The Demise of the Local Video Rental Shop

My local video rental shop is (finally) closing, and that’s a sad, sad thing. While this happened years ago for most people, I’ve been lucky enough to have a local video shop this whole time. So what’s the big deal?

Cost is one factor. Watching a movie is now going to cost a lot more than $1 on a Tuesday, and at $5-7 a go, I’m less likely to take a chance on odd movies with mixed reviews. As someone who rarely re-watches movies or TV, I’m not inclined to buy discs. Disc rental was the only cheap way to watch TV shows that were otherwise locked away on pay TV — especially if you’re catching up on past seasons.

Apart from the money, though, the main thing I’m going to miss is the browsing. Digital shopfronts are really good at letting you find what you’re already looking for, and pretty bad at helping you to discover something you’d enjoy. The analog world of the video shop is the opposite: hard to find what you’re looking for (and with limited quantities) but terrific at introducing you to something you didn’t even know you wanted. (Disc rental kiosks don’t duplicate that at all: no older releases, a limited selection, and I still have to return something. Worst of all worlds.)

Spending a half-hour at the video shop scanning the shelves was a joy: all a film needed was an interesting cover to pique my interest. If a quick look on Metacritic showed that it wasn’t trash, I might take it home. I honestly don’t know how to replace that, because the digital world allows commercial interests to insert themselves into that process, and I’ll have to engage with some other system that simply shows me all the films recently released. It probably exists, but it won’t be as much fun as walking the shelves.

So many of the films I’ve found at the local video shop over the years were unknown before I stumbled across them. Sometimes it took repeated looks over a few weeks before I caved in; sometimes they were good, sometimes not. But I don’t know how else I would have found God Help The Girl, or Wanderlust, or Pride, or All Is Lost, or Locke, or What We Did on Holiday, or countless other good movies that never got enough of a marketing budget to put their name in front of my ad-blocked eyes. Also, I couldn’t have watched all the behind-the-scenes making-of specials that don’t always make it to digital formats — Wanderlust alone has an entire alternate cut of the film made from outtakes. I may even have missed out on Game of Thrones, the first season of which I bought when my last video shop of choice went under.

Digital is a tricky beast. It makes search easy, but browsing hard. If digital shopfronts make it difficult to discover lesser-known or older works, then we’re doomed to a future of only tentpole blockbusters for the mass market and indie films few people see. We can do better than that, but given how movies have shifted in just the past few years, I’m not sure if we will.