial embodiment of Americans' desire for selectivity and geographic convenience in movie viewing. They particularized movie culture at the local level, on a national scale.
Many different individuals opened video stores, and many more used them. But their idiosyncratic experiences and practices were actually quite generalized. Over the course of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the video industry became increasingly organized and professionalized. As part of this process, industry participants self-consciously contended with the strange new intertwining of taste and space that video stores had created. Alongside a plethora of newsletters and magazines aimed at both video technology enthusiasts and the emerging group of video store owners, Video Store magazine began publication in July 1979. Originally the magazine focused on video technologies, but it increasingly addressed business issues of concern to video store owners. One of the most practical issues that industry participants faced was geography, and Video Store throughout the 1980s and 1990s had a recurring section called "Regional Reports" that detailed the video business in specific cities and regions. In the early 1980s, each month this section featured a detailed description of a specific video store in a specific region. Running about two columns in length and often accompanied by a photograph, the articles provide a record of the individual practices of video store owners from the period, which turn out to be quite typical of the general conditions of the industry at the time. The November 1981 issue, for instance, describes Video America in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The store dealt in video hardware as well as movie rentals. It required a $30 membership fee and offered 350 different movie titles, "none of which are X-rated." The store occupied just a thousand square feet. Similarly, the issue from February 1982 gave an account of the Video Depot in Hacienda Heights, part of a Southern California franchise that had twenty additional stores at the time. The April 1982 issue examined Captain Video of Lake Oswego, Oregon, and found that Caddyshack (1980), Airplane! (1980), and children's movies were the most popular choices among the five hundred they offered.
In compiling and publishing these individual tales of experimentation, success, and struggle, Video Store helped create a network of knowledge that surpassed the local experiences of each store and reader. Although each of these stores may have been perceived as unique or particular, the phenomenon of video rental was national, and this magazine sought to create a national understanding of the industry's many local instances. In this manner individual readers could potentially change their operations based on what they heard "worked" in another location. The magazine declared this goal in the mid-1980s, when it began to open the section with the following passage:
Every month, our staff interviews a variety of retailers so that we might provide a forum for accurate and timely assessment of the marketplace. The business expertise shared in these pages is intended to provide industry comrades with useful marketing and merchandising information as well as practical solutions to common problems.
Thus, like the formation of the Video Software Dealers of America (VSDA) and the annual conventions this group held, Video Store aided in disseminating information across the otherwise heterogeneous group of video store owners, helping to make this group integrated and professionalized. Unlike a trade organization or an annual trade show, however, Video Store did so not through centralization but rather through material dispersal. More important, the magazine helped normalize video rental store practices by providing solutions to "common problems" encountered by individual stores, including pricing issues, local competition, content selection, store layout, and theft protection, among other concerns.
As the rental industry matured in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Video Store examined the video industry within a select region more than it detailed specific stores. These articles described the economic and demographic conditions of a specific city, its historical and cultural milieu, and assessed the rental habits of its citizens. The November 1988 issue, for example, describes the intense level of competition in the video business in St. Louis, Missouri, drawing from interviews with local store owners and public officials. In addition, it describes the size of the labor force in the city, the jobless rate, and the average income per household. The report on San Francisco from May 1990 took a pointed interest in the particularities of the local video market. It discusses the area's comparatively high real estate prices and lack of strip malls, factors that made it difficult to open and maintain a video store there. However, the article claimed that the earthquakes and fog typical in the area prompted people to go out less than in other cities, thus making them more inclined to rent movies. The article states further, "In general, San Francisco residents are sophisticated, and knowledgeable about movies," and according to one local store owner, their "video habits reflect specific tastes and interests." The particularity of the population's tastes is manifested geographically, as the article states that "retailers find that they have to take each neighborhood as a separate entity addressing characteristics and quirks that may exist only in that area."
Thus this article not only provides details about the economic context in which video stores operate in the region, but the cultural climate as well. Although somewhat vague in its analysis, it tries to contend with the new geography of movie culture that video stores helped shape. Along such lines, the feature on Atlanta, Georgia, from October 1991, describes how police had raided a number of video stores carrying adult movies in their attempt to enforce local obscenity laws. Rather than challenge these activities, as had been done in other cities in the country, the story reported that many local store owners reduced or selectively curated their adult sections so as to appease law enforcement officials. One store owner explained, "This is the Bible Belt, you know," implying that a broader moral attitude in the area mitigated against a particular genre of videos and thus put pressure on the economic situation for the relevant stores. Likewise a report from 1990 states, "Detroiters . . . like video. With a passion. They . . . rent videos like there is no tomorrow." This report describes how movies on tape were invented in the region and goes into great detail about the economic and demographic conditions in the area, providing a broad social and cultural picture of the place. In addition, it makes a number of assertions about the local population, calling it "perhaps one of the nation's most racially conscious big cities." Yet it does not detail how race affects the video business in the area. In terms of cultural consumption the article states, "Detroit's 1.72 million television households harvest a bumper crop of couch potatoes," where "72.5 percent of households own a VCR," and, further, that "movies-particularly action-adventure and horror flicks-enjoy robust theatrical runs" in the area.
