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?"