In 2019, we live in a world where streaming is becoming more and more popular and influential. We don’t want to get up to watch our shows, we want to stay on the couch and let Netflix, Hulu or Prime dictate the next few hours of our lives. Algorithms help predict shows and movies that we may be interested in, which can help introduce us to new titles and the convenience of having all ten seasons of Friends right at your fingertips is just impossible to resist. Oh-and it all comes at a nice cheap price, despite some increases as of late from Netflix. But despite all that, and the upcoming Disney+ service and Warner Bros getting in on the action soon, it’s going to be nothing but streaming for the foreseeable future. And while it certainly is convenient, something is missing. That something stems from growing up in the age of the video store.
I was fortunate to grow up in a time when video stores still existed. Whether it was a Blockbuster video or the local mom-and-pop shop down the street called Mega Video, I had options. And I had no problems spending $3-5 on a rental. But whereas streaming services encourage finding something quick and letting you drown in your binge, it doesn’t really give you too many options for browsing. That and the limited nature of streaming means that every month, something’s gotta go. But going to the video store, I could walk down aisles of DVDs (or VHS tapes!) and physically pick up the box and see what it said. The whole idea of a video store was that even if you went in knowing what you wanted to watch, there was a good chance that if you browsed, something else may catch your eye. Even more importantly though, through all the hundreds if not thousands of options, I could go to the person at the cash, who was without a doubt a fellow cinephile and ask about the movie in question.
Having that conversation is what made video stores so great. Never heard of a movie? There’s a chance that someone working did know about it and can relay first-hand experience. Sure, we can go online and check a forum now, but actually having a face to face conversation with someone who is as enthusiastic about the medium as you are made going to the shop that much more fun and enjoyable.
The main problem with something like Netflix is that when you sign up, it asks you to choose from a selection of movies so it’ll know what you’re interested in. From there, it’ll keep track of what you watch and how you watch it. So if you’re binging one show and watching another one slower, it will remember that and curate its selections with that in mind. So if you watch a lot of Marvel movies, for example, you may be missing other films that you may not even know about or get the chance to know about unless you do some serious digging. The idea is that Netflix wants to get you watching something quickly and something it thinks you’ll like. But part of the fun of video stores was walking and picking up the cases, reading the back and making up your own mind, not letting a computer make it for you. And for all its algorithmic power, sometimes the coding just isn’t up to par. Why would I want to recommend Friends after watching a WWII documentary? (Not that I have anything against Friends, I love Friends.) A quick search online will net you a bunch of memes highlighting this very issue.
[Credit: Redditor r/howyoudoin]
And don’t even get me started on the selection on Netflix and other streaming services. Depending on where you are in the world, the online library will look very different due to Federal regulations. As such, I personally find the selection on Netflix to be lacking. I remember going to the video store and finding so many gems on the shelf that became quite memorable. Newer indie flicks got a showcase and it was easier to find older films. And by older, I mean from the 60s and prior. Online streaming just doesn’t encourage these kinds of movies as fewer people are likely to watch them when compared to the latest binge show or blockbuster hit. But video stores gave those movies a platform, even when the biggest movie of the year gets two bays on the wall.
There’s also the issue of limited space and availability. I wanted to watch a bunch of classic horror films this past Halloween but to my own personal horror, the selection was severely lacking. Not only that but while I wanted to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street and couldn’t! I could watch a few of its awful sequels and the reboot. But not the original, that door was closed to me. At a video store, it would be their part of a collection and if it was already out on rental, I can just put my name down on a list. Sure beats it not being available at all. Upon writing this article, I checked Netflix for “The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean and Batman/The Dark Knight” and none of them had complete sets from their respective franchises while Elm Street’s bad sequels were simply gone.
Then there was the added bonus of being able to rent and buy video games. Sometimes, you just want to rent a game as opposed to owning it. Maybe it’s a short game, maybe you want to test it out first. But being able to rent games allowed me to play so many more. I know there are subscription rental services out there, but it’s not the same as one at a time and at your leisure. What was even better was that they’d sell their older games at a discounted price as newer titles in. The same applied to movies. So you can pick up a game like Halo 4, which I did, for $20 bucks! I remember my PlayStation 2 kicked the bucket and one of the employees at my local video store sold me their PS2 at a great price. They didn’t have to, but they did. They took care of me.
[Credit: Blockbuster LCC/Flickr]
Streaming isn’t going anywhere. In fact, so much more of it is on the horizon, with Disney+ coming out later this year, Prime making a big push with their Lord of the Rings prequel series and film studios like Warner Bros. getting in on the action too. It won’t be long until we get cable-like packages for streaming services. Perhaps that will open up the libraries more, and encourage a video store-inspired experience. But for the time being, the magic of discovering something new by accident is lost in the age of streaming, at least in the eyes of this moviegoer. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps I’m being a bit jaded, but I can’t help but look back on the video store rental days and prefer them, costs be damned.
What do you think though? Has streaming made your life easier or do you feel a bit nostalgic for video stores and what they offered? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check out our thoughts on the upcoming Star Wars video game and our interview with cartoonist Daniel Nicholls.
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