This story, like the others, considers social, economic, and technological issues in its attempt to provide a broad portrait of the geography of movie taste and consumption in a particular region. These regional portraits from Video Store in the early 1990s do not so much try to create or maintain a network of knowledge to support other store owners but rather assess how video has affected and been integrated into the cultural and economic fabric of a particular city. On the one hand, they indicate the lingering interest in regional specificity on the part of industry workers. On the other hand, they testify to the fact that video stores had become such a common, even ubiquitous, feature of the American landscape that their regional specificities could be broadly observed.
From the late 1980s through the 1990s, video stores were a primary location of movie culture in America. Video rental was a standard practice, and it largely occurred within the standardized spaces of the corporate rental chains like Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video, and Movie Gallery. There had been efforts to franchise and standardize video stores from the very beginnings of the industry, but these efforts were intensified and became dominant through the second half of the 1980s. Whereas mom-and-pop figures gained sudden access to the means of distribution from the late 1970s through the 1980s, the period of the late 1980s on was defined by a recentralization of ownership and power in the chain of movie distribution. Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, and a few other chains dominated the market by the 1990s. Yet this corporate consolidation and spatial standardization could not eradicate the newly democratic, socialized, and individualized movie culture experienced by video shoppers. The hegemony of the corporate video chains was actually predicated on their appeal to customers as individuals, who could express their power through movie selection. The chains made the practice of video rental so conventional, so standard, that it became the standard in a wide variety of locales. Although Americans may have held divergent tastes in movies, a huge number of them found that their tastes could be met by the choices offered at a corporate store. Rather than eradicate local movie cultures, these corporate stores enveloped and accommodated them.
The growth of Blockbuster and the other corporate chains altered the place of the video store within American culture in several fundamental ways. First, Blockbuster took a particular approach to the design of the video store space. These stores were big, brightly lit, had wide aisles, and put their videotapes (not just the cover boxes) on the shelves throughout the store. They did not offer adult videos, nor did they rent VCRs or other technologies. Thus Blockbuster differentiated itself from the majority of the independently owned stores that it competed with by providing a large, uncluttered, family-friendly space for the easy perusal of movies. It professionalized the video store space. If the mom-and-pops had already normalized the idea that magnetic tape was a movie delivery device, then Blockbuster crystallized the idea that the video store was a movie store.
Second, Blockbuster appealed to Americans' desire for movie choices by offering more titles than other stores. However uniform the space of the video store may have been, these corporate stores treated individual browsers and customers as diverse. Typically, each Blockbuster held around ten thousand tapes available for rent. In fact, franchise participants had to stock at least seven thousand movies as part of the agreement. This surpassed by far the holdings of the average independently owned stores at the time. Whereas video stores had an average of 2,395 videos in 1985, this number increased to 3,600 in 1989, largely because of the growth in Blockbuster superstores. Indeed, the number of stores carrying fewer than 2,000 tapes dropped by 8 percent from 1988 to 1989 while the number of stores carrying 5,000 or more tapes grew by 4 percent. Thus even if Americans increasingly rented a limited number of hit films, they demonstrated a preference for stores with large selections.
Third, Blockbuster grew at an incredibly rapid pace, necessarily entailing a geographic spread across the country. The company expanded through franchises, opening new company-owned stores, and buying local stores and chains and transforming them into Blockbusters. Whereas there were only 94 Blockbuster locations in 1987, by 1991 there were over 1,600 stores operating in forty-four states. This rate of expansion held for many years, so that by 2001 there were 5,374 Blockbuster stores in the United States and many more around the world. In this respect, Blockbuster's numerical growth and geographic spread entailed a standardization of the video rental space throughout many parts of the country; just as Blockbusters quickly became ubiquitous, so was the vision for the video rental store they projected. This was a self-conscious endeavor on the part of the company's leaders, who not only likened themselves to McDonalds rhetorically but also hired a former member of McDonalds' upper management. Through the standardization of this large, clean, and professional space for movie shopping, Blockbuster was able to create a uniform video culture that overcame local geographic and cultural particularities. Ron Castell, senior vice president of the company, said in 1991 that he aimed to standardize Blockbuster stores so completely that customers would have the same experience, "whether it's in Las Vegas or Pocatello or Kalamazoo." "We want to be ubiquitous," he added.
