Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Where Have All The Movies Gone?


DVD vending machines, like the one seen above, have become a familiar sight in shopping areas over the past few years. I still haven't used one myself but since one was installed at the entrance of my local Stop & Shop awhile back, I've noticed that it's done brisk business from the start, with customers lining up to get the newest releases. The other day, I saw that a second machine had been brought in to meet the growing demand and for the first time I realized with some sadness that these machines are all that most people need or want from a 'video store' now. They offer all the new blockbuster titles, some of the more high profile direct-to-DVD releases, and a few indie dramas and genre films. Not such a bad crop of movies to choose from but yet it made me think of how a love of film history is being curtailed by machines like this.

When video stores were enjoying their heyday, every film fan would have memberships to multiple rental shops. And that wasn't because of the new releases, which were the same everywhere, it was because every store had a different back catalog to offer. The excitement of going to different video stores was to check out what stock of older movies they had. Sometimes a store would just have one or two titles that no one else had but if you couldn't get, say, A Company of Wolves or The Last Wave or Make Them Die Slowly anyplace else, that would be reason enough to sign up for a membership. It was an adventure to discover new stores and see how deep their selection was. Now that's all vanished and it makes me think of how little exposure the next generation of movie fans will have to older movies. And by 'older', I don't just mean like pre-1960 cinema or whatever, but I mean like anything made more than six months ago. If it isn't current, it doesn't exist.

Even at the remaining actual video stores, there's almost no selection of older titles left. Blockbuster stopped carrying VHS tapes altogether, automatically leaving scores of titles unavailable. And what disc selection they do have is paltry at best. It used to be that a novice horror fan could go through the offerings of a video stores' horror section and be able to develop a pretty broad appreciation of the genre. Now, except for a few token classics, the horror section of most video stores is limited to releases of recent vintage. Of course, fans can obtain films through services like Netflix but ordering a film online isn't the same as walking into a store and seeing the lurid boxes for releases like Gates of Hell or Burial Ground for the first time.

It's as though cinema itself is being marginalized and genre cinema is just part of that trend but it's dispiriting all around. Even retail outlets like Best Buy are following suit. At one time, a store like Best Buy would have a sizable horror section - now, their horror and sci-fi sections seem to house maybe thirty different movies, at best. As with Blockbuster, there's just a handful of classics in stock - like The Exorcist, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street - surrounded by whatever's new. So it's easier to find the latest offerings from Ghost House Underground or the selections of the After Dark Horror Fest than it is to find the older films of Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, or Stuart Gordon. And quirkier, lesser-known older offerings? Forget about it. When companies like Blue Underground, Anchor Bay, and Synapse first started putting cult classics on disc, I could find almost everything in their catalogs at my local Media Play or Best Buy. Now there's maybe another special edition of Halloween or Evil Dead to be found.

I worked at video stores for years during the '90s and it seemed to me like these stores were a sign that movies mattered, that movies were worth having a passion for. Video stores were a place where film fanaticism was encouraged. At the very least, it was a place where movie fans could go to encounter like-minded folk. Now, I guess, there's the internet for that - but I maintain that it isn't the same as seeing local film geeks face to face (in fact, I met my wife, my cinematic sweetheart, ten years ago when she was a customer at the mom and pop video store I worked at - a store that soon after fell victim to the falling demand for home video). The loss of video stores is making film fandom a more hermetic passion than ever and that seems tragic to me.

When I look at how vending machines are steadily supplanting the need for video stores, I wonder where all the movies have gone. But I wonder if over the course of another generation the question might become "where have all the movie fans gone?"

17 comments:

Matt-suzaka said...

My Stop and Shop also just got a second Red Box (or whatever it's called) as the first one always has a long line. For its size it does have a nice amount of films, and is very inexpensive and easy to use. But at the same time I completely agree with you about older films being lost without any notice. I do think that a good portion of people getting movies from it don't really care about film history...probably the same people that think the original Dawn Of The Dead is "cheesy."

