There was a time when people had little control over what movies they could watch and when they could watch them. The choices were a trip to the movie theater or wait to see what movie aired as “Movie of the Week” on one of the three major networks.
However, in the late 1970s, a Japanese company (JVC) released a groundbreaking device called the Video Home System (VHS). Insert a specially designed videotape into the machine, and watch the playback of what had been recorded on the tape.
People were anxious to watch movies at home on their machines, but new technology is expensive. There needed to be a way to obtain movies without going into debt. George Atkinson had an idea and opened the first professionally managed video store in Los Angeles in 1977. He offered roughly 50 titles on video that people could rent; essentially a library for videotapes at a cost.
And, lo, the video store entered the marketplace. And the people saw it. And they visited it. And it was good. By 1985, there were an estimated 15,000 video stores across the United States. They became the heart of entertainment throughout the 1980s, creating a sense of community where increasingly busy families could plan an evening at home together.
While VHS took hold in the United States, there was an earlier version of similar technology released in the mid-1970s. Betamax used a slightly different method of recording and playback but offered the same access to home viewing. Early stores often stocked movies in both formats, which fostered competition between the two.
In the early 80s, JVC released a video camera on which consumers could tape their personal home movies for playback on their machines. Betamax could not keep up with the technology at the time, and ultimately, VHS won the market.
It should have been a simple process: go to the store, pick a movie, rent, watch, return, repeat. Many of the early video stores were individually owned, and proprietors needed to protect their investments. Therefore, obtaining a card to rent a movie became more involved than obtaining a passport or a security clearance.
First, a lengthy questionnaire needed to be entirely filled out; incomplete forms resulted in the application being sent to the circular file. A staggering amount of information was gathered, including job status and income (yes, just to rent a movie). If the application was approved, a card was issued that granted access to whatever movies the store had to offer.
But that wasn’t the end of it. With the card came tremendous responsibility. The signed agreement, an actual contract, stated that movies would be brought back on time, completely rewound (“Be Kind, Rewind” became a rallying cry), and ready for the next person. Failure to do so resulted in substantial fines and being put on a list (literally, a list of names kept by the register) that limited the access of the cardholder. A second infraction led to the card being ripped up thereby denying all access. And woe unto the person who lost their card; no duplicates were allowed.
If a person managed to keep on the straight and narrow and follow the rules, the benefits were numerous. Stores offered a variety of genres, which gave people access to little known or rarely seen movies. Most of the early “Mom and Pop” stores also had a curtained Restricted Area that housed movies suitable only for adults (due to graphic sex or excessive violence).
Every kid who entered a video store knew what was behind that curtain, and it often turned into a game to see if one could distract the clerk, allowing others to slip behind the curtain, if just for a moment. Success meant serious bragging rights at school the next day.
Even renting a regular movie involved strategy. Many of the stores could only afford one or two copies, especially if it was a new release. Owners would put the cover in at the front of the shelf, and then put the copies behind the cover. Extremely popular movies would sometimes be kept behind the counter. To be the first to view a movie at home became a mark of status.
Smart renters asked when returns would be restocked, so they knew when to visit the store to rent the movie. Really smart renters made friends with the staff, who might hold a return behind the counter. For those who played by the rules, there was nothing more disappointing than seeing tapes behind the cover of a popular movie, only to find that some jerk had switched the movies around. Honestly, thinking that “Stripes” was available, but finding some artsy film instead could ruin an entire evening.
In 1985, the first Blockbuster opened in Texas, offering nearly 8,000 VHS tapes and 2,000 Beta tapes. The earliest stores followed the model of the independent stores, putting copies behind the covers. But now there were more than three copies available. One could easily find a dozen shelves of the same movie. The novelty of being the first to access a movie was gone.
By 1988, there were over 25,000 video rental stores across the country. As availability increased, people were able to rent videos at the grocery store and even the library. Video stores
continued to offer rentals on new technological platforms from laser discs to DVDs well into the 2000s. But the death knell had been sounded. The era of the independent video store and its influence on entertainment viewing was over.