Although Blockbuster remained the industry leader throughout the decade, Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery modified the Blockbuster model in interesting ways. Hollywood Video offered a similarly enormous, well-lit, and clean space for browsing but differentiated itself by offering more titles and genres than Blockbuster, averaging between twelve thousand and fourteen thousand tapes per store. Hollywood Video stores typically carried a larger selection of foreign films than Blockbuster, and some locations had a small "Cult Classics" shelf where one could find titles like Eraserhead (1977). Hollywood Video thus tried to encompass a wider range of movie tastes than Blockbuster, even if new releases comprised the majority of their income. Alternatively, Movie Gallery distinguished itself by putting stores in "under-served" markets, particularly rural towns with smaller populations. Although Movie Gallery stores typically had fewer titles than Blockbuster or Hollywood, they broadened the reach of the corporate-style video store. They situated "big video" in small-town culture. Further, unlike both Blockbuster and Hollywood, Movie Gallery carried sexually explicit adult movies.
The corporatization of the rental industry occurred amid a process of corporate consolidation within the larger media industry during this period, when hardware manufacturers like Sony and Matsushita bought content distributors like Columbia and Universal. Under Ronald Reagan's fiscal policies of the 1980s, which either ignored or undermined the limits on corporate consolidation, there appeared to be no end to a cycle of mergers and acquisitions in the media industry. In 1994, Hollywood Video became a publicly traded corporation, and in this same year, Blockbuster was acquired by Viacom, a conglomerate that owned a host of other media-related businesses and companies, including Paramount Pictures and the MTV and Nickelodeon cable networks. Eventually, in 1999, Viacom purchased the CBS Corporation, making their parent company, National Amusements, a vertically and horizontally integrated media conglomerate with vast assets in television and film production, distribution, and theatrical, television, and home video exhibition.
Bolstered by the corporate financing they attained in the mid-1990s, the corporate video rental chains pushed down on the mom-and-pop shops. Yet the mom-and-pops were also squeezed from below by the increasing number of video rental sections at convenience and grocery stores, which offered astoundingly low rental rates. Even as the grocery stores dispersed video rental farther throughout the retail landscape, they also displaced "the video store" by making movies an (inexpensive) addition to already defined retail spaces. Squeezed from both the top and the bottom, the mom-and-pops were greatly diminished in number during the late 1980s and the 1990s. By 1998, Blockbuster accounted for about 30 percent of the entire video rental market. Blockbuster and the other corporate chains served as the "real" video stores, positioning both the remaining independent stores and the hybrid operations as secondary alternatives.
Video store culture had long been dominated by Hollywood films when Blockbuster rose to industrial dominance. As Janet Wasko wrote in 1994, "Despite the claim that home video is revolutionizing America's viewing habits, the most common type of cassette rented or purchased is a movie. A Hollywood movie." The studios' effort to block VCR technologies through litigation in the Universal v. Sony case had been decided in favor of the electronics manufacturer in 1984, and all the studios had already opened divisions devoted to distributing their movies on video. Further, the studios standardized the practice of releasing recent theatrical hits through the early 1980s, helping to foster a "New Release" mentality among video store owners and shoppers alike. Hollywood augmented this practice and achieved an even greater presence in the video store in the later part of the 1990s, when the corporate chains intensified their efforts with "copy depth" of the latest Hollywood hits. In this process, video stores would carry a huge number of copies of a limited number of mainstream Hollywood films. This endeavor was made financially possible through revenue-sharing deals made directly with the studios or through pay-per-transaction video distributors like Rentrak. By the late 1990s, when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video offered select Hollywood hits "guaranteed in stock," the video store operated like a contemporaneous movie theater, with "New Releases" dominating and "opening weekends" driving customers into the store.
The 1990s witnessed the standardization of the video store space in terms of architecture (the large, clean store design of the corporate chains), geography (as the corporate chains became the "norm" in many parts of the country), and taste (with large numbers of Hollywood movies). This alteration in video store culture occurred in the context of an expansion and standardization of retail spaces more broadly in the 1990s. The book world, for example, was overtaken at this time by "superstores" like Borders and Barnes & Noble. Like Blockbuster, these enormous, well-organized stores appealed to customers' desire for options by offering as many as 125,000 different book titles. Somewhat similarly, Hastings Entertainment rebranded its stores as "entertainment centers" in 1991, offering books, music, games, computer software, and videos for sale and rental, under one roof, in mid-size markets in the western United States. The multimedia superstores like these connected the video store to a broader range of leisure commodities and a wider arena of consumer culture more generally. Although they did not engage in video rental, the large big-box discount chains like Target and Wal-Mart and the electronics stores like Circuit City and Best Buy all underwent substantial growth during this decade, offering an abundance of books, magazines, music recordings, and videos for sale, in addition to a wide array of other gadgets and goods.