I too had multiple memberships at video stores, and I have very found memories from my time spent scoping out all the VHS box art. While not at all the same a a video store, Netflix is pretty much the next best thing...I spend a gross amount of time going through there catalogue of films, and they have a lot of things like user reviews and lists that can be done thus creating a sort of community.

I do think new budding genre fans will be fine though. With the powers of the Internet, any novice can listen to cult film pod casts, join any film forum of their choosing, and check out blogs like yours. I think I have learned more about different types of films and genres through my computer in the past 3 years than I did the previous 5 or 6. So I don't think all is lost for the future fan of film...if they love it, they will seek it out.

FilmFather said...

I can't think of anything witty to say, except that I agree with everything you said.

Scab said...

As if Blockbuster did not kill 99% of mom & pop stores, these vending machines will most definitely kill the 1% remaining, generally in small towns who have not seen the wrath of Blockbuster.

Bob Ignizio said...

I too lament the loss of video stores. I know I can find pretty much anything I want to see somewhere on the internet, but like you said, it's not the same.

Jeff Allard said...

Matt, I like your optimism! And you're probably right about film fantacism continuing to thrive - I hope you're right, at least! Every generation thinks the era they grew up in was the last great time and I'm probably guilty of that. Having said that, I still find it sad that for subsequent generations of movie buffs, video stores will be as extinct as drive-in theaters.

Film Father, thanks - I suspect we're from the same generation so I'm not surprised that you feel my pain!

Scab, I don't know how any mom and pop stores make it any more. Of course, porn has been keeping what's left of these places alive (the last local video store I worked at years ago still exists but it switched to almost exclusively adult content) but I can't believe the internet hasn't siphoned off that market completely.

Bob, it's funny - we live in an age where cult movies are more available than ever but yet it isn't as much fun. I don't begrudge the fact that it's so easy to obtain films now but yet I can't help feel that the search for films was part of the appeal. Sometimes having things a little out of reach is what stokes your interest.

Cheap Beer said...

A Hollywood Video right around the corner from where I live was put out of business by a Red Box next door at a supermarker. The video store had quite the collection too. I did capture some nice deals when they cleared it out, but it's sad to see them go.

Penh said...

Yeah, I remember the days before Blockbuster. One video store in town was run by a woman who was a huge Argento fan, which is where I first saw most of his movies (she recommended Almodóvar, too). Another one had a nice stock of obscure stuff from Continental and Wizard Video in giant lurid boxes. There was one that I got a membership to specifically because it was the only store in town that stocked The Burning. It's great to have easy Internet mail-order access to such a huge range of movies, but you're right -- there's nothing quite like hunting all over for rare gems and browsing amongst all that cover art.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, CB - the supermarket by my house that just got the second Red Box is located next to a Hollywood Video and I expect that store will be gone before too long. As is, they only have posters for video games in their windows. It kind of says it all when 'Hollywood' Video is more about games than movies.

And Penh, I guess I'm guilty of romanticizing the past but it really was cooler when you had to seek this stuff out. There's movies that I once scoured convention dealer rooms for, happy to find on crappy VHS dubs, that can now be bought in pristine special edition DVDs at Best Buy or Hot Topic. And, as you say, everything can be delivered to your door now. On the one hand, the accessibility of cult cinema is something to be celebrated. On the other hand, when you can buy an uncut copy of My Bloody Valentine through legit means, it feels like it's all become way too easy.

John said...

Online, streaming distribution is replacing the video store as the source for old movies. You'll still lose the serendipity of browsing a store, and this really sucks for people who can't get or afford a fast connection, but that's the way it is.

Jeff Allard said...

You're right, John, it's a new world now. Like Matt said at the top of these responses, film fans to come will just be used to different ways of aquiring films than people of previous generations. Even now, the idea of having to physically go to a store and search for a movie that may or may not be in stock is regarded as a tedious pain in the ass. Even though at one time the idea of going to a store to take a movie back home with you - any movie! - seemed like the ultimate luxury. Every time technology advances, the old ways of doing things suddenly seem impossible to deal with. I remember years ago when my parents first got a remote control for our TV, I couldn't believe that we could no longer be bothered to get off the couch to change the channel or shut off the TV but that thought lasted about all of two seconds once I used the remote for the first time. People are just easily spoiled, I guess.

