This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.
I've been predicting the death of the movie rental store since 1995, when I was a film critic and reporter for The Dallas Morning News. Back then, it was just at the dawn of DVD players and everything was changing. I used to rent my videos from the original Blockbuster location in Dallas, and the company was part of my beat and already struggling, so I reported on many of the troubles in the industry. That first store is still in operation -- albeit a few blocks down the road -- but for how much longer? I will eventually be right, and probably very soon.
While Netflix is looking up at the moment, Blockbuster keeps closing store locations by the hundreds. It still has about 6,000 left across the world, but those keep dwindling and the stock is down considerably in 2008, especially since the company gave up a quest of Circuit City. Movie Gallery, which owned the Hollywood Video brand, went into bankruptcy last year. Countless small video chains and mom-and-pop stores have given up the ghost already. In my current neighborhood in Brooklyn, the mom-and-pop shop made it about a year longer than the Blockbuster location, and we now have no rental location anywhere near us (although there is a Blockbuster across the street from my office in Manhattan). And does anyone mind? Not really.
The only reason that it has taken this long for the demise of these stores is that Hollywood hasn't been willing to sign over its digital future yet. The entertainment companies are worried about people stealing downloads and even DVDs still make them nervous. So they've made it difficult for download and on-demand services to get a foot hold. Video rentals still bring in over $8 billion, although there hasn't been growth in some time. (Online subscription services like Netflix and Blockbuster's own mail rental business are up to 25% of the market.)
But now the future has arrived and the movie studios are finally opening up to the prospect of HD transmission of their wares. And that goes to show that video rental stores never really had a sustainable business model, and the overbuilding in the late 1980s and early 1990s only compounded the problems as the industry contracted. The VCR was doomed from the start, as most technologies of the kind are. At least the industry did not make the same mistake with DVDs by building out even more stores, and is letting the digital marketplace take over with download and mail-order options for the moment, waiting out the next technological advance.