The Suncoast Motion Picture Company illustrates an alternative trajectory for video retailing in this period, yet one that ultimately succumbed to the same fate as other brick-and-mortar corporate chains. Started in 1986 by Musicland Group, which also ran the Musicland and Sam Goody music retail chains, Suncoast distinguished itself from other video retailers by engaging exclusively in video sell-through and by being located in indoor shopping malls. Featuring neon lighting, abundant television monitors playing movies, and well-organized displays of videos for sale, Suncoast stores were welcomed by shopping mall developers, who appreciated that its stores diversified the shopping options for mall patrons and enlivened the mall space with glitzy design features. Suncoast offered a wide range of movies but primarily sold cheaply priced "catalogue" movies as well as non-Hollywood fare like sports and exercise videos. Its stores also carried niche genres that appealed to fans and collectors, including Japanese animation.
Suncoast's business model depended on a distinct cultural geography for movie shopping. Once the video rental store normalized the notion that there were a plethora of video options available for individual Americans to choose from, a portion of these people became video collectors, much as Andre Blay had originally intended. In addition to those people who recorded movies from broadcast or cable television, a significant number of collectors chose to purchase videos that they held affection for and/or that they expected to watch numerous times. Being located in shopping malls, Suncoast stores made movies part of the same shopping environment that many Americans utilized, flaneur-like, to entertain themselves and to find clothes, cosmetics, athletic shoes, and so on. Further, the malls Suncoast occupied were largely in suburban locations, thus giving people in these areas a variety of video options they might not find at their local rental store. Moreover, Suncoast's placement in malls necessitated that they engage in sell-through rather than rental, as indoor malls are not used in the same casual and habitual manner as strip malls. Shopping malls entail a trip, a planned outing. It seems unlikely that anyone would ever have wanted to go to the mall, find parking, and stroll through the large galleries simply to return a video. Rather, the grandeur of indoor malls suggested that the movies at Suncoast were special items worthy of ownership, and the flashy interior of Suncoast stores simultaneously created a space for Hollywood glamour within these malls.
Initially this model proved successful, and the Suncoast chain expanded from 15 stores in 1988 to 260 stores in 1993. Yet growth stagnated by the mid-1990s, prompting Musicland to open a number of "media superstores" that sold a wide variety of different media products. These endeavors succumbed to the competition from the big discount chains as well as online retailers of videos and other media, however, and Suncoast and Musicland encountered serious financial difficulties at the turn of the millennium. Following a series of corporate acquisitions, which included several years in which Best Buy owned both Musicland and Suncoast, their eventual corporate parent, Trans World Entertainment, began closing most of the stores in the late 2000s. Given that Suncoast sold a considerable amount of older, catalogue films and other niche genres and given that they were located in malls and thus required a special shopping excursion, it makes sense that they quickly fell victim to the plethora of video options offered by online retailers like Amazon.
For a moment, however, Suncoast expanded the geographic range of video shopping at the same time that it obeyed the corporate logic and spatial standardization typical of video rental stores in the 1990s. From a certain perspective, this historical shift toward corporatization, professionalization, and standardization might signal an end to a lively video store culture, as Blockbuster and the other corporate chains put an end to the experiments with home video retailing. They seemed to perfect them. While it is true that the CEOs of these companies were more concerned with money than movies and while it is true that the corporate stores valorized Hollywood's hit films, this era represents a certain "golden age" of the video store from the perspective of browsers and customers. Blockbuster and the corporate stores appealed to many people by offering choices, appealed to the very notion of choice. They placed movies into wide, easily browse-able aisles in large spaces. In this respect, Blockbuster, Movie Gallery, and Hollywood appealed to an individualistic but pseudodemocratic impulse on the part of browsers. As the apparently neutral space of the corporate store promised to treat everyone as an equal, it allowed individuals (or couples or families) to quickly and easily find what they wanted, to express their taste in cultural goods.
The era of the corporate video store is also the era in which video rental practices were most normalized among everyday Americans. A report from the VSDA situated video rental centrally within Americans' leisure world, stating that "100 million people . . . rented a video at least once [in 1996]. That's more people than bought or rented a CD-ROM, visited an amusement park, or attended a concert, live sporting event or the theater." At the end of the decade, there were over 18,000 video stores. Of these, Blockbuster had over 5,000 stores, Hollywood had 1,800, and Movie Gallery 1,300. In addition to all these independent operations and corporate stores, well over 8,000 grocery stores provided cheaply priced video rentals. Video rental was, in every sense, a common practice in the 1990s.
