The rise and fall of movie rentals

Earlier this summer, Blockbuster Canada closed the doors of over 100 of its stores nationwide. The company’s financial difficulties were not a shock to many in the movie rental business. However Blockbuster wasn’t the only company putting up permanent “Closed” signs. Vancouver-based movie rental shops Happy Bats and Videomatica, both long-lived and well-loved by movie fans in the Lower Mainland, have announced closures. With the rise of streaming video and video-on-demand, renters are being enticed by companies such as Netflix to move away from traditional rental shops.

What does this mean for movie lovers? As an avid videophile, I’ve watched these developments with great interest. While the novelty of being able to stream movies directly into my living room at the touch of a button was certainly appealing, I wondered whether online services, such as Netflix, could live up to and replace the service and selection that’s available at smaller, locally run video stores. So far, the answer has been a resounding no.

I subscribed to Netflix in the spring, and at first found the service very convenient. There were hundreds of movies to choose from, and my husband and I watched many of our back catalogue favourites in the first few weeks after we started our subscription. But after we’d worked our way through the recommended selections, we began using the search function to find titles not included on the Netflix frontpage. Much to our disappointment, many of our searches turned up nothing. This was particularly true in the horror genre and for classic films. Favourite titles like The Shining, Schindler’s List, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and many others were notable in their absence.

A further problem is that Netflix has a hard time recommending movies we might enjoy. Unlike a store clerk with a deep knowledge of their store’s catalogue, an algorithm won’t push you to watch great filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, or even early Scorsese. Those little gems that sit on the “Staff Favourites” wall are lost. I’m not actually sure what criteria the Netflix algorithm does use for recommendations; we end up with really weird titles in our list, like The Lost Boys II, or ‘60s Italian films starring Sophia Loren.

Kamloops folks continue to benefit from local movie shop Moviemart, at 520 Seymour Street. The local standby for movie lovers of all stripes, Moviemart has been serving the city for almost 30 years. One wonders, though, how long small rental shops will last as the wave of digital rentals comes crashing in. For Sun Peaks residents, a download on a high-speed Internet connection is an option that’s both faster and cheaper than a trip to the nearest movie shop. While I hope that tide of rental shop closures has been stemmed after this recent blood-letting, I predict that video-on-demand will become more common over the next few years. Like the heroes of old westerns, local video stores will soon be riding into the sunset.

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