With the news a short time ago that Rogers has decided to pull out of the video rental marketplace Canada has found itself somewhere it has not been in decades, without a nation-wide video rental chain. This is a turn of events that most in the industry have seen coming for a while, but the question is whether it’s actually a step forward or a step backward for the industry. I must confess, being a former Blockbuster Canada employee, my opinion on this issue will be informed but also biased. That said, I am going to try to explore this issue from an open mind.
I can remember a 12 year-old version of myself excitedly making the long trek to the video store with money from my parents; finally able to pick out exactly what I wanted. The aisles of VHS tapes lining the store with covers that hinted at what the tapes may hold. The bulky cassette tapes dangling from my handlebars on my bike trek home. My preparation to watch my picks only to discover that the previous renter ‘was not kind’ and hadn’t rewound the tape, then spending the first two minutes of the tape playback adjusting the tracking on the machine to get rid of the fuzzy picture. Finally, receiving that familiar reminder from Mom the next day, “Did you return the movies? We don’t want to have to pay for any late fees!”
This cycle then repeated over and over again.
The family tried Laserdiscs, we never got stuck with a Betamax though thankfully. Years later I used my severance from the Cineplex I had worked in before it became a sporting goods store to become an early adopter in the DVD revolution, being lucky enough to use a friend who worked for RCA at the time to hook me up with a discount on my first player. By this time I had moved on to Musicworld, and witnessed first-hand the decline and demise of the VHS tape in the marketplace. It was while working at Blockbuster that I watched the short lived HD-DVD and Blu-Ray War that Blu-Ray ended quickly and decisively. And I have seen the dramatic effect of file sharing and downloading on the rental business first-hand; the customer base and net revenue of a video rental store dwindled before my eyes. My parents, who live north of Toronto, lost their only video store when Blockbuster closed down last year. The end result is they have simply started buying new release Blu-Rays at Walmart due to a lack of options. This may become the only option for many more with the demise of Rogers rentals this week.
Of course, for someone like me who follows and writes about the film industry, this is a wake-up call. That a once multi-billion dollar industry is now seen as obsolete and not feasible in our marketplace should be concerning. Of course for Torontonians this is also a weird dichotomy when you factor in that we have one of the most thriving Repertory Cinema scenes in North America. In fact, who would have guessed five years ago that most of the movie theaters would be thriving while Rental Stores would be shuttering up their doors? People working for the video chains in question, that’s who.
The reality of the Rogers defection from the rental market is that Rogers has been trying to do this for at least five years. The only shocking thing about this is that they went forward with the plan despite Blockbuster leaving the market wide open for them. Rogers has been on the front lines of this battle with their Video On Demand services, encouraging consumers to rent at home and leave the stores behind. The raise in internet usage prices a couple of years ago was seen by most as a direct result to Netflix entering Canada, Rogers again defending their ‘turf’. Of course the CRTC backing their plan to make it mandatory that all homes run digital cable by last year was another key factor in Rogers’ decision to go all digital with their product.
Blockbuster’s demise was the result of the opposite side of the coin. Blockbuster’s lack of a digital plan for Canada and failure to stay in line price-wise with competitors on new sale items really started to hurt their reputation in the marketplace as a viable place to rent and buy movies. The ‘No Late Fee’ experiment failed badly as it lost millions in revenue for the company, especially on video games that would remain rented out for a month at a time, and simply changing the terminology to a ‘restocking fee’ did not sit well with many. These poor decisions combined with the sale of the US side of the business resulted in the Canadian company being buried in millions of debt. Once the company hit receivership it was already too late. As should have been expected the receiver looked out for the creditors, unfortunately though this came at the expense of the remaining staff (I was gone by this point). Thousands of employees shown the door without a cent in severance pay with no chance of receiving anything either. Fortunately for Rogers employees the company is not going anywhere, so even if they cut back they will get something.
Now the real question is where does this leave us? If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let me say this. VIDEO STORES SHOULD NOT BE RUN AS A CORPORATE ENTITY. There I said it. Videos Stores are NOT dead, but thankfully the chains in Ontario are. A video store is and always should be a place to go and have a meaningful conversation with someone who knows about film before making a selection and not just the new release they have 250 copies of. We have a unique situation here in that the Indies have out lasted the big boys and for the most part they are still kicking along very well. So what should we the movie watching public do? Get out there and support your local run video store. Queen Video, Suspect Video, Eyesore Cinema, The Film Buff, 7-24 Movies and More, Bay Street Video Videoflicks and Big Daddy’s Dvd Shop are some of the most highly regarded, but there are so many more out there as well. I know it’s far too easy in this digital age to skip this ritual of the video store in favor of downloading , legal or illegal. But my question to you is do we really want these ‘mini museums of film’ to disappear as well? I certainly don’t.
Deep down inside I hope that there will still be 12 year olds, DVD’s dangling from their handlebars after spending Mom’s money, running home with their treasures discovered in those aisles, eager to pop the disc in the tray and start the film. Of course they don’t have to worry about ‘being kind’ anymore.
Til Next Time
Movie Junkie TO