Death/rebirth of the rental

In all this thinking about the cost of seeing a film, I forgot one simple, affordable and popular way that people see relatively new films: the rental. I’m on Netflix, after a year hiatus, but mostly because my wife wanted the streaming service, which she uses constantly.

But remember the days, maybe ten years ago, right before DVD took off, when everybody used to go to the video store and rent. It was two or three bucks and you’d take home a VHS and you had to bring it back in a day or two. Not a perfect system, but a massively popular one. There were several big chains doing it, and thousands of smaller stores, some with extensive arthouse libraries. Everybody did it. It was a massive market.

Netflix recently passed 10 million customers. This is huge, but it’s nothing compared to how many people used to rent films. I did a quick look up on the web and around 2000, the video rental business was in the 10 billion dollar range. What I found interesting was that the rental market was declining a long time before Netflix came along.

It started declining as soon as DVD popped up. What happened? I remember going to the video store when I bought my first DVD player, back in about 1998, and renting. Why did people stop renting videos and deciding that they had to have them in their “library”?

Part of this was that we always wanted to have our favorite films at home in our library. But to buy a VHS of a film was always expensive. It usually cost 75 dollars to buy a VHS. You could always tape it off TV, and we did, but the quality wasn’t as good. (The quality of VHS seems laughable now.) Renting was really the only option.

So why did Hollywood kill it by lowering the price of DVD’s to 15-20 dollars? It beats the fuck out of me! Obviously, they made more money that way, especially with DVD’s costing so little to manufacture. Video stores, I guess, were always hanging by a thread as far as their business models went, because even a slight decline in 2000 put most of them out of business.

So Netflix has brought back the rental and made it palatable. Eventually, we’ll all have VOD, but that still seems like years away because the studios don’t know how to work that into their financing models.

I still think Netflix is fairly pricey. I just bought three DVD’s from Amazon for under ten bucks, including shipping. They were used, but so are the ones that come from Netflix. With Netflix, I found that, unless I was watching the films constantly, I wasn’t getting my money’s worth.

There was something about that old trip to the video store that, once you made the effort to go get the movie, you’d almost always sit down and watch it. I’m not sure why, but with Netflix, you always end up with three films that you’re really not in the mood to watch. With the streaming option, it’s better, but it’s almost like watching TV. It’s a whole different experience. But maybe that’s the point. Film is changing, and the experience of watching a film is changing, and maybe the whole thing is just different now than it used to be.


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