A few months ago, I was having an email chat with my old partner in crime (read: guy I used to write reviews with on my old site), Kenner. He’d kept going with review writing on his own for a while after I went on indefinite hiatus, but finally stopped doing reviews a couple of years ago. I asked him why, expecting the “rest of life getting in the way” thing that happens to so many people (as it did to me). Instead, he said this:
“I lost a lot of my desire to review movies when the rental stores started to die out. [Now] I’m pretty much limited to whatever Netflix or the Redbox has. This, for me, sucks, because I always was a martial arts fan, and there are a lot of Grade Zilch karate epics that I can no longer get my hands on… I mean there was nothing for me more fun than going to the local video hut [and] renting something obscure or B-grade… You just don’t have that anymore… A good amount of crap hasn’t surfaced on DVD yet, and the new crap [that is] on DVD isn’t as fun.”
The man’s got a point. Several, in fact, and I think that many people who jumped into The World According To YouTube and never looked back just don’t understand.
The “Digital Revolution” was supposed to make everything accessible to everyone all the time, on demand, but that’s not what really happened. In fact, in a very real sense, it’s helped to hasten the disappearance of a lot of stuff from the pre-digital age that doesn’t fit into the standard definition of “current market” or “classic.” If it’s not part of a rights package picked up by Netflix or Apple or Amazon, odds are that it’s going to be gone for everyone but the Library of Congress, the pirate community, and the descendants of Ted Turner in very short order. If it’s one of those that never made it past the analog world of VHS, it may be gone already.
And if the Canadian government ever decides to relax its “Canadian content” rules for its television stations, ninety percent of the 1990s action genre could be wiped out in one stroke, because that’s just about the only place where those movies seem to live anymore.
Like Kenner, I remember many a late night safari into a video store, looking for anything that caught my eye. It didn’t have to resemble anything else I’d watched in the past few weeks (probably best if it didn’t), and I wasn’t in the mood to go through a bunch of survey options about what stars I wanted or what genre I wanted. What about the first few letters of a title? I didn’t know, and that was the point of the whole exercise. I just wanted to look, and if I saw something interesting, I’d pick up the box and look some more. It was an adventure in controlled randomness that you just don’t get by going through drop down menus.
I discovered a lot of great – and wonderfully bad – stuff that way.
And if I didn’t find something interesting at one video store, I could always go down the street – because once upon a time, video stores were like coffee shops are now – and go to another one, and they’d have an appreciably different selection. It was like magic. Store A might not have had much in the way of action, but they did have stuff like Nasty Rabbit and Capricorn One. Store B, meanwhile, had the entire Cynthia Rothrock library, and a pretty decent selection of Bolo Yeung. Score either way.
Whereas now that the video stores have closed up and gone (there’s exactly one left that’s anywhere near me; it’s smaller than an average apartment), you fire up your Netflix account, and either they have Capricorn One, or they don’t. Anywhere. There’s no “checking another store.” Go to another Netflix-capable device and the answer will be the same whether you’re in Baton Rouge or Seattle. And you’ll have to either know exactly what you’re looking for or go through a bunch of menus to find out. Adventure? Fun? I don’t think so.
As for Redbox… please. That’s like a Top 40 radio station. Useless.
Sure, you could hop on Amazon and see what’s there, but the stuff that made video stores fun is disappearing fast. Basically, Amazon is now the clearing house for the stores that went under at this point, and once that stock is gone… There’s a reason that some of these movies can sell used on VHS for $80 and up. It’s because they’re endangered. Entire classes of movies are on the brink of availability extinction.
And again, forget browsing on Amazon. No matter how many suggestion algorithms the tech and marketing guys throw in, that’s one experience that cannot be digitally replicated. Suggestions are based on what you’ve done before or on what’s being pushed. If anything, the experience is designed to prevent you from “stumbling across” something different and exciting on “the shelf.”
Of course, times change. I know that. Music stores went first, then video stores, and now they’re working on bookstores, with big box electronic specialty retail on deck. But in the race to close down the brick and mortar world, something magical is being lost. There really is nothing like that adventure safari of browsing to find something different; the invitation to Chance to come along for the ride and help you pick out a movie.
So, do I understand where Kenner’s coming from? You bet I do. I feel it, too. My response is different from his, but I do understand.
Sure, you can write those safaris off as nostalgia if you want, but there’s also something more pressing and perhaps even more sinister that goes along with them.
The tighter we channel our outlets, the fewer choices we have, not just individually, but societally. Your Netflix is my Netflix. Same exact selection. Same exact limits on that selection. Still a lot; sure. But as the clusters that had been centered around local stores now converge centrally in the world of Netflix, et.al., many niches start to disappear. It takes a much larger customer segment for the sales and marketing guys to justify getting the rights to something. It may not quite be the Top 40 pointlessness of Redbox, but Top 1000 isn’t out of the question. As above, it’s a betrayal of the promise of the Digital Revolution: instead of making content more available, it’s setting the old stuff on fire so that only the popular stuff and the stuff that has the best sales representation at the time get to keep playing.
One result is that people like Kenner and people like me are watching not just some of our favorite movies but even entire genres of old die. That’s depressing enough, but it also means that no one else will have a chance to discover them, either.
And let’s have another look at those suggestion algorithms used by Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and the other digital players. Again, they’re not designed with chance – or diversity – in mind. You’ll get what they’re sure they can sell you. You’ll be directed to your established patterns and maybe some trends based on your demographic profile. If you’ve been into comic book hero movies, that’s what you’ll get. Not a shot in hell you’ll discover Juliette Binoche in Chocolat under that system, or even find out that Billy Blanks used to do something in front of a camera other than Tae Bo. No chance to broaden your horizons.
And to cap it all off, anything you find on Netflix, et.al. is as temporary as the studios want it to be. It has to keep getting renegotiated, so the movie you can always get today, you might not ever see again starting tomorrow. Even downloaded material can be controlled with the right code attached to it. And since it’s just digital, it’s not like there’s stock left to sell after the delete or disable key gets pressed, which is just how the studio wants it. Secondary markets don’t make them any money.
So come to think of it, better enjoy the solid copy stuff you can get from Amazon while you’re still able to, as well.
I suspect that the Video Store Lament is just starting.