Define "a Life"...

... still searching for a clear definition of that thing people keep telling me I need to get...

Location: Springfield, PA

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I’ve been meaning to post something on this for a while now.

About a month ago, Springfield Video, a little independent video rental place on Saxer Avenue, closed. Saxer is a two-block-long bit of suburban main street in Springfield, a bit vestigial these days. When I was a kid, living five or six blocks away, Saxer had a real character – it had Harnet’s, an old-style 5&10¢ store where you could get water-ice in the warmer months and a whole assortment of other stuff year-round, a pharmacy, a couple of pizza places, two barber shops and Dukes, a bar with one small window above head height. My elementary school was at one end of the street, across from the town’s volunteer fire company’s firehouse, and there’s a trolley stop at the other end. The occupants of the street’s storefronts have changed over the years, and sometime – probably in the mid or late ’80s – Springfield Video opened.

I never had an account to rent there. It wasn’t all that convenient to home and, anyway, my working at Movies Unlimited made paying to rent anywhere else pointless. But Springfield Video was there, and actually lasted past the point when the Movies Unlimited store where I’d worked had closed its doors.

At the blooming of the home video revolution, these mom-and-pop video stores sprang up all over the place. Some of the more enterprising were small chains (anyone remember Erol’s? West Coast?), but anyone with some startup cash could open their own place. And, gee, you could rent a movie on VHS or Beta and watch it at home. Cool. If the place had a fair amount of operating capital, it might even sell movies, although Hollywood was slow to buy in to the idea of selling films, and those early sell-through titles were confined to major hit films, which had already made the studio a profit and for which there was a likely purchase audience, and even then were pretty pricey.

The rental business model was always a little odd, when considered in retrospect. You were spending something between $40 and $80 for a tape of a movie and had to recoup your investment and make a profit in increments of only a few dollars for each rental turn. You wanted to have multiple copies of new hot titles right when they came out and demand was high; during those first weeks, you couldn’t keep these on the shelves; after a while, though, they just sat there. Who needs twenty or thirty copies of Twister once most people have seen it? So you’d sell the previously viewed tapes at some arbitrary self-determined price in the hope of making some last bit of money off that initial investment. Keep a couple of copies to build a library of stock titles for occasional rental. Picking up a few movies for the weekend became a Friday night ritual for a lot of folk, and when the title they wanted wasn’t available (you could never have too many copies of the hot stuff) people would browse for second choices just so the trip to the video store wouldn’t have been for naught.

The industry evolved as it grew. Big national chains with large amounts of working capital carved themselves a space as the go-to venders for renting new titles, stocking tons of copies and eventually offering an assortment of in-stock guarantees. They had the money to buy vast numbers of those titles and in time the giants, primarily Blockbuster, struck their own deals with distributors and studios. The tapes themselves were no longer viewed strictly as a consumer item, and the big chains began treating them as a medium for renting a given title, a medium that was ultimately disposable. Studios and distributors even bought into that business model, offering large volume buy-back deals that allowed the rental dealer to return tapes for a small percentage of their initial cost.

This shift effectively squeezed small independent stores out of possible competition in stocking new titles – they simply did not have the capital or credit clout to deal in the same sort of volume as Blockbuster. A lot of the independents closed; some of the smaller chains were absorbed by larger ones, the rest folded. Those few that survived did so by not trying to compete head-to-head with Blockbuster, but rather angling themselves into a sort of niche market that valued a deeper library of titles more than availability of the latest releases. Stores developed their individual characters and some, like TLA and Movies Unlimited, continued more deeply into the potential market for selling titles, focusing on mail-order and publishing their own catalogues of titles available for purchase. In the case of Movies Unlimited, the yearly catalogue became a virtual reference book of movies in print.

And I think almost all of those folk who survived incorporated one other thing into their operations: porn.

Even as home video was creating an entirely new industry, it was transforming the existing industry of pornography. No longer did you have to skulk into an “adult theater” to see a porn film. You could watch a XXX movie in the privacy and masturbation-safe security of your own home. On the other end of things, the production and distribution of porn saw new opportunities in video. One no longer needed to invest in prints to distribute a film – release it on video. An established distribution apparatus wasn’t even necessary – sell the tapes yourself, mail-order. People had Hustler delivered to their homes. Why not porn on VHS? Indeed, one no longer needed to actually film a porn film; recording directly to video made the production radically less complex and expensive.