Gryphon said...

I saw the demise of the drive-in and REAL movie theaters, with lobby cards and everything. I have treasured memories of the mom & pops, then Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came and killed them off - at which point it becomes clear how degenerate American tastes are. Now Netflix is giving the McVideo stores a run for their money with better selection and convenience, although they still don't have everything I want. (Still, I've promoted Netflix to everyone I know, just to stick it in Blockbuster's rotten ass.)

And now the red box things, which interest me only insofar as they can help wipe the hated McVideo eyesores off the map. So, yay! In fact, double yay! I know there's nothing in those boxes of interest to me, so I don't have to worry about standing in line with the great unwashed in competition for the latest Hollywood turds. If I can't see real movies in real movie theaters anymore, then this "progress" seems perfectly appropriate to the current debased form. An audience that doesn't have the wit or taste to demand real movies doesn't deserve real movies, nor do they deserve the real movie experience. Let the swine line up at the entertainment equivalent of a port-a-john, if they love the stench so much.

The movies that interest me simply aren't being made anymore - at least not in this shitty, culturally degenerate country, where there's no telling how far past middle-age people will finally leave adolescence behind - if they ever do. I don't need to bother with inferior remakes of movies that were crap to begin with, or remakes of perfectly good foreign movies or classics where you can make an accurate list of how they will fuck them up without even seeing the thing, or sequels to remakes, or "original" material that regurgitates not only good ideas from other, better movies (debasing them in the process) but, more often, endless mediocrities. Life is too short.

The upside is that the movies I always wanted to see are now more readily available than ever on DVD. So, at this point, I'm perfectly happy to take the good with the bad. After seeing the shockingly clear screen caps of the forthcoming Blu-Ray of 'Detour' (a public domain title that has always looked battered and muddy) over at DVDBeaver.com, I'm inclined to think that while the bad gets worse, the good is actually getting better.

So, let the red shitboxes have their day. I'm already at the point where I hardly even see them to be disgusted by them, as they take up a lot less space than Blockbuster. As long as I have alternatives.

Jeff Allard said...

Hey Gryphon, I guess I don't have nearly the same ire as you. I won't shed any tears over the big chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood going down as it's only fitting that they meet the same fate they handed the mom and pop stores. But while the taste of the American public frequently leaves me speechless ($100 million-plus at the box office for Paul Blart: Mall Cop? Really?), I can't be an elitist about movies as I'm something of a cultural degenerate myself. The trash that I enjoy may be different than the trash that others enjoy but I can't throw stones over it. As long as there's alternatives, everyone's happy.

knobgobbler said...

I feel kind of the same way about how television has changed.
As a kid, all I had to expose me to older movies was television .
During certain times of the day/night TV was full of old movies... a real grab bag of junk... but I did manage to see quite a few obscure old Grade Z horror films that barely turned up on video later on.
Sure, they were edited, cropped, and full of commercials... but it was stuff I couldn't see anywhere else.
I'd pore over the TV guide looking for anything with 'horror' in it's genre description.
Nowadays, despite having a gazillion satellite channels to choose from, that excitement of what might creep across the small screen is pretty much a goner.
No local horror hosts with cheap sets showing me ancient dubs of Spanish witchcraft films... no late-night schlogs of film noir.
TCM is great... but that's just one channel, and the rest all seem to use reality shows and infomercials as filler where the old movies might have once fit.
Even a supposedly horror dedicated channel like Chiller sorely misses the mark when it comes to programming.

Gryphon said...

I just paid money for a copy of Night of the Bloody Apes, so it's not like I don't have a taste for trash. (However, the trash I gravitate to isn't marked by blandness - it's mediocrity that is the enemy here.) The really crucial difference is that I don't live on an exclusive diet of it.

While I don't mind being called elitist, I want to set the markers clearly here, because I feel that the gradual lowering of the bar over the years has played devil with our sense of perspective:

The fact that I'm not culturally degenerate doesn't make me elitist.