A Digital Divide
The advent and adoption of the digital versatile disc (DVD), also known as the digital video disc, for watching movies in the late 1990s had an enormous impact on the media industry as a whole but created volatility in the rental industry. Appearing as a digital file embedded on a small, plastic disc, the movie on DVD had material properties that helped expand and fracture the market for video commodities but ultimately hurt the brick-and-mortar video rental business. Specifically, the relative cheapness of DVDs (to produce and, consequently, to purchase) and their diminutive size allowed for new patterns in the distribution and retailing of movies on video. While these same qualities made DVDs conducive to the established video rental business in several respects, they also enabled a number of competing businesses and business models to flourish, specifically, the sell-through market at big-box stores and the rent-by-mail system of Netflix.
Numerous disc-based media platforms for movie viewing had appeared since the 1970s, yet they largely failed as commercial endeavors; even the marginally successful laser disc format was relegated to a small market of devoted collectors and educational institutions. After years of technological innovation and after technical and regulatory standards were set, consumer DVD players entered the American market in spring 1997. Paul McDonald, among others, has pointed out that the Hollywood studios' initial response to DVD was not entirely positive, but they supported it wholeheartedly once the economic viability of the format became apparent. Although there were only one million DVD players in American homes at the end of 1998, more than 24 million households had a DVD player by 2001. In addition, DVDs created new levels of profit, as they were significantly cheaper to produce than VHS and thereby offered a greater marginal return for each unit. This allowed the studios to price DVDs between $20 and $30, which made them viable for a sell-through market in addition to or even in lieu of the rental market. Indeed, Barbara Klinger has described how DVD was largely adopted as a sell-through commodity, serving individual collectors who built media "libraries" of their own. Although DVDs were advertised to consumers as offering better picture and sound quality than VHS, as well as "bonus features," it was ultimately the comparatively low price of DVDs that affected the way in which they were integrated into the American media landscape.
DVDs turned out to be an economic boon for the studios because they expanded the sell-through market for videos and thus gave studios a greater share in overall revenue gathered from the home video market. Of course, the Hollywood studios had successfully experimented with creating a sell-through market for VHS previously. After Paramount found enormous success by offering Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) at lower than standard prices, by the mid-1980s, they and the other studios had developed a "two-tiered" pricing system for all home video releases. Whereas many titles would be released at $70 or more and intended for the rental market, certain videos would be released at between $20 and $30, aimed at individual consumers. In addition to certain theatrical hits, many of these sell-through tapes were kids' fare and other genres susceptible to repeat viewings. Although the studios intensified these efforts in the mid-1990s by pricing certain tapes as low as $12, they still generated more revenue from rental than sell-through sales for most of the decade. This ratio changed in the millennium, hastened by the adoption of DVD. In 1996, Americans spent $8.7 billion on renting videos and $7.5 billion on purchasing videos. As of 2001, the overall market for home video was $18.7 billion, and rental revenue constituted only $8.4 billion of this amount. The sell-through market in 2001was the biggest to date, and DVD generated $5.4 billion of this revenue, outpacing VHS sales for the first time.
This shift in video consumption habits also entailed a shift in video shopping habits. "The video store" was no longer located just in America's many rental shops but was now diffused throughout the retail landscape, greatly increasing the geographic convenience of movie shopping. Most notably, the big-box electronics stores like Circuit City and Best Buy and the discount chains like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target became the primary venue for video commodities. In 1997, at the same time that they supported the Divx disc-based format for movie viewing, which was ultimately unsuccessful, Circuit City began promoting and selling DVD players. Quickly thereafter, both Circuit City and Best Buy began selling movies on DVD alongside their wide selection of electronic devices. By mid-1998, merely a year after the introduction of DVD players, Best Buy had sold over one million movies on DVD.
In that same year Best Buy expanded the amount of floor space devoted to DVDs and carried as many as fifteen hundred different movie titles; the electronics chain sold more DVDs that any other retailer in 1999 and 2000, accounting for about 20 percent of all DVDs sold in the United States. Similarly, Wal-Mart redesigned the electronics sections in many of its stores to make room for large, attractive displays of DVDs leading up to the holiday season of 2001. Here, one could shop for movies much in the way one could at a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, only now surrounded by stereos, clothing, and groceries, and with ownership rather than rental as the outcome. Further, Wal-Mart primarily carried a limited selection of mainstream Hollywood hit films and refused to carry NC-17 titles or anything that wasn't "family friendly," much like Blockbuster had done more than a decade earlier. As of 2001, Wal-Mart generated over $3 billion in video sales, and Target generated nearly $1 billion. In this same year, Wal-Mart sold more DVDs than any other retailer in the country, beating out Best Buy for the first time. Simply in terms of revenue, Wal-Mart became the biggest "movie theater" in the United States. Although some cinephiles collected and fetishized movies on DVD for their high visual quality and bonus features, most DVDs were collected by Wal-Mart shoppers looking for inexpensively priced mainstream films.