Just as Adult Films were working their way into wider public visibility, if not viewing, the industry saw a new direction that was rich in potential profit. And profit is the uncontested driving force of the porn business; no one’s claiming fidelity to artistic integrity in making dirty movies. The thread of XXX filmmaking that had worked its way into the fabric of popular culture was soon snipped off. Want evidence of the fact? Everyone knows at least two pre-1980 porn films by title: Debbie Does Dallas (1978) and, thanks to Watergate, Deep Throat (1973). Can anyone name any the most popular or profitable porn titles of the past ten years?

Yeah, porn is profitable. But that profitability comes with its own costs, one of which is controversy. If you wanted to build a mammoth presence in the home video market, you needed the kind of public visibility in which dealing in pornography would be a considerable liability. Picture your local Blockbuster being picketed by righteous religious protesters and concerned mothers. No way is the profit worth that cost.

So the big chains steered well clear of porn, leaving it the exclusive province of small independent stores. And since they weren’t competing to under-price larger stores, the independents could charge more for their porn then they did for the titles they shared with the big chains. Sometimes a lot more. Sex is a seller’s market. And so porn helped keep a lot of independent video dealers in business, until another technological development came along to transform the video industry that had only come into being barely more than twenty years earlier.

The effect of the internet on the porn industry is so generally known and universally acknowledged that it’s a common joke. Porn online offers two things that buying movies through the mail or even renting them from your corner video store can’t: increased anonymity and almost instant gratification. Don’t schlep all the way to the video store, where you have to wonder of the store’s staff joke about your selection after you leave (we often did) or – worse – risk running into your daughter’s kindergarten teacher as you’re coming out of that back room. Just go online, provide your credit card information, and get some streaming video right there on your desktop computer. The niche market that had helped independent video business survive suddenly cracked wide open. No one could hope to offer anything like the selection available online and, while I expect there are some hard-core exceptions, the aficionado social appeal of neighborhood video stores was never an element with porn customers.

To all this, add the advent of the DVD. Suddenly – seemingly overnight – VHS has vanished from the consumer landscape. Everything is DVD. It took a little while (probably for the expense of mastering to drop), but now even porn is becoming available on DVD. What does this mean for the small stores with large and varied VHS libraries for rent? The cost of replacing hundreds of titles with copies in a new format is prohibitibly imposing. When older catalogue titles do become available on DVD, they’re almost always released at prices that make impulse purchase quite tempting, and internet vendors make them almost ridiculously easy to find. Feel like watching the first Die Hard movie again as a Christmas season alternative? Blockbuster might have it on DVD. Feel like watching the original Christmas in Connecticut or The Bishop’s Wife? Blockbuster might not have either of these, but you can buy both on Amazon for under $25, with free shipping. Or you can use another internet option and rent them online, delivered and returned by mail, postage included in the fee. Or, in the case of Die Hard and The Bishop’s Wife, you can pay to watch it online, right now.

Internet commerce is making a sea change in the home video business as a whole, further squeezing out little stand-alone businesses. When you can go online and Netflix (a company name already becoming a verb) a few titles, either popular or obscure with equal convenience, and have them in your mailbox in a day or two, then watch another title online or on-demand if you have digital television service, then click on over to another sight and indulge your voyeuristic impulse, the appeal of the small local video store is almost inevitably diminished if not wholly erased. No wonder Movies Unlimited is now confined to its mail-order business. No wonder TLA Video is surviving through trading exclusively on its odd dual-identity of porn dealer and specialist in art films. No wonder that little shop on Saxer Avenue is gone.


Blogger christianready said...

Great post Greg. I learned a great deal from this piece. One thing I've noticed is that Netflix is offering some titles free for direct viewing online. As technologies like TiVo/AppleTV/DVR and onDemand mature, we'll see less and less of the DVD in use and more OnDemand viewing.

In that sense, I think that's a good thing as it further reduces the carbon footprint of watching a title - no media to create, nothing to physically ship, etc. This is clearly the direction the industry is moving in.

But yeah, it's always sad to see icons of our past like Springfield Video fade further into the past as a result of these changes.

8:54 AM  

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