Other things might. But my standards aren't really so high. I don't believe there's any shame in being ignorant, for example. However, when people begin taking pride in their ignorance it becomes stupidity - and when a whole culture begins doing it, it's called decadence.

What's happened to American cinema in the last few decades isn't about people having simple tastes. It's about having no taste - to the exclusion of both good taste and bad taste.

Jeff Allard said...

I hear you, Knob - the way TV has changed over the years will probably be another blog topic here one of these days. I too grew up at a time when the choices were limited compared to today but yet it seemed like there was more worth watching. I know it was a great influence on me to be exposed to movies that I either didn't know about or otherwise wouldn't have had any interest in. I think it's too easy today for people to pick and choose exactly what they want to watch and never sample anything else. The way things used to be, I think it bred a spirit of open-mindedness.

When I was growing up, one of the local stations used to run movies at 4 in the afternoon every weekday. And every week would be its own theme. Naturally I was most interested in stuff like Horror Week or Hitchcock Week or Godzilla Week but I'd also get into the likes of Don Knotts Week, Romance Week or Beach Party Week (when they'd run all the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party films of the '60s). I doubt if many kids today will be raised on that kind of variety of films - after all, why bother to watch something that looks lame when there's so many more appealing options?

And Gryphon, as for the 'elitist' tag, I've had my own moments where I've wondered if there's any remnants of taste left in our culture but that's a slippery slope to go on. I'm often perplexed by what people like and don't like but taste is a subjective matter. I used to get apopoletic over what was or wasn't successful or admired (or derided!) when it came to movies but I've become much more sanguine about it. I don't know if the American movie-going audience at large has no taste, but they often times have different taste than I do.

Gryphon said...

I don't mind risking being called elitist. I've come to the conclusion that there's absolutely nothing wrong with feeling superior when there's a legitimate reason to - and wretched taste in movies is the very least of the indicators that this is a culture in decline.

The word "elitist" has little meaning anymore, anyway, having been cynically abused by ruling members of our own elite class (we do have one, despite the illusion that we don't) by way of tarting themselves up as (phony) populists for a nation of sucker-constituents. At this point, it's practically a compliment, generally implying that one has some standards - not a such a bad thing as the ghettofication of American culture drags us to ever new lows.

But in terms of the quality of American cinema, I am old enough to remember the seventies. Anyone who says that Hollywood's current output is remotely comparable in terms of quality to what is now generally and rightly regarded as "the platinum age" of movies is high. Back then we didn't know what we had, but by the dismal nineties at the latest it was pretty clear by comparison. It is impossible to argue that movies havn't become markedly less challenging intellectually, emotionally and artistically - especially when it was by conscious design, e.g., market-driven studio imposed mandates for happy endings (whether appropriate to the material or not), the decision to make fewer films for an adult demographic, the practice of shooting widescreen films with the action confined to the center of the screen for easier cropping, the broad imposition of a three act plot recipe as laboriously codified in Robert McKee's Story (which was the required text in my screenwriting class, but should be burned), etc. This all goes beyond films being a business first and an art form second - it is now a business first and an art form not at all. American movies, with a very few exceptions, are strictly product. And it shows. You can argue that this is subjective, but you can also argue that the difference in artistic quality between a da Vinci and and a yard sale painting of a crying clown is subjective. Maaaybe, but, nobody in their right mind...

And certainly nobody who actually knows anything about art - or even popular art (the quality of which still isn't determined by how popular it is).

And as subjective as "art" is, there are still things to know before one can consider oneself informed. But if you don't know what fillet mignon is, a Big Mac might just look like food.

In other words, yes, the American movie going audience does have no taste - and it's not only okay to come out and say so, people need to start saying so if they want anything better.

It's not as if the herd is tiptoeing around trying to spare my feelings - not that I want or need that.

Gryphon said...

Oh, and P.S. - If those little red movie dispensers at the supermarket don't convince you that American cinema has degenerated to the level of pure product, I don't know what will.