Retro: Your local video shop
The rise and fall of the home video rental market
The place to get your film fix before Netflix
ONCE UPON A time, we didn’t have Sky on demand, or Netflix, or Amazon Prime to find a film to watch. We had to go down to the video shop and see if the film we wanted was in.
It was in the late 1980s that video tapes of the VHS variety started to pop up in petrol stations, off licences and newsagents. With their often loud and beguiling cover images, the tapes quickly became one of the most popular ways – other than going to the cinema or a Punch and Judy show – to escape from everyday life and see something exciting.
Video tapes were rented in both VHS and Betamax formats while the format wars ran their course. Soon there were dedicated video stores in towns up and down the UK, with aisles and aisles of rental opportunities. Local libraries even expanded their loan offerings to add video tapes as well as books.
However, the reputation of videos, and the people that rented them, took a bashing during the ‘Video Nasties’ campaign organised by Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in the early 1980s. After some consideration, a list of 72 nasties was produced and they were banned from rental. Naturally, the list, which includes films being shown on television, became notorious, and collectors constantly tracked them down.
The 1980s produced a number of classic movies, including Flashdance, Back to the
Future and The Empire Strikes Back, but there were times when the option you wanted wasn’t in. Then you could reserve your chosen title for the next day, or if it was due in the day you were there, you could keep checking back in. Alternatively, you could have rented one of the films that would be considered as cult now on DVD; movies such as The Toxic Avenger or Critters.
Over time, the quality of the tapes would deteriorate, although they were typically tougher than the ones sold direct to the consumer. The rise of the video store also led to a band of home pirates, those lucky enough to own two video cassette players and some nifty Scart leads, who could make their own black-market copies of hired movies.
Eventually, a giant in the video store game emerged, an invader from the US called Blockbuster, which swooped in and picked up the local Ritz video chain and led to the closure of many small independent rental shops. With the resources to stock lots of copies of a popular film, and a sort of mini market for cinema-style treats such as popcorn and fizzy pop, Blockbuster soon became the place to go.
This carried on as the DVD movie format hit the UK, by which time Blockbuster had already embraced the rental of the games consoles of the day and the titles that went with them. The firm cemented this gaming line when in 2002 it purchased the Gamestation chain.
DVD came to the UK in 1999 and initial sales were low. That soon changed, and it crossed paths with VHS sales in 2003 when the latter was on a firm downward spiral.
VHS had had its day by 2006, a time when DVD rentals were also sliding backwards. Blockbuster cashed in its popcorn in 2010 and filed for bankruptcy, 16 years after its biggest year, 1994, when it had enjoyed a massive global presence.
The next time you sit down to ‘Netflix and chill’, remember that it has not always been this easy. Not only was the video store a walk or more likely a drive away, unless you lived in one, but the time between cinema releases and video rental release was often very, very long indeed.
Blockbuster actually declined to buy Netflix in 2000 for $50m, which is something to consider if you think you’ve made a bad decision in your life. And then go and watch Bill Murray in Meatballs.