An ode to video stores, which in the days of VHS tapes being priced at $50 and above were the easiest way for avid movie watchers to see a variety of films without going broke. It focuses mainly on the post-Blockbuster era but filmmaker James Westby argues that we should still patronize and treasure these stores. Reasonably well-made documentary that doesn't really look at the big picture. Extras consist of an introduction from the director, a few deleted and extended scenes and a trailer. Recommended.
There have been a number of documentaries in recent years chronicling home video from a historical perspective, although none so far I would say have been definitive. Made in 2019 which is already a bit of time away with how things have progressed lately, At the Video Store attempts at least somewhat successfully to romanticize the country's remaining video rental stores.
A bit of background that this documentary doesn't really touch on is that video rental stores arose mainly because pre-recorded movies on VHS and Beta were priced out of the hands of consumers. In their first years on the market, list prices for movies ranged from $50-100 which made blind-buying movies one had simply heard about and wanted to see a costly proposition. A few all-time favorites might justify that price, but little else could. A few entrepreneurs quickly figured out that rather than trying to sell tapes at these prices, they could simply accumulate a library of one copy of each title and then rent them out for a few bucks per day. The movie studios didn't like this but the copyright laws of the time said this was OK and an industry was born, giving VCR owners access to a large selection of movies at an affordable price if only just for a day. The first rental outlets were mainly small locally-owned businesses which is what this documentary focuses on. By the end of the 1980s, Blockbuster had become the first nationwide chain of video rental stores and made the industry more mainstream, but upheld a more "family-friendly" image and thus did not rent porn or lesser-known titles that had found an audience at the smaller stores. They had enough cash to stock many more copies of the new releases though which were the main thing most customers were after, and this led to many older video stores closing their doors.
Laserdiscs were around in the 1980s mainly for collectors, it was rare to find those for rent, and while usually priced lower than tapes, were still too costly for the mainstream. In 1997 the DVD format came onto the market and while discs could be rented and eventually pushed out VHS tapes at most stores, they were marketed more as something consumers could buy and keep, and most were priced low enough to make that practical. This was a dream come true for me, as I had been buying laserdiscs for a few years but had been frustrated at their high prices; with DVDs I and many others soon amassed collections of several hundred movies many bought sight unseen. Those who still preferred to rent soon found that Netflix met their needs by renting DVDs through the mail, which eventually led to the demise of Blockbuster.
At the Video Store mostly jumps past all of that and lands in the year 2019, where only a handful of places to rent movies are left aside from the Redbox kiosks. We visit and subsequently jump back and forth between a few independently-owned rental outlets in Portland, New York, and the legendary Scarecrow Video in Seattle. Some of these have been in business since the 1980s, others were started up more recently by enthusiasts who wanted to keep movie rentals alive in their area. Speaking to owners and employees, the main message they get across is that they know their customers on a first-name basis and know their tastes in movies well enough to recommend titles they need to see. They argue that most employees at Blockbuster weren't like that, and you can't get that same kind of experience from a vending machine or any online source. Some customers chime in, remembering classics like Faces of Death which Blockbuster wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole and B-grade horror films. (One thing I've noticed in most recent documentaries on home video is how quickly they mention these low-budget titles put out to shock viewers.)
There are a few celebrity insights as well, adding a bit of credibility. Most prominent is cult-film director John Waters, who of course appreciates the more offbeat titles that could be found for rent in the industry's heyday and blames that for the demise of midnight movies at theaters. (Many movie theater purists have blamed home video for the demise of theaters, but the only other mention they get here is that video stores have likely put several drive-ins out of business.) Comedian Bill Hader recalls moving to the New York area and being amazed at the rare and odd titles available for rent there. Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker argues that it's important for communities to have access to a large number of movies, and director Todd Haynes even starts the show off by remembering his childhood before home video existed, imagining that one day there would be a place where you could go to see any movie you could think of.
From my point of view, this documentary convinced me of the importance of video stores but sadly didn't sway me from my belief that their time has largely passed. When DVDs were established as a collectible, affordable format, I really didn't see the need to rent movies anymore. I remember renting VHS tapes in large padded cases and returning them as if they were valuable pieces of art, but DVDs were never priced as high and not something I would want to have to return. In fact, most remaining VHS tapes today can be bought for about a dollar or so and can easily pile up in one's collection- it seems silly that we ever did rent those. The only time I would think of renting a disc or tape is if it were out of print and unobtainable on the used market at any price. It's brought up that the larger stores such as Scarecrow Video do have many titles that meet that criteria, and those titles would be "lost" if the stores were ever to close. Still, what good does renting a movie from Scarecrow do me more than 1000 miles away? I've bought many rare items on trips out of town that I have brought home and treasured, but how would I rent something that far away? Should I lug my entire home theater setup into a nearby hotel room for a few days, or just bring some equipment to do that thing that the FBI warnings tell you not to do? And while I have a few issues with streaming services (I consider Netflix's intrusive interface, which regularly interrupts the end credits to push you to hurry up and watch something else, to be unusable for serious viewing and find it quite troubling that this has become common practice) it has been quite easy and painless to digitally 'rent' hard to find movies from some outlets, much easier than making a long trip to pick them up and return them.
Vital Disc Stats - The Blu-ray
At The Video Store comes home to Blu-ray with a new single-disc release from ETR Media and OCN Distribution. The disc is housed in a clear case, but if you ordered from Vinegar Syndrome's website, you may still be able to get the limited exclusive slipcover.
Documentaries generally aren't visually stunning but this one at least isn't bad-looking, shot on digital video at 24 frames per second. The camerawork is steady and all shots are well-lit, giving you some nice views of the cavernous aisles of a few stores stocked floor to ceiling with movies that could take you a lifetime to go through. It's fun to pause and peruse the titles also; I've spent so much time around media that I can recognize most titles from far away just by the images or print style on the covers. While there are a few shots that affectionately use a digital "VHS-look" filter, the Blu-Ray presents everything faithfully with no compression artifacts or banding and further proves the format's rightful superiority.
The specs on the back cover vaguely indicate "48khz Audio" but the mix is 2-channel and we get a rather odd configuration. The main audio track is 2-channel DTS Master Audio and my equipment decodes this as Neural X on its default settings. The mix is serviceable, with everyone understandable in the center channel and a playful music score in stereo, including a number of humorous video-store-related songs written by director James Westby.
Quite strangely, the disc also includes a second audio track in 2-channel Dolby Digital, which sounds adequate but not as bright as the DTS track. It seems they could have just included an uncompressed PCM track rather than both of these.
This release is quite thin on extras, there is a director's intro which you can optionally have play before the movie starts where he basically thanks everyone for participating and watching. Then there are a few scenes that were trimmed, though with the short 72-minute running time it wouldn't have hurt just to have kept them in, and finally, there's a short trailer.
As an enthusiast whose needs outgrew those met by the average video store decades ago, I still found At the Video Store an affectionate tribute and I wish success to those still in the business. The average viewer who simply can't be bothered to make the trip to any stores that are left may find this at least amusing, and hopefully, anyone who lives by the stores featured here will have further reason to appreciate them. Recommended