A 1997 VSDA report was optimistic about DVD as a rental format, saying, "The rental habit is deeply ingrained in American consumers, and that habit is unlikely to go away completely simply because movies are recorded on discs rather than cassettes." Yet rental stores struggled to adjust to DVD technology and the increasing importance of the sell-through market. The small size and cheap price of a DVD were somewhat beneficial to rental stores, as they could now hold more items on each shelf and afford to buy more copies of individual titles. Further, they could recoup the cost of the disc much faster than a high-priced VHS tape. Yet the shift in platform also meant that stores had to restock themselves, duplicating the titles they held on VHS and buying both a VHS and a DVD copy of new releases. Many independently owned video stores closed for business during the late 1990s, as they did not have the financing necessary to engage in such a massive overhaul of their stock. The corporate rental chains, however, did not face this dilemma and quickly integrated DVDs onto their shelves. Hollywood Video entered the market first, making DVDs available for rent in all fourteen hundred of its stores in 1998. By the Christmas season of 2000, Blockbuster had fully committed to renting DVDs and even featured DVD rentals prominently in advertisements. A year later, the company began reducing the number of VHS tapes it carried in stores to make more room for DVDs. Movie Gallery integrated DVD more gradually, as the customers they served in smaller towns were slower to switch from VHS; nevertheless, the company made more revenue in DVD than VHS by 2003.
By the mid-2000s, all the major rental chains were in narrow straits because of the increasingly fractured and dispersed home video market. Both Movie Gallery and Blockbuster tried to compete with Wal-Mart and Target by devoting larger areas in their stores to DVD sell-through in 2002. In this same year, however, Blockbuster announced that its profits had been much lower than expected. Hollywood Video diversified its operations by opening thousands of "Game Crazy" stores-within-stores, which sold and rented video games, in the early 2000s. Yet the company incurred losses with this endeavor, which were compounded by the weakening rental market, so that in 2004 it also reported lowered profits. With the entire home video market thus in flux, Blockbuster and Movie Gallery each vied to buy out Hollywood Video in the middle of the decade; Movie Gallery succeeded in executing this takeover in 2005. Yet this continued corporate consolidation of the video rental market, a process that had been ongoing since the mid-1980s, contrasted with the decentralization of video shopping that accompanied the rollout of DVDs. Video rental stores of all types-corporate, independent, and even those that were part of grocery stores and other hybrid operations-were now significantly displaced by the myriad other locations where one could shop for videos for purchase, from the big-box stores to 7-11s. If the video store had normalized the idea that Americans could shop for movies as material commodities in retail spaces and if the corporate stores had standardized this activity, then they also anticipated and facilitated the apparent media abundance and ubiquity of video shopping Americans encountered in so many other places in the 2000s. The video store appeared to be everywhere, making video rental stores appear strangely anachronistic in their way of doing business.
The video rental industry was not only fractured and marginalized by the intensification of the sell-through market in retail stores, but also at least as much by the "long tail" retailers of video commodities on the Internet. First published in the popular technology magazine Wire in 2006, Chris Anderson's article "The Long Tail" examines retailers that sell material and digital commodities from the Internet, such as Amazon, and companies that exist solely on the Internet and sell digital files, such as iTunes. By the mid-2000s, the long tail that Anderson discusses had been in operation for some years; Amazon started selling books in 1995 and music recordings and videos in 1998. Yet Anderson's celebratory tone speaks to the zeal many felt about online retailing in the mid-2000s. While companies like Amazon, Apple, Rhapsody, and others found new economic efficiencies by offering shopping experiences online rather than in brick-and-mortar locations, they also promised greater access to a wider range of media products than everyday shoppers had before. Indeed, Anderson's chief observation about the long tail of media is that American shoppers were actually buying obscure books, music, and movies. Among other things, his article is a celebration of American diversity in taste.
In suggesting that individual tastes in movies could be met through the abundant choices they made available, long tail retailers extended the logic of the large video stores of the 1980s and 1990s. By positioning Americans as shoppers of diverse media commodities, long tail media retailers appealed to people's sense of individualism and entitlement. When Amazon first began selling videos online, it offered more than 60,000 different titles, and by 2000, it had more than 100,000 different movies for sale. American shoppers responded quickly and enthusiastically, so that in 1999 Amazon accounted for over 50 percent of all online video sales-which still took material form at the time. Nevertheless, most revenue generated by long tail retailers comes from book, music, and movie "hits" rather than obscure titles. Although long-tailers may appeal to people as idiosyncratic and highly individualized in their tastes, the majority of shoppers may not have such distinctive tastes.
