As I’ve mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been going through some of the movies I own and sorting through the ones I want to get rid of versus the ones I’ve wanted to keep. Since watching TV from home is pretty much my one consistent form of entertainment as it A) doesn’t require me to leave the house, B) is far more affordable and C) is something I can do even my brain is checked out from pain and fatigue, over the years I’ve accumulated a great deal of VHSes, DVDs and Blu-Rays. While Black Friday deals certainly help with new entertainment, the vast majority of what I own is from secondhand sources: garage sales, pawn shops, thrift stores and resale places.
Some of the tapes and discs I’ve gotten are also sell-offs from rental places, and it made me think about when rentals and rental stores Were a Thing and I figured, here’s a lesson in nostalgia for some of you youngin’s.
Today, there are dozens of streaming services that allow you to watch movies and shows from your computer or TV via the internet for a fairly nominal fee. These services didn’t exist a decade and a half ago, and certainly weren’t an option when I was a kid. Instead, your options to watch older movies that weren’t in theaters anymore were hoping an older movie you liked would show up on basic TV or cable (which would be constantly interrupted by commercials), or physically going to a store and renting it. You might be old enough to still remember Blockbuster, but it wasn’t the only chain, and it wasn’t the only place to rent. Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were the biggest, but independent stores, and commonly where I lived, grocery stores, had their own section of rental movies and games.
Renting used to be quite an experience as you would go through and physically scan for the title you wanted to rent. It was a much more tactile experience as you were forced to pick up the boxes and read each description and particularly grocery stores would set up kiosks encouraging you to also buy popcorn and movie candy. Posters and standees would advertise the latest hit movie coming soon the video and stores would regularly sell off extra copies of movies for a discount when the title was no longer so new. It was also a way to discover smaller movies as many titles released straight to video or were released in regular theaters in smaller circulation were mixed in with titles from big studios.
For many anime fans, aside from bootlegs and sloooooow torrents on dialup or DSL, the foreign movie section would be the first place to discover new titles. Or if the store was particularly stupid, would put the anime section (including some very hardcore hentai!!!) in with the kid’s movies and cartoons, leading to quite a few funny horror stories of kids and their parents discovering not everything was Pokemon and Sailor Moon.
The video game section was usually right next to the regular movies, and was a more affordable way to play games than actually buying them. Of course, gaming companies knew this and was one of the reasons (beside originally being arcade titles that were designed to eat money anyway) that NES and SNES titles would be so difficult, because it would be next to impossible to finish a game in a single rental period, requiring parents to break down and buy the game, or rent the same game multiple times.
When Pokemon Snap and Pokemon Stadium came out on the N64, Blockbuster had a kiosk where you could print off your favorite pictures onto a sheet of stickers by inserting your game cartridge. It was a fun way to show off your best photos and trade with your friends.
While dozens of movies, sitcoms and other television shows would often focus on the ritual of renting a movie for the weekend, there’s a reason why streaming wiped out the need for renting. It was fundamentally a pain in the ass.
Finding the movie you wanted could be a challenge, particularly if was obscure or a really recently released kids’ movie. Titles were often misshelved, or out of stock, requiring multiple trips to various locations to track the movie down. You usually only had one day to watch the movie and being late to return it would result in an additional fee, which would be even bigger if you forgot to rewind the tape.
Netflix was a boon with its original DVD rental service, allowing you rent as many titles as you wanted, three at a time, for a set fee per month, and when they switched to streaming it became even more convenient. Still, it was a little sad to see all the grocery stores tear down their rental sections and replace them with Red Boxes, and kids today watching old sitcoms will never understand the significant behind the movie rental plot line.