In addition to their breadth of selection, long tail retailers extended the spatial and geographic reach of movie shopping. Anderson notes that the reason these companies could offer so many different products is that they did not have to house them in the same place they displayed them; no bookstore could hold all of Amazon's books, and a video store would be hard-pressed to contain all its movies. Just as important, long-tailers turned to the Internet as the "space" where shopping occurred, making any American with an Internet connection capable of shopping wherever he or she lived. The showroom was in the living room, the bedroom, the den, wherever. Although shopping had occurred in domestic spaces for over a hundred years, with printed catalogues, mail-order retailers, and shopping channels on television, Internet-based retailing gained acceptance about as quickly as the Internet itself. Cultural commodities, such as books, music, and videos, were particularly susceptible to this shift, given that their material properties made them durable and easily portable.
Netflix stands as the most important game changer in the long-tailing of movies, particularly as they integrated online shopping with a broad selection and capitalized on the portability of DVDs. Founded in 1997, the company initially sold and rented movies through its website, which were delivered and returned through the U.S. Postal Service. Customers found it difficult to return videos "on time" through the mail and would regularly accrue late fees as a result. Thus in 1999, Netflix introduced the "subscription" model for rentals, whereby customers would pay a monthly fee and be able to keep discs as long as they pleased; different pricing plans allowed customers to keep a different number of movies out at a time. This generated an industry-wide rhetoric about "no late fees," which was quite heated and pitted Netflix quite directly against brick-and-mortar rental stores. Blockbuster experimented with subscription services as well as rent-by-mail options. Doing so, however, highlighted the fact that Netflix did not just offer a new breadth of movie options but also surpassed the geographic barriers of public shopping. The late fee was always an economic manifestation of the geography of video rental, as it was the price one paid for not going back to the public space of the store "on time." In extending the process of video shopping into the home, Netflix also had to overcome the temporality of delayed distribution; whereas video store customers were once the agents of their own media distribution, now the local mailman was a movie distributor, one who obeyed a regular but inalterable schedule. The subscription pricing model allowed Netflix to overcome the geographic boundaries of the rental process.
Customers shopped for these discs through the company's website, which listed all the available titles and allowed customers to put their selections into a "queue." This queue ranked the order in which customers wanted discs delivered and indicated how long a delay customers might expect in getting them. The website facilitated a type of "browsing" analogous to that done in a video store. Instead of a shelf or an aisle full of titles, now the computer browser surveyed a two-dimensional screen with thumbnail pictures representing the videos (figure 4). The website made the movies searchable according to a number of different criteria, such as title, director, performer, or genre. In this respect, the Netflix website provided a two-dimensional representation of a vast virtual space that contained all the information shoppers might need to make their selections. Navigating this space could be somewhat tricky, given the breadth of the options. Whereas Netflix had 14,500 titles available in 2002, by 2005 it had over 55,000 and in 2009 over 100,000. To mitigate the chaos of this selection, Netflix personalized the movie shopping experience by allowing users to rate films on a five-star scale, and the company used a specialized patented software to use these ratings, as well as viewing history, to make recommendations of other movies to watch. In this respect, Netflix not only virtualized the space of movie shopping but also desocialized the mechanism for movie recommendations, individualizing this process even more.
Amid his celebration of long-tailers, Chris Anderson writes that Netflix "has, in short, broken the tyranny of physical space." But he does not simply mean the physical space needed to house the commodities for sale or rental. "What matters is not where customers are, or even how many of them are seeking a particular title," he writes, "but only that some number of them exist, anywhere." Here Anderson unwittingly indicates how Netflix more truly emulates and intensifies the transformation of movie culture initiated by the video rental store. It combined the domestic consumption of movies with the domestic shopping of movies. By broadening the points of access where Americans could engage in personalized movie shopping and by broadening the range of video titles available, Netflix dispersed and particularized movie culture much more than the video store ever did or could. Netflix amplified this process when it introduced Internet streaming services in 2007, which allowed participating customers to watch movies on their computers. In 2009, Netflix was also commonly embedded in Internet-connected TV sets, game consoles, and DVD players. Like "on demand" services provided by cable companies, Netflix streaming allowed people to shop for and consume movies directly through their Internet-connected televisions. Similarly, Amazon.com began a VOD service in 2006, and iTunes began selling and "renting" movies as digital downloads through its interface in 2008. Completely bypassing the need for public shopping and the material video commodity, these on-demand and streaming services initiated an era of intangible shopping for intangible media.
Much of the celebration of Internet and cable delivery for media texts entails a celebration of American consumers' ability to overcome the boundaries of material space. The fact that Netflix, iTunes, and similar companies are now available through portable Internet-connected devices like smart phones and digital tablets compounds this, making media shopping and consumption possible, ideally, anywhere one has such a device and an Internet connection. Anderson's article suggests that online retailing obliterates the need for physical stores and reaches across all space to every American; it envisions a world where everything is available and shopping is everywhere. The truth is more complex, of course. Many Americans do not have access to broadband Internet or cannot afford cable or an iPad. Moreover, the material infrastructure and labor needed to support this supposedly intangible media is quite elaborate. Consumers still interact, physically and materially, with the computers and other display devices through which they shop for and access movies. What is lost is the sense that the media themselves are material. Further, Netflix and Amazon have distribution centers throughout the country. Indeed, many who subscribed to Netflix in the early 2000s will recall waiting days for a movie to arrive in their mailboxes; this problem was particularly intense for popular films. Consequently, Netflix had to expand its number of distribution centers rapidly throughout the decade, so that in 2013 it has hundreds of such locations and customers regularly get their movies within a day of ordering. Nevertheless, this indicates how the apparent ubiquity of digital media relies on a tangible infrastructure of distribution.
In fact, the present moment of intangible media entails a hodge-podge of material objects, technologies, platforms, and spaces that consumers engage according to their divergent desires and competencies, as well as their particular social, geographic, and economic situations. A survey of video consumers illustrates the range of forms and possibilities for video access in 2010:
Rent a physical copy (like a DVD) by mail, via a subscription service like Netflix 42.6%
Rent online via a subscription service like Netflix streaming service 31.7%
Streamed from a non-subscription-based Internet website (e.g., Hulu, abc.com) for free 30.7%
Rent a physical copy (like a DVD) from a kiosk (like Redbox) 29.2%
Rent a physical copy (like a DVD) from a store (like Blockbuster) 23.3%
Borrow a physical copy (like a DVD) from a friend or relative 19.8%
Purchase a physical copy, like a DVD 19.8%
Via free download from an Internet site 19.3%
Purchase via video on demand from your TV provider (e.g., your cable company) 12.9%
Paid a fee to stream from an Internet website 9.4%
Purchase via download from an Internet website 6.9%
Purchase a physical copy (DVD) that comes with a digital code to download into your digital library 5.4%
None of these ways in which Americans access videos necessarily cancels out another; for many years Netflix users still went to video rental stores, and cable subscribers regularly stream movies through iTunes or Amazon.com. Some people still buy DVDs at Wal-Mart, yet they might also rent a DVD at the Redbox kiosk in front of the store.
Of all these options, Redbox perhaps best embodies the strange admixture of materiality and digital technologies in the contemporary geography of video. As of 2013, Redbox has over 42,000 video rental vending machines operating in more than 34,000 locations, typically in front of grocery stores, pharmacies, and other highly trafficked retail structures. This is more kiosks and locations than there ever were video specialty stores, which peaked in the late 1980s at about 30,000. One can rent a limited selection of DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, and video games directly from these kiosks, or one can shop for movies through the company's website, which allows customers to reserve a particular title before it arrives. Thus the company continues to align video rental with habitual, public retail activities and, further, continues the practice of renting movies as material commodities. Yet it expands this geography by facilitating virtual shopping in addition to place-based shopping, even while it delimits the geography of taste by offering just two hundred different titles in each kiosk. In 2012, Redbox partnered with the cell phone company Verizon to provide video streaming services as well. Here we see a single company attempt to navigate and reshape the strange, highly differentiated geography of contemporary movie culture by engaging in both place-based and virtualized shopping and consumption.
Contemporary movie audiences are as fragmented by their choices in video technologies and delivery platforms as they are by the specific movies and genres they consume. Before this moment, the video rental store helped to disperse, localize, and particularize movie consumption in the United States. The current options in the means and methods of movie access expand and intensify this process, further fragmenting and particularizing the American geography of media taste. They do this so intensely and extensively, in fact, that they have largely displaced the video rental store as a component of the movie distribution system. Of course, the current decline in the brick-and-mortar video store business has its precedents; the widespread closure of independently owned stores in the late 1980s and late 1990s attests to this, as do the various doubts voiced during the 1990s and 2000s that Blockbuster Video could sustain its growth and business model. Yet there is no doubting that video stores closed more rapidly and in greater numbers during the Great Recession than ever before. Some people still use video stores, to be sure, but most do not. And while the video store altered the geography of movie culture in America during the 1980s and 1990s in ways that we continue to experience today in mutated form, the disappearance of these locations necessarily entails a reduction in the behaviors and interactions they facilitated. The following chapter examines the video rental store as a dynamic site of interaction. If the video store trained us to be shoppers of movies and to suit our desires through individual choice, then it did so through particular architectural and social arrangements that engendered particular material and spatial practices. Any historical understanding of the video store's effect on movie culture necessarily requires a social and spatial account of these places.